More Alan Shulman

Stuyvesant String Quartet

The Stuyvesant String Quartet. L to R: Sylvan Shulman, Bernard Robbins, Alan Shulman, Ralph Hersh, 1947

Since, when I recently reviewed the new Bridge release of Alan Shulman’s film soundtrack music, I suggested that the represented “a gifted musician knocking off some film scores for money (and maybe also for fun), throwing in some excellent passages to offset the banal ones.” But of course this only referred to his film music, and the same can be said of the very gifted composer George Antheil’s soundtrack music.

To understand Shulman a little better, let us take a look at some of his other work and see how it fares, which I think is pretty well. We’ll also examine his work with his various string quartets.

Passepied labelIn 1935, Shulman was a founding member of the Kreiner String Quartet started by violist Edward Kreiner, who introduced Henry Huss’ Sonata for Viola & Piano in 1920 with Benno Moisewitsch. As in most of his musical activities, Alan made sure that his violinist brother Sylvan was involved, and he was, as first violin. Forgotten today, the Kreiner Quartet only lasted three years, but they made some very interesting recordings including one of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ First Indian Sketch, William Hain’s Lament, Beryl Rubinstein’s Passepied and Gian Francisco Malipiero’s Rispetti e Strambotti (String Quartet No. 1), which later became a featured piece of Shulman’s own Stuyvesant String Quartet. You can download and listen to the latter two pieces HERE in beautifully-restored 1937 copies from The Shellackophile.

As mentioned in my previous article, Alan and Sylvan both became members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937 along with violist Kreiner. It was also in the NBC Symphony that Alan met the future members of his quartet, second violinists Josef Gingold, Harry Glickman and Bernard Robbins and violists Louis Kievman, Emmanuel Vardi and Ralph Hersh.

Hiigh Voltage label 1939The Shulman brothers had scarcely gotten settled in as charter members of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini before they formed their own Stuyvesant String Quartet. In its 14-year existence (1938-1954 minus the three war years), they made a number of outstanding and historically important recordings, of which we’ll get to in a moment, but their earliest exposure on records came as the result of an experiment that Shulman tried out just for fun: swinging performances of jazz-styled originals and pastiches, with the addition of guitarist Tony Colucci, bassist Harry Patent and harpist Laura Newell under the name of New Friends of Rhythm. They made their radio debut on an NBC Variety Show on June 4, 1939 playing Shulman’s original composition, High Voltage, and the piece generated so much enthusiasm that Victor signed them to a contract to make records in that vein, which they did for two years.

Only a few of the New Friends of Rhythm records, however, featured Shulman compositions, the only two that I know of being High Voltage and Mood in Question. Though hardly his best pieces, they’re very interesting as, aside from Red Norvo’s 1933  The Dance of the Octopus, they are the first Third Stream pieces ever written. Even more interestingly, on their recording session of May 24, 1940, the group included a guest musician, clarinetist Buster Bailey, who at the time was a busy member of John Kirby’s jazz sextet. I’m pretty certain that these are the first recordings ever made in which an African-American jazz musician played with a string section, predating Dizzy Gillespie’s records with Johnny Richards’ studio orchestra by six years. More importantly, Bailey was playing here with a string group that swung and played interesting figures, not just a string section that played whole and half notes while the soloist improvised. You can listen to some of the New Friends’ recordings HERE. (One final note: Mood in Question was also recorded in 1949 by Artie Shaw with the New Music Quartet.) Most of them were rearrangements of well-known classical music like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 as well as such pop-classical pieces as The Carnival of Venice and Hora Staccato. They were very well played and ingeniously arranged but, once again, really didn’t show that much of Shulman’s immense talent.

Col MM483 labelIn 1941, much to their surprise, the Stuyvesant Quartet was signed by Columbia to record two relatively new pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich: his Piano Quintet and his first String Quartet. Pianist Vivian Rifkin, who was later the first wife of famed African-American conductor Dean Dixon, played on the first, which was made on May 7 & 8, 1941. Their recording of the String Quartet was not the first, however; David Hall’s 1940 Record Book mentions a recording by the unknown York Quartet on the Royale label, but Royale had gone bankrupt by the time Shulman and his quartet made their version on July 20, 1942, shortly before Musicians’ Union president James C. Petrillo instituted the first of his career-killing recording bans.

Col MX231 cover

One might have thought that, with his NBC connections and the success of the New Friends of Rhythm records, the Stuyvesant Quartet would have been signed by RCA to make records, but for reasons known only to RCA and its president David Sarnoff, they had absolutely no interest in promoting string quartet records by then. In 1940, when the Budapest String Quartet’s Victor contract lapsed, the company made no effort to re-sign them and they ended up on Columbia, where they were best-sellers for the next quarter-century.

Also during this period, Shulman’s Theme and Variations for Viola and Orchestra was premiered by his friend Emanuel Vardi with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on one of their broadcasts. This was on February 2, 1942, a time when Toscanini was no longer music director of the orchestra. He had walked out over a dispute about the amount of time his musicians were contracted to rehearse with him and not have to play on other NBC radio shows; Leopold Stokowski eventually took over as music director, but since Toscanini hated Stokowski he slowly but surely inveigled his way back in, at least as principal guest conductor, until Stokie was gone. This piece, though only mildly modern in harmony, is very well written and is still performed today by violists. You can listen to it HERE or buy it as part of Bridge CD 9119.

BCD9137 coverAfter the war, Shulman entered a very active period during which he rejoined the NBC Symphony, re-formed the Stuyvesant Quartet and wrote film scores for M-G-M and Pathé-RKO, mostly for shorts but eventually culminating in RKO’s 1950 film noir feature film, The Tattooed Stranger. This is the music which I covered in my previous Shulman article. His music for Freedom From Famine is excellent, as is about 14 minutes’ worth of the Tattooed Stranger score. In 1946 he wrote Rendezvous for Clarinet & String Quartet for Benny Goodman, which the famed clarinetist played on the radio but never recorded (Artie Shaw recorded it in 1949 along with Shulman’s Mood in Question). But the Goodman performance was recorded, and has been issued on Bridge 9137 along with some stunning performances of standard string quartet fare by the group.

Parnassus CD coverThis was also a busy time for the Stuyvesant Quartet. Now consisting of fellow NBC Symphony colleagues Bernard Robbins on second violin and Ralph Hersh on viola, they had some of their performances recorded live at the Majestic Theater in New York in surprisingly high-fidelity sound in 1947, among them excellent performances of the Villa-Lobos String Quartet No. 6 and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with fellow NBC musician Alfred Gallodoro. The Villa-Lobos may be heard HERE or purchased from Parnassus Records on a CD that also includes Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet in F minor and the intriguing Quincy Porter String Quartet No. 7 while the Brahms Quintet can be found on Bridge 9397, a CD that also includes two studio recordings of Mozart quartets (Nos. 20 & 21) originally made for the Concert Hall Society label.

In 1948, by which time Shulman had rejoined the NBC Symphony, he wrote his one and only Cello Concerto. This really was a superb piece, composed for his good friend Leonard Rose, who gave the premiere with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic on April 13, 1950. There is a superb recording of it by American cellist Wesley Baldwin with the Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra on Albany (Troy 1187) along with his Cello Suite.

Debussy and Ravel Qrts - PH-104By this time we’ve reached the early 1950s and, although Shulman lived until June 2002, this was really the last of his really productive years. From this period come further recordings by the Stuyvesant Quartet, the Ravel String Quartet, Debussy’s String Quartet No. 1 and their own version of the Malipiero Rispetto e Strambotti. The Ravel and Debussy quartets were originally recorded by Shulman’s own label, Philharmonia Records, and then reissued in 1964—alas, in electronically created “stereo”—by Vanguard, but at least it revived the name of the quartet, which disbanded in 1954. All three of these performances are also available on Bridge 9137.

BCD9119 coverIn 1952 Toscanini’s protégé, Guido Cantelli, conducted a performance of Shulman’s A Laurentian Overture on the orchestra’s NBC broadcast. This is a very peppy piece in Shulman’s best third stream style, incorporating jazz rhythms into the score (which Cantelli handled very well, by the way) as well as some complex rhythm and harmony. It is also available on Bridge 9119 in addition to being available for free streaming HERE.  Then in 1954, Schulman’s friend (and another NBC colleague) Don Gillis, who had written the humorous Symphony No. 5 ½, led performances of two more light-hearted pieces in the New Friends of Rhythm vein, Minuet for Moderns and The Bop Gavotte…but with the NBC Concert Orchestra, not the full symphony. The latter is particularly well written, though the reference to bop was strictly a mnemonic device; there are no bop rhythms in the piece and no extended chords up to a 9th or an 11th to mark it as bop-related. These pieces, too, are on Bridge 9119.

Shulman occasionally wrote music thereafter, most notably a Kol Nidre for cello and piano in 1970, but after so many years of working so hard he took it pretty easy thereafter, which in a way made him a forgotten man in the classical world. Fortunately, Columbia Records reissued his quartet’s Shostakovich recordings on its Odyssey label in the early 1970s, thus bringing attention to one of the greatest string quartets that ever existed. All of these are worth hearing and investigating as the life’s work of a fascinating and diverse musician.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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