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'Of Reminiscences and Reflections': 75 Years of Gunther Schuller

By Anthony Cheung, Contributing Writer

Gunther Schuller, a legendary figure in American music, celebrates his 75th birthday this month. For nearly 60 years, as a performer, composer, conductor, educator and historian, he has contributed to the musical vitality of America through his innumerable accomplishments.

Growing up in New York City, Schuller was at first indifferent to the musical opportunities that surrounded him. "I not only wasn't interested, I didn't have any talent," the long-time Boston resident said in an interview with The Crimson. His father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, though, and it was through attending many concerts that Schuller started collecting records at the age of 13. "By 16, I had two or three thousand recordings. Composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin--they were my initial influences. They precipitated my harmonic and rhythmic styles."

Schuller originally played the flute, but switched to the French horn at age 14. Two years later he made his debut when the New York Philharmonic hired him as an extra horn player in the legendary premiere of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The precocious musician was then hired at the tender age of 17 as principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony. The orchestra's music director, Eugene Goossens, was a major influence. "He was a great mentor, and he supported my composing. He arranged for my professional debut as a composer, when he arranged for me to play my own horn concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1945."

The other conductor Schuller acknowledges is Dmitri Mitropoulos, who was the music director of the New York Philharmonic at the time. "Mitropoulos really put me on the map when he conducted two pieces of mine in a season, which was unheard of. Next thing I know, I'm getting congratulatory letters from the leading American composers of the day, like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. I was completely unknown at the time."

Throughout these years, besides writing music that he describes as a "beautiful amalgam of Stravinsky and Schoenberg," Schuller followed closely the fascinating developments in jazz. "In those days, you could hear a tremendous amount of jazz on the radio. This was the heyday of the swing era; jazz was the total popular music of the United States...When I first heard [Duke Ellington], I knew right away, and declared that he was just as great as Beethoven. I still stand by that. If you analyze that music, in terms of the quality and the inspiration of the music, you come out equal. I could demonstrate to anyone who cares to see...I immediately, without any question, felt and decided and knew that jazz was in the hands of its greatest practitioners, that this was a great music. Most of the classical world thought it was stupid, though."

Through his interest in jazz, Schuller met the pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and then proceeded to meet all of the jazz greats of the day, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. He also played french horn on the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums, Birth of the Cool (1950) and Porgy and Bess (1958).

Schuller's love of both the classical and jazz idioms prompted him to envision a reconciliation and integration of the two. At a lecture at Brandeis University in 1957, he coined the term "Third Stream." Influenced by compositions of Milhaud, Honneger and Krenek from the 1920s, as well as Ellington, Woody Herman and the more recent experiments of Stan Kenton, Schuller "realized that there was already a potential development and tradition, which could and should lead to the coming together of classical and jazz, which essentially were being segregated by the institutions of music. I call it Third Stream because I had a silly idea of the First and Second streams [classical and jazz] getting married and giving birth to a child, which is Third stream."

Schuller has no particular sound or aesthetic ideal when it comes to Third Stream music. "It's totally open; that's the whole beauty. I'm not interested in anything that's closed. We all approached it in different ways. It's a music which enables the creation of unique musical profiles." Indeed, compositions as diverse as Milton Babbitt's dodecaphonic All Set and John Lewis' Three Little Feelings are both considered Third Stream. Reflecting on what has become of the movement, Schuller says, "Now it's become like 10,000th stream, because ethnic and folk and vernacular music is introduced. It's no longer called Third Stream, and I don't care about that. It's finally reached a full flowering."

As a composer, Schuller has written over 180 works in virtually every genre. His tight schedule forces him to compose in his limited free time. "Because I'm on the road all the time, I compose in airplanes, hotel lobbies, bathrooms, you name it. I'm not one of those who has been able to sit at home and write." Schuller's beautifully crafted works have been played by some of the finest performers and orchestras in the world. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Of Reminiscences and Reflections, and his early work, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee , is a classic.

Schuller has also established himself as a leading conductor. He is known for his controversial but influential views on conducting. "I really believe in a philosophy which has total, unequivocal respect for the composer and for the score. I reject the word 'interpretation.' My whole way of conducting is to do exactly and imaginatively what the composer has written. I don't follow some tradition or recording that some famous conductor did ten years ago. My book, The Complacent Conductor, has been attacked by thousands of conductors. They put their egos first, in a way saying, 'Look, I'm better. Beethoven needs a fermata here,' rather than trusting the score completely. I'm in hot water with thousands of people today because of this."

Kristina Nilsson, concertmaster of the Pro Arte Orchestra of Boston, which Schuller conducts, describes Schuller as an "iconoclast" in the conducting profession, but says he "doesn't second-guess composers." Fellow composer and Harvard Professor Bernard Rands, whose own works have been conducted by Schuller, acknowledges Schuller's influence while lamenting, "In keeping with the perverse tradition of appointing only non-Americans to the directorships of our major orchestras, Schuller has been denied the mechanism through which he might have been an even more influential figure in American musical life."

The field of education, however, is one in which Schuller has no critics. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University, the Lenox School of Jazz, and was artistic director of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood for a number of years. As president of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1967 to 1977, he started groundbreaking jazz and ragtime programs. His various books, such as Early Jazz, The Swing Era and Horn Technique, have also been widely praised as landmarks in musical scholarship.

Whether he is publishing works of his colleagues or championing new works on the podium, Schuller is universally recognized as a selfless and tireless advocate of deserving music. Professor Rands is glowing in his praise: "[He is] completely without affectation, a man of his word; an indefatigable worker on behalf of music and musicians and a thorough professional from head to toe...He has dedicated his life to music and as such is an exemplary mentor and inspiration." Tom Haunton, principal french hornist with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and a former student of Schuller's at NEC, says, "I would always want to play at my peak when I go in there to play with him...There are few people who are I think as well versed in almost any aspect of performance and music." And Nilsson shares that admiration and respect: "We feel like we're in a classroom learning, and him educating-in the best sense of the word."

One need only read Mr. Schuller's response to what he thinks his musical credo is to see why he is so deserving of all the praise: "I don't think of music except in the most altruistic and idealistic sense. It's an art, or what the Germans call heilige kunst, or 'holy art.' That's why I create publishing companies and record companies; it has to do with helping composers, performers, etc. I've always believed in the creed of making music for the sake of the art. Whether I starve or make money is irrelevant."

Gunther Schuller will be conducting the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Sanders Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 26, at 3 pm, in a program of works by Grieg, Vanhal and Dittersdorf, as well as a world premiere by Theodore Antoniou.

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