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He Was the Whole Man and a Remarkable, Majestic Human Being

- August 21, 2015

Type: Events, Artist Profiles

Transcript: Fellow composer Yehudi Wyner and friend of the Medalist reviews the genius that was Gunther Schuller.

Editor’s note: MacDowell Colony Chairman Michael Chabon introduced Yehudi Wyner and had just mentioned it was inconceivable that Wyner had not been to the Colony as a Fellow.

I think I was probably exhibiting a kind of quiet heroism in proving that one can do something with one’s life without going to MacDowell. I had no idea that this ceremony and encounter would be informal. I feel grievously overdressed. I might take off my tie. Or tell you about one of my grandchildren who came, when he was 11, to his mother (my daughter):

“Mommy, can I go to school commando today?”

“Commando, what’s that?”

”No underpants.”

One of the people who was a very strong supporter of the things that Gunther did was a man named Paul Fromm, who was the mogul of Christian Brother’s Wines, a man who assembled substantial wealth and put it into the support of contemporary music. Support which goes on even today with many great concerts, festivals, et al. Fromm concerts, Fromm commissions, Fromm conferences. Fromm was German, his brother Herbert was a composer (the two didn’t get along, though) nevertheless Fromm was a ubiquitous presence at Tanglewood with Gunther. He called Gunther Ganse, because he couldn’t say it so well, and I picked that up as well, in a way sort of making fun of Paul (which was not very nice of me), but suddenly realized that Ganse means the whole enchilada! And that, for me, was what Gunther really represented; the whole man, the entire artist, but more than just an artist, but a remarkable, majestic, human being.

I’ll tell you one other incident, which might amuse you before I go into the serious business of talking not just admiringly but gravely about Gunther. You may not know that I think at the age of 8 he had an accident and lost an eye. Gunther lived his entire life with one eye, couldn’t drive. How one eye can encompass and absorb very complex orchestral scores is beyond me. But he said for example that he had great ears, he admitted that he had a wonderful memory, and he had preternatural power of perception. Well, there was a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall with a group that Gunther was conducting, a contemporary group performing contemporary music, and his principal violinist was a wonderfully able contemporary music player named Matthew Raimondi who founded the Composer’s School many years later. But he had trouble with a particular piece, and Matthew said ‘I don’t know I never get it right’, and Gunther said ‘watch me, I will give you a signal, watch my eye.’ The performance came and went, Matthew made the same mistake as before, Gunther came off really quite irritated, ‘What happened Matthew!’ Matthew said ‘I watched your eye!’ Gunther said ‘No, not this one, this one!’

Here is a statement that I will read from George, Edwin, and Nicole Schuller, George and Edwin are the sons of Gunther and Margy:

“On behalf of our father, Gunther Schuller, we would like to thank MacDowell Colony for bestowing such a great honor. All of us had hoped that we could be here to accept this award for our father. Unfortunately, due to the extreme complexity of our current situation, we were unable to attend this afternoon ceremony. However, we are all here in spirit, and so is Gunther, of course, listening intently with his customarily wide open and discerning ears. Gunther was a man who wore many hats. This includes being a musician, a conductor, a composer, a scholar, a writer, and an educator. And this is but a short list of all the things that this man accomplished during his long life. One thing that has to be added to this list is that he was also a great father. When we both were young and upcoming musicians, he never failed to show us his support and answer our questions no matter how busy he was (and he was always extremely busy). Besides that he lived a life that most people couldn’t even imagine, keep in mind that he was completely self-taught, but it was his curiosity and his thirst for creativity that made him succeed in all of his endeavors. His love of music and openness to all genres of genuine human expression kept him vibrant and striving for greatness until the very end. This was a man who didn’t believe in retirement. Recently we’ve discovered how many people he had really touched, influenced, mentored, and helped to also fulfill their artistic dreams. Again we would like to thank The MacDowell Colony, Augusta Reed Thomas, and the rest of the selection committee, Yehudi Wyner, Terrance McKnight, and all of you who have come to be a part of this historic occasion for honoring the life and legacy of Gunther Schuller.”

And that is signed by George, Edwin, and Nicole Schuller.

Much of what I have written has already been covered so I beg you forgive me for this redundancy, I didn’t know what Terrance was going to write, I had no idea what George and Edwin were going to transmit.

Gunther Schuller 1925-2015. Upon his death the following appeared in The New York Times:

“Gunther Schuller: Composer, conductor, performer, educator, publisher, master of Jazz and Classical, his capacious gifts in all realms of music generated an inspiring life—his accomplishments define an era.”

How to expand that compressed statement? Truth to tell it would take a vast amount of elaboration to begin to come to terms with the miracle of his life. As a teenager he was obsessed with music. He was a prodigy horn player. Before he was twenty he was in the Cincinnati Orchestra and soon after in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But he was already composing and arranging, insatiable in his appetite for all styles of music including jazz. It was not long before he gave up horn playing to devote himself to composing, conducting and all manner of musical enterprises. The list of activities is too long to assemble here, but in the course of time he became a notable conductor, an important scholar, a revolutionary educator and administrator at Tanglewood, at the New England Conservatory, and at other festivals he led and created. He wrote books, which in their vividness and comprehensiveness, have become classic sources; Horn Technique 1962, Early Jazz 1968, Swing Era 1989, The Compleat Conductor 1998, and Memoir: A life in Pursuit of Beauty 2011. This last book, remarkable in its density of events and references, carries us only to 1960. Schuller intended to embark on Volume II to bring us into the present.

Schuller was a model of industry, discipline, receptiveness, openness to art, to cinema, to music of every kind from every culture and from every era. His passion was not restricted by ideology or narrow prejudice. While of course he possessed an ego of a creator it did not lead him to a rejection of the work of others. His appetite for genuine expression of any kind was inexhaustible and his generosity of spirit was constantly in play. Hence his founding of MARGUN, a music publishing company which promoted the work of underrepresented composers. Hence his transcriptions of jazz and ragtime recording so they could be studied and circulated. Hence his launching a recording company GUNMAR to record the music of composers he deemed authentic. Typically profits from these activities as well as money from commissions and other awards and prizes were at once ploughed into supporting the work of others.

Schuller seemed to know everything, to know everybody, to remember every event, every fact. Similarly he had a comprehensive grasp of history. His work habits were relentless. In general we expect such obsession to be driven by a kind of febrile intensity, a nervous impatience, perhaps even a menacing presence. But these were not Schuller’s characteristics. Prevailingly he revealed an equable temperament, a benign patience, an absence of arrogance. The creative maelstrom, the chaos of ideas, impressions and obligations, remained active under the surface, not suppressed under tension but fermenting in a different mental realm, functioning invisibly.

Schuller revealed something about his own character when he writes in Memoir about his relationship with his beloved Margie during their courtship:

“I was (and am) a basically gentle type to begin with. I had seen enough scarring rancor, disaffection and estrangement on too many occasions between my own parents. So I vowed I would never let such clashes destroy our relationship. My love for her had one agenda: To make her happy.”

Usually we think that such behave on the part of parents would lead to all kinds of neurotic tendencies. It’s not always so. Bach was orphaned very, very young, and brought up by relatives, brothers who were not always kind to him and he nevertheless turned out to be one of the most generous and gentlest human beings who we can imagine. Similarly, Gunter did not go in the direction of the way he was brought up. He reports in his book his mother behaved mercilessly.

Only rarely would his benignness be breached. It had to do with two issues which enraged Schuller. The first involved the sacredness of the musical scores of great composers, which Schuller felt were intentional, detailed and literally inviolable. He excoriated conductors (and performers in general) who “interpreted” or distorted great works according to ego or ignorance, violating the instructions of the text. The second area of angry protest was directed at The Music Business. He found administrators, conductors, players, managers, publicity agencies and unions destroying elements of art and joy in music-making. Not infrequently he would lecture orchestras with much irritation, accusing players of indifference to the highest aspirations of the art.

My most sustained contact with Gunther took place at Tanglewood–during the years 1975-1984—where he was director of the Music Center. Always approachable, always open and patient and interested in the activities of others, he was totally immersed in all the activities of the Festival. It was miraculous, almost inconceivable, how he could determine all repertory, scheduling, personnel, ensembles for the entire eight-week season, thousands of decisions regarding choice of music from the obscure to the familiar, another indication of how universal and catholic was his enthusiasm for the vast repertory of musical art.

And what of recreation, of free time? Such concepts were swallowed up by Gunther’s love of work, by anything to do with music.

I have left composition for last. But it stands as first in the life of Gunther Schuller, the activity around which swirled all the other aspects of his hyperactive life. He composed constantly and with extraordinary fluency. The music is imaginative, inventive, colorful and complex, restlessly morphing, transforming, surprising. From the very beginning the craft was exemplary, with an uncanny understanding of instrumental capabilities and textural clarity, along with a fearless tendency to test conventional boundaries.

Notable compositions would include the Seven Studies on Paul Klee, orchestral images of wonderful color and variety, including an impression of Klee’s Twittering Machine. The popularity of this piece is enhanced by its pictorial reference, not surprising given our obsession with visual images of all kinds.

Of Reminiscences and Reflections (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1994) is a deeply expressive creation in memory of Margy. Her death created a sense of loss that was never far from Gunther’s thoughts.

Dreamscape, a substantial recent composition for the Boston Symphony, which Schuller said came to him in a dream clear in shape and elaborated by a myriad of details. The intricacy and animated inventiveness of the piece is astonishing as is the genesis of its creation.

Magical Trumpets, a brand new piece for 12 trumpets commissioned by Tanglewood for this summer’s Contemporary Music Festival, was performed for the first time just two weeks ago. Scintillating, vital, brilliantly polychrome, preternaturally virtuosic, it betrayed nothing of old age or failing health. On the contrary it was full of fun and optimistic brilliance.

Composer Margaret McAllister, close friend of Schuller, told me that, “Gunther was composing in the morning the day before he passed (just sketching out ideas). He had completed all his outstanding commissions (23 compositions in two to three years!) and was looking forward to other projects.” Gunther’s sons Edwin and George estimate that he completed well over 180 compositions during his lifetime.

In the end it is the massive creative achievement, the feverish energy, the inexhaustible curiosity, the openness to new experience, the enduring generosity and support for friends and colleagues that begin to define the man. I say “begin” because the details are infinite and they inflect every moment of this individual’s life.

I conclude with a paraphrase of Beethoven’s words about Mozart: We shall never see the likes of him again.