William Schuman’s American Festival Overture is not music describing an American festival, but is music for “a very festive occasion,” wrote the composer. The festive occasion that occupied Schuman’s mind was a program of American works Sergey Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were presenting in Boston and New York in the fall of 1939, for which the conductor asked Schuman to compose an opening piece. The composer supplied the following description for the occasion:
“The first three notes of this piece will be recognized some listeners as the “call to play” of boyhood days. In New York City it is yelled on the syllables “Wee-Awk-Eee” to get the gang together for a game or festive occasion of some sort. This call very naturally suggested itself for a piece of music being composed for a very festive occasion. From this it should not be inferred that the Overture is program music. In fact, the idea for the music came to mind before the origin of the theme was recalled. The development of this bit of “folk material” then, is along purely musical lines.
“The first section of the work is concerned with the material discussed above and the ideas growing out of it. This music leads to a transition section and the subsequent announcement by the violas of a Fugue subject. The entire middle section is given over to this Fugue. The orchestration is at first for strings alone, later for woodwinds alone and finally, as the Fugue is brought to fruition, by the strings and woodwinds in combination. This climax leads to the final section of the work, which consists of opening materials paraphrased and the introduction of new subsidiary ideas. The tempo of the work, save the last measure, is fast.”
a call to play of boyhood days...yelled on the syllables Wee-Awk-Eee to get the gang together for a game or a festive occasion of some sort.