Born in the Bronx in New York City to Samuel and Rachel Schuman, Schuman was named after the twenty-seventh U.S. president, William Howard Taft (although his family preferred to call him Bill). Schuman played the violin and banjo as a child, but his overwhelming passion was baseball. While still in high school, he formed a dance band, "Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra", that played local weddings and bar mitzvahs (Schuman played string bass in the band).
In 1928 he entered New York University's School of Commerce to pursue a business degree, at the same time working for an advertising agency. He also wrote popular songs with E. B. Marks, Jr., a friend he had met long before at summer camp. About then Schuman met lyricist Frank Loesser and wrote some forty songs with him. (Indeed, Loesser's first published song, "In Love with a Memory of You", credits the music to William H. Schuman.)
On April 13 1930, Schuman went with his older sister, Audrey, to a Carnegie Hall concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The program included works by Wagner, Kodály, and Schumann. Of this experience, Schuman later said, "I was astounded at seeing the sea of stringed instruments, and everybody bowing together. The visual thing alone was astonishing. But the sound! I was overwhelmed. I had never heard anything like it. The very next day, I decided to become a composer."
Schuman dropped out of school and quit his part-time job to study music at the Malkin Conservatory with Max Persin and Charles Haubiel. From 1933 to 1938 he studied privately with Roy Harris. Harris brought Schuman to the attention of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who championed many of his works. Koussevitzky conducted Schuman's Symphony No. 2 in 1939. Possibly Schuman's best known symphony, the Symphony for Strings, was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, and was first performed under Koussevitzky on November 12, 1943.
In 1943 he won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata, A Free Song, adapted from poems by Walt Whitman. From 1935 to 1945, he taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1945, he became president of the Juilliard School of Music, founding the Juilliard String Quartet while there. He left in 1961 to become the first president of Lincoln Center, a position he held until 1969.
William Schuman appeared as the opening guest on the CBS game show, What's My Line? on September 30 1962 (episode #632). Because of his recognizability, panel members Dorothy Kilgallen, Martin Gabel, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf were blindfolded. Schuman's title card identified him as "Composer and President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York City)". Schuman displayed his wit in response to panel questions. After the panel exhausted a few categories, Kilgallen asked, "What about music?" Schuman replied, "What about it?" When asked if he was Leonard Bernstein, Schuman replied, "He's a friend." When asked if he was Rudolf Bing, Schuman repeated, "He's a friend," prompting Francis to wonder who was not his friend. When asked if he had ever sang for the Metropolitan Opera, Schuman said, "Often desired to, never invited." Cerf identified him after host John Charles Daly had flipped over all the cards. Daly announced that Schuman's Eighth Symphony would be performed at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) the following Thursday, which date, October 4 1962, marked the première of the work. It was recorded for Columbia Masterworks Records five days later by its performers, the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein.
Schuman left a substantial body of work. His "eight symphonies, numbered Three through Ten", as he himself put it (the first two were withdrawn), continue to grow in stature. His concerto for violin (1947, rev. 1959) has been hailed as among his "most powerful works ... it could almost be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra." Other works include the New England Triptych (1956, based on melodies by William Billings), the American Festival Overture (1939), the ballets Undertow (1945) and Judith (1949) (the latter written for Martha Graham), the Mail Order Madrigals (1972) to texts from the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog, and two operas, The Mighty Casey (1953, based on Ernest L. Thayer's Casey at the Bat), which reflected his lifelong love of baseball, and A Question of Taste (1989, after a short story by Roald Dahl). He also arranged Charles Ives' organ piece Variations on "America" for orchestra in 1963, in which version it is better known. Another popular work by William Schuman is his George Washington Bridge (1950), for concert band.