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Gunther Schuller

By Samuel Adler

The term “Renaissance man” is too often battered around as designated for a person who really doesn’t deserve the title. However, if that designation is given for Gunther Schuller—the man, the composer, the educator, arranger, author, publisher, performer, recording artist, and virtuoso teacher, it would certainly be used correctly. Here was a man of extraordinary musical and artistic talents which came to life at a very early age. Simply as a French horn player he made history as the youngest principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony at the age of sixteen and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra only four years later.

He was trained as a horn performer but completely self-taught in all other musical skills. I remember once talking to him and he telling me the story of checking out as many orchestral scores from the New York Public Library as were permitted and studying them on the subway on his way to gigs all over the city. As he once said to me also, “I ate up every page of every score.” That was his study of composition. Besides playing at the Metropolitan and in many small ensembles, he fell in love with the jazz scene in New York and became very close friends with many of the greats like Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and so many others.

This love of jazz led to quite a few of his own compositions that were to include jazz elements. This is not what is today called “cross-over” but his original jazz compositions like Tear Drop or Jumpin’ in the Future epitomized his new thinking of a new genre that he called Third Stream, which combines a total chromatic musical language of structural sophistication with the ensemble fluidity of swing and jazz.

The friendship of Gunther and myself had a very strange genesis. In 1965 he came to Dallas, Texas, to conduct the Dallas Symphony in his first symphony. I was living there at the time and was the chair of the Texas Composers Alliance. To celebrate his being in Texas, we organized a dinner and a concert in his honor. At the dinner I remember speaking and my subject was the composer in the provinces as compared, of course, to the composer in the exalted Northeast. At the concert I conducted two of Gunther’s works and one of my piano trios was included in that concert. I drove Gunther back to his hotel and on the way he said, “You know, Sam, I like you very much. I wish I could like your music which I really hate.” I must admit I was quite taken aback by the comment. The rest of our conversation was a bit strained. Ten years later, out of the blue, Gunther called me and told me he had just heard my Fifth Symphony and absolutely loved it. Well, again I was taken aback; this was a shock. But he also wanted to meet and discuss more about our common heritage. That intrigued me. This common heritage, I found out, was that we both had our early education in Germany during the first years of the Hitler regime. We had a very long meeting in Boston and forged a bond which was to last for the rest of his life. Not only did we meet quite often, but we ran a youth orchestra festival all over the country and in Canada for many years and I, more and more, understood that first comment he made to me about my own music.

Gunther was a man with uncompromising conviction and uncompromising standards. His book on conducting, called The Compleat Conductor, contains one of the most direct assaults on most professional conductors and he lost the friendship of all of them. In the book, Gunther claimed that most conductors don’t know or don’t care about the composer’s wishes. To prove his point, the book is accompanied by a CD of his own conducting of Brahms’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth. And it certainly is different and quite illuminating in concept compared to the realization of those works by most conductors—that’s why he lost their friendship.

His speeches and his essays on music education and music esthetics all completely fly into the face of the norms established by lesser talents. This was also true of his compositions. He always strove for the highest standard no matter what the difficulty was in performing his music. It always showed the technique of a superb musician writing for performers he knew could handle the task.

I don’t think that Gunther ever spent a day not working on his art. I remember an incident being in Mexico at a board meeting. Though all of us knew that he was there, we couldn’t locate him because he never attended any meetings. When I asked him why he did not attend, he answered that he located, just before he came to Mexico, the score of the G Minor Symphony of Mozart that the composer himself had arranged for string sextet, and it had to be recopied so he could publish it with his own publishing firm called Margun. This was his work ethic and I don’t think there’s another composer in America who has the depth and breadth of a catalogue such as Gunther’s. Not only are there hundreds of original works but many arrangements of very important works of the past and present that now are available because of his editing and his publishing.

I mentioned earlier his great concern about music education. As an educator he took over the leadership of the New England Conservatory and made it into one of the leading centers of classical as well as jazz music education in our country. He also taught at Yale, the Manhattan School of Music, and, when I took a semester leave at the Eastman School, he was kind enough to teach in my place. Besides these assignments he took over from Aaron Copland to run the school at Tanglewood in the summer and kept that affiliation—writing works for the summer series until 2014. To complete this part of the story, Gunther wrote twenty works between 2012 and 2014.

The love of his life was Marjorie Black to whom he was married for forty-nine years. To me, his most beautiful works were written in her memory: Reminiscences and Reflections, which so deservedly won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, and The Past is Present, written in 1994, for the centenary of the Cincinnati Orchestra, where he started his career.

In his autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, he spends a great deal of time reflecting on the meaningful life Margery and he had together and the memorable experiences they shared—a most moving tribute to his life’s partner. Gunther was a man of exquisite taste, not only in music but in literature, the plastic arts, the theater, and film. His passing has put an end to one of the most creative artists we have ever had in American music. A man who will be remembered for his tremendous contribution to every part of our musical life and as an example of the very best in our culture.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

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