Born in New York on 4 August 1910, William Schuman began composing in high school, forming a jazz ensemble in which he played violin and banjo. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University Teachers College, and he studied at Juilliard with Roy Harris, who exercised a strong influence on the young composer and brought him to the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, who championed many early works.
Schuman wrote a plethora of works in virtually every musical genre, each mirroring his strong personality in their sharply defined sense of structure, line, and dynamism. He incorporated American jazz and folk traditions into works which ranged from a harmonically conservative early style to later excursions into dissonance and polytonality. The secular cantata A Free Song received the first Pulitzer Prize in music in 1943.
Schuman was also a vital force in American musical life as an administrator. By the age of 35, he had been director of publications for G. Schirmer, Inc., and appointed President of the Juilliard School. As Juilliard's President, Schuman reoriented the entire music education process, and it was under his aegis that the world-renowned Juilliard Quartet was formed. In 1962, he was appointed first president of the newly-founded Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
In the course of his career Schuman was Director of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, National Educational Television, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In addition to his election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Academy of Music, Schuman received the National Medal of Arts in 1987 and, in 1989, was honored by the Kennedy Center in Washington.