Schuman used to say that he wrote "eight symphonies numbered three through ten." He withdrew the first (1935) and second (1937), although both were performed in the New York area. Aaron Copland heard a broadcast of the Second Symphony, and in the pages of Modern Music anointed Schuman the "new composer of the year." Copland did more, however; he showed the work to one of his champions, Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who responded with a commission for Schuman's American Festival Overture (1939), with the stipulation "Now forget Roy Harris" (Schuman's counterpoint advisor during a summer session at the Juilliard School in 1936).
But the young composer was clever as well as gifted. He assimilated Harris' mastery of counterpoint -- made it, in fact, his signature. He also developed a polychordal vocabulary as structural undergirding for the rest of his career. He added complex rhythmic logic that moved his music at whatever speeds best suited the "message."
From the Third Symphony on, Schuman's musical vocabulary was uniquely personal and innately muscular. He was a "masculine" composer during a notably homosexual-oriented period in American music -- Griffes, Copland, Barber, Thomson, Blitzstein, Menotti, Diamond, and later, Bernstein. Though not alone, Schuman was nonetheless in a sizable minority. His music was not without tenderness -- even gentleness, as in the Chorale that opens the second half of the neo-Baroque Third Symphony. He used consonance sparingly, and because of his abstinence, all the more effectively. He liked sevenths and fourths and minor ninths, polytonal clashes, harmonic and rhythmic surprises. Unlike Harris, whom he surpassed within a few years, Schuman knew how to make music move, and how to engender excitement in audiences.
No work is more characteristic than the Symphony No. 3, completed January 11, 1941, when he was 30, and premiered by Koussevitzky in Boston on October 17 of that year. Like Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, it has two movements that subdivide into four. The work begins with a Passacaglia. Its seven-bar theme is repeated seven times, each appearance a half step higher than its predecessor, before Schuman gives free rein to his sense of fantasy. This leads to a fugue derived from the opening movement, again with each of four voices entering a half step higher than the last, followed by four variations for different choirs.
Part Two begins with a subdued 20-measure andantino chorale for strings before a solo trumpet sings one of Schuman's sweetest songs. This section builds to a climax of eloquent sonority before subsiding. Next, over a low, sustained B natural in the bassoons, the snare drum introduces a rhythmic pattern for the concluding toccata. The leggiero principal subject, played by a bass clarinet, derives from the original passacaglia, and then it's off to the races.
Midway, the action slows for a powerfully sonorous episode for solo cello followed by the rest of the section playing divisi. Thereafter the movement accelerates to a smashing, syncopated, emphatically tonal conclusion.