Charles Ives wrote his cheeky set of organ variations on the patriotic hymn America as a teenager, in 1891. William Schuman, one of the leading American composers of the middle twentieth century, didn't discover the piece until it was played on the 1962 dedicatory organ recital of what is now called Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, of which Schuman was the president. "By the time the piece was over," Schuman wrote, "I knew that I simply had to transcribe it." So he did, on commission from Broadcast Music, Inc. Andre Kostelanetz premiered Schuman's orchestral treatment with the New York Philharmonic in 1964.
As usual for Ives, the original score had come down through the decades in a bit of a mess; Schuman adhered to E. Power Biggs' 1949 edition of the piece, so the music's polytonality and insolence are Ives' own. Schuman's own stamp comes in the extra humor he brought through his typically varied and brilliant scoring. Always a master of brass and percussion writing, he applied those instruments to the variations to excellent effect.
A brief, mock-portentous introduction based on fragments of the melody leads to a sober statement of the full theme by brass over col legno strings. The first variation keeps the melody in the strings while the woodwinds, brass, and percussion ornament it with exercise-like material. The second variation is sentimental but mildly dissonant, with satiric barbershop cadences midway and at the end. Dissonance soon comes to the fore in a slow, fierce, polytonal statement interrupted by a goofy pizzicato waltz. The fourth variation is an odd minor-mode polonaise prominently featuring the tuba, given an incongruous Spanish flair by castanets and tambourine. After a short brass chorale statement of the melody comes a perky treatment that becomes increasingly grandiose. The coda brings back material from the introduction, making it even more pompous than before.