Alan Shulman and the Golden Age of Music in NYC

Volume 115, No. 6June, 2015

Jay Shulman

Cellist, composer and and arranger Alan Shulman had a life steeped in the musical history of New York City. A charter member of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, he was also a founder of the Symphony of the Air, Stuyvesant String Quartet, New Friends of Rhythm and the Violoncello Society. He played on radio and television, recorded with Steve Allen, Skitch Henderson, Frank Sinatra and many others, and played with the Kreiner Quartet, Philharmonia Trio, Vardi Trio and the Haydn Quartet. He joined Local 802 in 1931 and was a member for 71 years. Mr. Shulman’s son Jay wrote the following tribute to his father on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The cellist, composer and arranger Alan Shulman in 1954.

The cellist, composer and arranger Alan Shulman in 1954.

Of all of us who never became famous, Alan was the most talented,” wrote Yale Quartet violist Dave Schwartz about my father Alan Shulman, who was his friend and colleague. Alan was born in Baltimore 100 years ago, on June 4, 1915 to a cultured Russian Jewish emigré family. His mother Cecelia attended Hunter College, unusual for a woman in that era, and his father Jacob, a pharmacist, played the flute. Alan’s father died in 1917, a suicide. His mother kept the family pharmacy running and sent Alan’s sister (pianist Violet) and brother (violinist Sylvan) to the Peabody Institute. Alan began his cello studies there with Bart Wirtz, and studied harmony with Louis Cheslock. By 1925, the Shulman Trio was already playing music for commercials on radio, which was then a new medium.

In 1928, Cecelia Shulman moved the family to New York to pursue their musical studies. Alan attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, qualified for a New York Philharmonic Scholarship and played in the National Orchestral Association under Leon Barzin. He studied with Philharmonic cellist Joseph Emonts and learned harmony from Winthrop Sargeant, who later wrote about music for The New Yorker. By 1931, Sylvan, at age 19, was supporting the family playing on Broadway in Jerome Kern’s “The Cat and The Fiddle.”

With Alan only 16, Sylvan signed for Alan to join Local 802 in 1931. Alan received a fellowship to attend Juilliard, where he studied cello with Felix Salmond and composition with Bernard Wagenaar, and played in the orchestra under Albert Stoessel. Alan and Sylvan formed the Sweet Rhythm String Quartet, which played Alan’s arrangements for house parties. In 1934, Alan wrote incidental music for a Broadway show based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Chinese Nightingale,” which closed after only eight performances. He honed his arranging skills for bandleaders Leo Reisman, André Kostalanetz, Frank Tours, Nathaniel Shilkret, Jacques Fray and Ruby Newman.

In 1935, Polish-born violist Edward Kreiner asked Alan and Sylvan to join his quartet. Kreiner was well-connected, and the Kreiner String Quartet made its Town Hall debut that same year. Second violinist Ralph Hersh left to play “Porgy and Bess.” Alan met with Gershwin who told him that he had all the cellists he needed, but that his friend Mr. Porter needed a cellist for his new show and Alan, still a full-time student at Juilliard, played eight shows a week in the pit of “Anything Goes.” (Can anyone imagine that happening today?) The Kreiner Quartet gained exposure making weekly broadcasts over CBS and also recorded, first for the Friends of Recorded Music label, and then for Victor Records.

In 1937, as he was about to graduate from Juilliard, Alan learned that NBC was forming a new orchestra for Arturo Toscanini, who had retired from the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 1936 season. The Kreiner Quartet (with Josef Gingold as second violin) auditioned as a group and was accepted into the NBC Symphony. Alan was 22 years old.

Playing under Toscanini had a profound influence on his musical life and Alan formed lifelong friendships with the legendary players who made up the NBC Symphony, including Sam Antek, Harry Glickman, Max Hollander, Sam Kissel, Harry Lookofsky, Mischa Mischakoff, Al Pratz, Dave Sarser, Oscar Shumsky, Paul Winter, Bill Carboni, Harold Coletta, Carlton Cooley, Nat Gordon, Milton Katims, Louis Kievman, William Primrose, Manny Vardi, Nunia Benditsky, Bobby LaMarchina, Eddie Lustgarten, Frank Miller, Leonard Rose, Harvey Shapiro, Tony Sophos, Harold Shachner, Dave Walter, Al Gallodoro, Eli Carmen, Lenny Sharrow, Jack, Harry and Arthur Berv, and Ray Crisara. The roster also included Laura Newell, with whom Alan and Sylvan formed the New Friends of Rhythm, a swing septet with Zelly Smirnoff, Louis Kievman, Tony Colucci and Harry Patent that featured Alan’s humorous arrangements. The New Friends broadcast over CBS and recorded 16 sides for Victor, which sold enough copies to get written up by Time Magazine in 1940.

The New Friends of Rhythm can be found today on a Hep CD, and several post-war recordings of Alan’s arrangements with singer Maxine Sullivan are still available.

Alan Shulman and his brother Sylvan formed the Stuyvesant Quartet in 1938. Above, the two Shulman brothers with Bernard Robbins and Ralph Hersh, in 1947.

Alan Shulman and his brother Sylvan formed the Stuyvesant Quartet in 1938. Above, the two Shulman brothers with Bernard Robbins and Ralph Hersh, in 1947.

Sylvan and Alan formed the Stuyvesant Quartet in 1938 with Zelly Smirnoff (violin) and Louis Kievman (viola). Between 1939 and 1942, for Columbia Records, they recorded quartets of Bloch, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, the Ravel “Introduction and Allegro” and the Shostakovich “Piano Quintet,” for which they gave the American première at Carnegie Hall. For Victor, they recorded the Bach “Musical Offering” with harpsichordist Yella Pessl and the “Wedding Cantata” with soprano Elisabeth Schumann.

Arthur Fiedler heard Alan’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah!” and recorded it with the Boston Pops for Victor in 1939. Alan was made a member of the American Society of Musical Arrangers in 1942.

Riding the subway from Brooklyn to New York in November 1940, Alan sketched his “Theme and Variations.” Alan showed it to Manny Vardi, who was preparing his Town Hall début. Manny told Alan that if he completed it, he would play it on the program. “It was the hit of the concert,” Manny later wrote. “Toscanini was there and loved it.” (“Semplice ma bene” were the maestro’s words of praise to Alan.) Alan then orchestrated “Theme and Variations” and Manny played it with the NBC Symphony three times and with others throughout his career. Other violists embraced the work, and it was played by Nat Gordon, William Primrose, Louis Kievman, Milton Thomas, Milton Katims, David Schwartz, Carlton Cooley and Milton Preves, who played it five times with the Chicago Symphony. In 1954, Joseph DePasquale asked Alan to make a version for viola, strings and harp, and this became Alan’s preferred version. “Theme and Variations” is on many competition and audition lists, and has been recorded by Yizhak Schotten, Cathy Basrak, Joseph DePasquale and Robert Glazer.

During World War II, Alan took a leave from NBC and, along with many New York-based musicians, joined the Maritime Service Orchestra stationed at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. There he met a trombonist from the Tommy Dorsey Band, Nelson Riddle. Alan taught orchestration to Nelson when they weren’t learning how to tie knots. Trumpet player Eddie Bailey remembered Alan to Riddle biographer Peter Levinson, saying, “Alan had the greatest ear of any musician I ever came across. He had better than perfect pitch. I’ve simply never met anybody like him.”

Alan was discharged from the service in the fall of 1945 and decided not to rejoin the NBC Symphony immediately. Columbia Records’ Goddard Lieberson had hired Alan to arrange a bunch of material: album sets for Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence; Robert Weede and Irra Petina’s version of “Song of Norway”; and five crossover albums for soprano Risë Stevens. (These have been reissued on a Sony collection called “The Pop Side.”) Sylvan reformed the Stuyvesant Quartet with Bernard Robbins and Ralph Hersh (both Kreiner Quartet alumni) and the quartet resumed concertizing and recording with Alan in 1945.

In the summer of 1946, Alan rented a cottage in Maine and began composing his cello concerto. While there, Sylvan phoned to say that Benny Goodman had invited the quartet to play a movement of the Mozart clarinet quintet on his weekly NBC radio program. Unwilling to make the long trip to New York to play five minutes of Mozart on the air, but realizing valuable exposure for the quartet, Alan proposed that he write a short piece instead. The result was “Rendezvous with Benny,” which premiered over WEAF on Aug. 19, 1946. Although “Rendezvous” was well-received, Benny never played it again, and Alan subsequently gave it to Goodman’s rival Artie Shaw, who recorded it with the New Music Quartet for Columbia – and retitled it “Rendezvous for Clarinet and Strings.”

Also in the summer of 1946, Alan married pianist Sophie Pratt Bostelmann, whom he knew from Juilliard. She came from a distinguished musical family, and had been Olga Samaroff-Stokowski’s teaching assistant at Juilliard. Sophie and Alan had four children: Laurie, a pianist, author and musicologist; Marc, a guitar wizard; Lisa; and me, a cellist (no surprise!)

Alan wrote scores for four RKO-Pathé documentary shorts from 1946 to 1948, and in 1949 for the noir film “The Tattooed Stranger.” Alan’s setting of James Thurber’s “Many Moons” is a much-loved children’s record. Jascha Heifetz began playing Alan’s “Cod Liver ‘Ile” on recitals and recorded it in 1955. Alan’s “Pastorale and Dance,” written for Sylvan, who played it with ABC, was played by Oscar Shumsky with the Baltimore Symphony, and Arnold Eidus with the AGMA Orchestra. Alan became a member of ASCAP in 1948.

The NBC Symphony, under Leonard Bernstein, performed for a testimonial dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria for President Chaim Weitzman of the newly-formed state of Israel in 1949. Bernstein didn’t like Kurt Weill’s arrangement of the Israeli national anthem and when Alan said he could make a new orchestration for that evening’s performance, Bernstein excused him from the rehearsal. The Shulman arrangement was played that night, although the program said Weill. Bernstein sent a photo in thanks inscribed, “For Alan, with gratitude and great respect.” (The performance can be heard on the Bridge CD “Music of Alan Shulman,” with Bernstein singing above the orchestra.)

From left: Leonard Rose; New York Philharmonic conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos; and Alan Shulman, in 1950.

From left: Leonard Rose; New York Philharmonic conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos; and Alan Shulman, in 1950.

Alan completed his cello concerto in 1948, and in 1950, Leonard Rose gave the première with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Although performed by George Ricci and Susan Poliacik, the concerto wasn’t recorded until 2010 when Wesley Baldwin released his performance on a Troy CD. Alan’s “A Laurentian Overture” was dedicated to Tallulah Bankhead (Alan played on Tallulah’s NBC radio program “The Big Show” with “Music Man” director Meredith Willson). The overture received its first performance by the New York Philharmonic under Guido Cantelli. Immediately popular, it was played by the NBC Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Denver Symphony and Baltimore Symphony, and Skitch Henderson programmed it often. Alan wrote a number of short string orchestra pieces that both Skitch and Steve Allen used on radio and television. His suite for solo cello was written for Frank Miller (Leonard Rose’s cousin), and his suite for solo viola was for Chicago Symphony principal Milton Preves.

In 1950, with inventor and horn-player Norman Pickering, the Stuyvesant Quartet formed Philharmonia Records. Between 1950 and 1953, they recorded quartets of Hindemith, Malipiero, Debussy, Ravel, Kreisler, Paganini and Mozart, as well as chamber music with guitar and harp. Many will recall these as Nonesuch LPs in the 1960s, and they have been remastered and reissued for CD on Bridge and Parnassus.

When NBC disbanded the symphony in 1954, Alan was among a dedicated group of musicians who wanted to keep the orchestra going. With public support, and the support of Local 802, the Symphony of the Air continued. The ensemble recorded two fundraising LPs at Carnegie Hall without a conductor. Alan was the symphony’s vice president, and the orchestra made a successful State Department-sponsored tour of the Far East in 1955.

Then fear reared its ugly head. The Symphony of the Air was accused of “Communist infiltration.” A proposed tour of the Middle East was canceled. Congressman John Rooney of Brooklyn reconvened the HUAC Committee. While Alan was a progressive – supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, appearing with Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall, supporting Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid, and signing petitions for the Rosenbergs – he was no Communist. When several of his colleagues received subpoenas, Alan – with a family to support, and fearful that he could be made to name names or blacklisted – snapped. His breakdown resulted in a six-month stay at Hillside Hospital in Queens where he underwent electric shock treatments.

Nevertheless, he continued composing while hospitalized. Alan resumed work late in 1957, rejoining his supportive colleagues in the Steve Allen Show orchestra. He wrote “Top Brass,” which Skitch premiered in Portland, Oregon in 1958. He made arrangements for Raoul Poliakin’s Everest Records and Jacques Belasco on Urania Records. With Steve Allen, he wrote “Too Late The Spring,” which both jazz great Irene Kral and Barbara McNair recorded. He arranged a classic album of Christmas carols for Felix Slatkin.

In 1959, inspired by my sister Laurie’s progress on piano and mine on cello, Alan began writing etudes, which were published by Sam Fox (now Kalmus) and Weintraub (now Hal Leonard) including the clever “Dripping Faucet” for piano. Later, Alan turned his attention to writing for band, cello ensemble, and violin and viola quartets. His final works from the 1980s include a moving tribute to his wife who died in 1982, “In Memorium – Sophie,” “Variations – 1984 for Viola, Strings and Harp,” a setting for SATB and harp of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd,” and a bluesy string orchestra piece, “Ripe for Plucking.”

From the 1930s through the 1980s, Alan was one of the busiest studio players in New York, playing record dates with artists from Stokowski to Sinatra, playing jingles, film dates, radio and television work with Steve Allen, Nat “King” Cole, the Tonight Show, Kraft Music Hall, the Perry Como Show and Hullabaloo. As children, we were taught that a call from Radio Registry meant food on the table. The stress of Alan’s relentless schedule resulted in hospitalizations twice in the 1970s.

In the mid-80s, my father’s health began to decline. Saddened by the death of his wife, the passing of friends and colleagues, depressed by the feeling that recognition had come too little, too late, and beset by a series of mini-strokes, he spent the last six years of his life in a nursing home. As Alan was no longer able to manage his catalog, I began looking after his publishing, and started producing CDs of his music.

But my father wasn’t a shut-in. In 2000, he attended a concert in honor of his 85th birthday at the Pleshakov Music Center in Hudson. I invited Charlie Russo to play my father’s “Rendezvous” and “Mood in Question” with my River Quartet. At the end of the program, Charlie told the audience that on “so many important dates in New York City, I would look over in the cello section and see Alan and I knew everything was okay. I knew they’d called the first team.”

Two years later, on July 10, 2002, my father died at the age 87. We’d spent the day before listening to a test pressing of the NBC Symphony recording of his compositions that I’d produced for Bridge.

In its obituary for my father, the New York Times wrote, “A music master as comfortable with jazz as with the classical idiom.” His music copyist, Bert Kosow, called him “The classical guy on the jazz bus.” My father – cellist, composer and arranger Alan Shulman – was a musician’s musician during the golden age of music in New York City.

Jay Shulman is a cellist and the son of Alan Shulman. A member of of Local 802 since 1972, he serves on the Long Island Philharmonic committee. For more on Alan Shulman, see