Not to be confused with Robert Schumann, who was a German composer born in 1810, William Schuman was a Jewish American composer, born in 1910 and raised in New York City, son of Rachel and Samuel, who named him after President Taft. The trajectory of his life didn’t seem to lead toward music, until it did.
As a kid, he played violin and banjo, but wanted to be a baseball player. In high school he formed a dance band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra; he played string bass in it, and they played weddings and bar mitzvahs. Yet he pursued a business degree at NYU, and worked for an ad agency. Still fate was trying to take a hand, as he had met E. B. Marks at summer camp and they had taken to writing popular songs together for radio, Vaudeville, etc. He also had met lyricist Frank Loesser and they were writing songs together, too. Loesser’s first published song was written with Schuman, “In Love with a Memory of You.”
It seems like destiny had to bowl him over, though. He attended a Carnegie Hall concert of the NY Philharmonic Orchestra in 1930, and was smitten by Smetana (and Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, too). He was so blown away by the sound and sight of a full orchestra that he decided to become a composer. He dropped out of NYU and quit his job to study at the Malkin Conservatory. He earned a BS in Music Ed. From Columbia University, but a meeting with famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky set his composing career into full swing.
In 1943 Schuman’s “Cantata No. 2 A Free Song” won the first Pulitzer Prize for Music. It was an expression of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Between 1935 and 1945, Schuman taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1945 he became president of The Juilliard School. He founded the Juilliard String Quartet. Then in 1961 Mr. Schuman became president of Lincoln Center, leading the institution until 1969. He won a special Pulitzer in 1985 for his “more than half a century of contribution to American music as composer and educational leader,” and received the National Medal of Arts in 1987. Meanwhile, he continued to compose: listen to his Concerto for Violin for an example of his passionate and expressive work. He composed eight symphonies, the “New England Triptych” (1956), ballets, “The Mail Order Madrigals” (1972), and two operas - “The Mighty Casey” (1953) and “A Question of Taste” (1989), and various other works. And he cared very much about how music was taught.
Complications after hip surgery took him on February 15, 1992, at the age of 81.
Schuman is quoted about music students, but we may apply his words as needed: “If the student truly absorbs the concept of free inquiry in the field of music, unimpeded by blind adherence to doctrine and tradition, he will bring something of this approach not only to other fields of knowledge but to the conduct of his daily life.”