American Hymn

William Schuman

Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

During the middle fifties, I was commissioned to contribute a hymn to a comprehensive survey, subsequently called American Hymns Old and New, the title of the collection published by the Columbia University Press in 1980. The work was originally published by Merion Music, Inc. (a subsidiary of the Theodore Presser Company) in 1957 and remains in their catalog, both as a solo song and in my choral arrangement. The Langston Hughes text is simple and straightforward, which is reflected in the melodic setting (quasi hymn-spiritual) which forms the basis of the work.

As I was contemplating the composition I would undertake for the St. Louis Centennial, The Lord Has a Child would not leave me. In my composer?s ruminations I still felt the need of basing a large work on my setting of Langston Hughes. Although the present work uses some ideas form the earlier versions, it is an entirely new concept, and the main body of its large form consists wholly of new material.

My use of the word ?melody? in the subtitle, rather than ?theme?, is purposeful, and a word on that subject might be helpful in an initial hearing of the composition. Traditionally, variations on a theme imply not only modifications and developments of the melodic aspect itself but, even more importantly, the continuation of the harmonic sequence. Therefore, although we may sometimes feel far removed from the melodic content of the theme, we are sonically reassured by the consistency of the harmonic progressions and usually, too, by the length of the phrases.

In using the word ?melody? in the subtitle, I mean to declare that all the variations spring exclusively from the melodic content. While it is true that the listener will be able, even on first hearing, to perceive the original melody in many of the variations, there will be others that the composer does not necessarily expect too be recognized as stemming from the melody. Let me try to clarify this thought with an example: towards the end, after a huge climax, there is a slow section wherein the strings begin a melodic statement which in effect is a different setting of the text. But this is merely a technical detail of compositional procedure, which may or may not prove helpful to know. (If listeners find verbal explanation illuminating, though, why not make the attempt?)

The variations, as I have noted, grow out of the melody. The development is a continuum?a huge arc, encompassing six discernible sections?that goes from the first note to the last without interruption.

I. An introduction, which has no relationship to the melody, serves to set the aural ambiance. This section is scored first for woodwinds, horn, various bells, vibraphone and celesta, followed by strings.

II. The melody is first heard in a cornet solo with harmonic underpinning in the strings and quiet rhythmic enforcement fro the bass drum. The middle section of the melody is given to the woodwind instruments. When the melody continues, it is heard in the violins with harmonization in the lower woodwinds and strings, with a countermelody in the upper woodwinds. There follows a varied version of the middle section of the melody in the brass, leading to an extended variation of the melody in ? meter, characterized by melodic content first in flute and oboe, and later in clarinet and horn, with varied accompaniments. A full restatement of the melody with imitative contrapuntal embellishments leads through an accelerando to Section III.

III. This section consists entirely of fast music with melodic fragments of the melody, interrupted by rhythmically built brass pyramids and comments from the percussion section. The music continues in this spirit and gives way to a melody in the strings with syncopated rhythmic accompaniments. A fast waltz follows, wherein the solo cornet carries the burden, with answering phrases in the first violins. There is a return to the music with its syncopated accompaniment, but the melodic role is this time in the woodwinds rather than the strings. After a transition section, the music becomes even faster.

IV. This Presto section with its constantly reiterated eighth-note patterns is heard in the various orchestral choirs. The development is continuous, as the music surges forward with percussion instruments joining the rhythmic fray, a brief timpani solo against a sustained note in the trumpets, and ultimately the entire orchestra constantly building to its climactic point; a suspended cymbal, two pairs of crash cymbals and a tam-tam create a sounding sea of steel. There is a gradual quieting and a retard in tempo which leads to Section V.

V. Adagissimo. This is the section that is referred to above a s a new melodic setting of the text. The strings introduce the melody over harmonies in the horns and trombones, followed by a solo clarinet, the muted strings with comments from the bass clarinet, and a restatement of the melody in the trumpets, trombone and horn, over which the strings play a rhythmic-harmonic filigree, while lower harmonies are supplied by the tuba with the remaining trombones and horns. This extended section leads to antiphonal orchestral rhythmics and eventually to the beginning of the end.

VI. The tempo has now returned to that of the melody, as it was originally announced at the beginning of the composition. There are contrapuntal variations in the woodwinds, reminiscences in the brass and a brief recall of thee introduction. The final measures of remembrance culminate in a D major chord for the full orchestra which quietly survives in the violins, fading to silence.

Available on Rental

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin Music Director, in celebration of its centennial.
Composition Date 1981
Duration 00:27:00
Orchestration 3 3 3 3 - 4 3 3 1; Timp. Perc. Cel. Str.
Premiere September 24, 1982 - St. Louis, MO Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor