William Schuman, Symphony No. 3

By Matthew Mugmon

Born August 4, 1910, in New York City
Died February 15, 1992, in New York City
Composed in 1941
Premiered on October 17, 1941, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky
Performance Time: Approximately 31 minutes

When William Schuman completed his Symphony No. 3 in 1941, he had an illustrious advocate: Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky, an active supporter of American music. It was Koussevitzky who led the premiere of Symphony No. 3; he had already performed Schuman’s Symphony No. 2, and Schuman would go on to write his Symphony for Strings (1943) as a commission for the Koussevitzky Music Foundation.

Schuman shaped his Symphony No. 3 into two parts, each divided into two contrasting subsections and named for baroque precedents. The first section of Part 1, “Passacaglia,” refers to a slow work in the mold of a theme and variations, with an illustrious heritage in the finale of Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Schuman’s similarly solemn movement builds gradually from a lone viola to the entire string section to the winds and brass, and it follows Brahms’ example in its fiery contrasts of mood and sensibility, ranging from delicate melodic wanderings to sturdy climaxes. This leads seamlessly into the next section of Part I—the spiky, colorful “Fugue.” Especially exhilarating, early on in the section, is a stretto—a series of melodic imitations in quick successions—in the trumpets that serves as a rousing fanfare before a calmer pastoral passage for winds. Schuman’s textures accumulate quickly, with focuses on single instruments and sections giving way to full-bodied orchestral outpourings; one such accumulation gives way to a brief unaccompanied timpani solo with a response in the French horns and, soon after, an amassing of forces.

Part II returns to the passacaglia’s musical world, with an opening section (“Chorale”) that begins with another pensive string passage; wind instruments are invited in, starting with a languid trumpet solo over a hazy string accompaniment, and followed by a flute. Despite its similarities to Part I, the “Chorale” lacks the polyphonic mayhem of Part I. It leads to the animated “Toccata”—a term that suggests spontaneity and virtuosity. Schuman makes a special point to highlight percussion in this movement, particularly in the opening (in which a snare drum engages with various wind instruments) and in the electrifying finish.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

Written for


Sounds of the American Century