In Praise of Shahn

Canticle for Orchestra

William Schuman

Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

In the spring of 1969, shortly after the death of Ben Shahn, I received a call from Lawrence A. Fleischman of the Kennedy Galleries in New York on behalf of a group of the late artist?s friends. Would I accept a commission to compose a work in Shahn?s memory? Because of my admiration for the astonishing achievements of this artist, my response was immediate and affirmative. I began at once to consider what relationship, if any, the music could have to Shahn. My thoughts led me to reject any attempt to portray his works in a specific programmatic manner. I did, however, want to learn more about Shahn from those who knew him well.

Actually, although I had been introduced to Shahn several times at large receptions, there was only one occasion ? a small gathering at the home of Emily (Genauer) and Fred Gash ? when we met for an entire evening. I was struck immediately by the artist?s ebullience, far ranging social interests and insights, and most of all by his optimistic embrace of life. It was from others that I subsequently learned of another equally telling side of his nature.

I am particularly indebted to Morris Bressler, who for some thirty years sang for Shahn the folk songs from the Eastern European and Jewish heritage they shared. Mr. Bressler was kind enough to make a tape for me of many of these songs which gave Shahn a continuing link to his generic past. It is my hope that music I have created reflects two prominent characteristics of his nature. Shahn, it seems to me, combined a contrasting yet wholly compatible duality ? unabashed optimism and a searching poignancy.

The work opens with an extended fast section for orchestral winds and percussion. It is a kind of clarion call. At the climactic moment of this section the entire string choir makes a dramatic entrance which leads to a transition (passionatamente) for strings alone, in slower tempo, leading to the beginning of the principal section of the composition. Here the music, a songlike theme, is first stated in a very slow tempo and marked ?tenderly, warmly, expressive.?

The melody is repeated (at different pitch levels) with developing contrapuntal embellishments. It is heard yet again in a solo trumpet, with harmonization given to the lower brass while the violins play agitated contrasting material.

Soon the melody becomes impatient and enters at multiple points in a series of overlappings. The contrasting rhythmic and contrapuntal lines gain in momentum and increase in complexity. There is a culmination which brings a faster tempo and a short rhythmic transition reminiscent of music from the opening section.

The conclusion begins innocently enough with simple scherzo-like figures, but matters soon change. There are references to the opening music and the principal song again with its overlapping statements and contrasting rhythmic-melodic materials growing from the spirit of the scherzo but which now have become much more insistent.

As the work draws to its conclusion, previous ideas are restated in a variety of new guises which, together with fresh propulsions, all lead to a final acceleration, a spirit of celebration which alone seems apposite for any statement honoring Ben Shahn?s memory.

Available on Rental

Additional Information

Commission Commission Information: Friends of Ben Shahn, in his memory
Composition Date 1972
Duration 00:17:30
Orchestration 3 3 3 3 - 4 3 3 1; Timp. Perc. Pno. Str.
Premiere January 29, 1970, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein