Gunther Schuller: A Life in Music (University of Miami, SCORE Magazine)

Not many musicians can boast of playing under the baton of masters such as Arturo Toscanini, Frederic “Fritz” Reiner, and Pierre Monteux and having recorded with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. But also being a teacher, a record producer, publisher, and arts administrator — all while also composing symphonic works, chamber music, and developing an overarching musical concept called Third Stream, a term coined to define a fusion of European classical music and jazz. And then, consider receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a Pulitzer Prize in composition, three GRAMMYs, and enough awards and honorary degrees to fill a few shelves.
For mere mortals, it’s a mind-boggling proposition.
Then again, there is only one Gunther Schuller.

It’s been a life in music of extraordinary breadth and depth, the result of having “this voracious appetite for anything and everything musical,” says Schuller in an interview prior to his visit to the Frost School of Music, from September 30 to October 2, as part of the 2011 Festival Miami. Master French Horn player Richard Todd, an associate professor at Frost School of Music and former Schuller student who played an instrumental role in Schuller’s appearance, put it succinctly: “Gunther is the greatest musical mind in America.”
“There’s just nobody who’s accomplished more, or has contributed more [in music] in so many different ways,” he said in an interview previewing Schuller’s visit. “I’m not sure I had one specific thing in mind [for his appearance],” explained Todd. “It’s the idea that listening to Gunther talk, you get exposed to a different way of looking at things.”

Todd was the soloist in the premiere recording of  Schuller’s Concerto No 1 for Horn and Orchestra, chosen personally by the composer for that role and performed at Festival Miami’s opening night concert on Schuller’s French Horn, which Todd now owns. The Frost Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sleeper accompanied Todd in the performances of the Concerto and Tood’s CeLebrAtiOn, a piece commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2008. The following evening, Schuller conducted The Frost Chamber Players in Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde. The evening of chamber music also included Schuller’s Quintet for Horn and Strings, which featured Todd and the Frost School’s Bergonzi String Quartet.

The chamber music concert was a special event for Ross Harbaugh, Frost professor of cello and chamber music, director of the Strings Program, and a member of the Bergonzi String Quartet. Harbaugh worked with Schuller at Tanglewood in the summer of 1969. “It was as if I picked up from where I had left off in learning from him,” Harbaugh says, noting that Schuller “has mellowed in the intervening years,” he noted. “And what is coming through now is an intense love of music, of the people who make it and the process of rediscovering it every performance.”

It’s a love that, luckily, transcended and ignored established notions of musical style and cultural value.
Having been brought up in a classical music environment — his father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic — Schuller’s epiphanic encounter with jazz, and his insightful and generous appreciation of the music and its creators seems to set the tone for his life in music.
In his autobiography, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty (University of Rochester Press), published in October, Schuller describes at length the eureka moment of hearing, on a radio broadcast, the music of Duke Ellington, live from the Cotton Club. Schuller recalls dryly that when told the next day of this great discovery, his father “nearly had a heart attack.”

“But that ‘Ellington moment’ was just one of those moments,” said Schuller says. “Then I began to have some additional experiences like discovering what we call vernacular music or ethnic music or folk music. I heard music from Africa or Norwegian fiddle music and it was very good music. It just wasn’t written by Beethoven. So OK, it was not 55 minutes long like the Eroica Symphony. It was short, and in some cases, it was improvised but, as with the music in those incredible Ellington broadcasts, in every respect by which you analyze a piece of music — the rhythm, the melody, the form, the clarity, the continuity, the orchestration, it all came out great.”
This notion of the equal value of such varied musical expressions, otherwise looked upon as of very dissimilar importance, “came right away,” said Schuller matter-of-factly.
“I was living in New York City and I started going to these places where you could buy North African music, Tunisian music, or bouzouki music from Greece while I was still a teenager,” he recalled. “For me, all these kinds of music were equal because the criteria by which I evaluate a piece of music: It has some meaning, it has to have some expression, it has to be well put together and 300,000 ethnic kinds of music on the face of this globe do in fact do that.”

Schuller’s career as a player includes appointments as principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and, for 15 years, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained until 1958. He stopped playing the horn in 1963 to focus, mostly, on composing and conducting. Having played under the batons of personalities such as Fritz Reiner, Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, Schuller developed a pointed perspective regarding the role of the conductor.
“Conductors can easily be, almost by definition, very egotistical,” he says. “They think if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t even have music. I played with at least 120 conductors in their heyday. I played with great conductors and I’ve played with some of the worst conductors.”

Not surprisingly both, Schuller’s book on conducting and his autobiography, include scathing critiques of some sacred cows.
“I didn’t criticize them personally, I criticize them because they did not do what the composer wrote. That’s it,” he says unapologetically. “Some of these conductors, some of these exhibitionistic conductors, they think they can improve the music. I just spoke for respect for the composer.”
He noted that 17 years after publication, “not one conductor has challenged me … on anything I said. And the reason is they can’t. Because on the left side of the book is what Beethoven wrote and on the right side is what some conductor actually did and said. Well, guess what, the recording doesn’t lie, it’s fixed; the score doesn’t lie, it’s fixed. And you check and these two things don’t fit. It’s nothing personal. I’m just coming back to this humility towards these great composers. These people don’t realize they wouldn’t have a job if Beethoven hadn’t written all this music.”
Told of the quote, Todd chuckled as he admiringly discussed Schuller.
“He embodies something about the purity of what this [work in music] is,” he said. “What I always respected and loved, and admired about Gunther is that he never takes [guff] from anybody. He has never been shy about alienating people. His approach is to deal with the truth, and the truth is what is here in the score. That’s it.”

Asked about his favorite approach to conducting, Schuller is fond of quoting Reiner, the longtime conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, who called his work “conducting traffic.”
“Which is true — but there is a bit more to it than that, of course,” he elaborates. “ What Reiner taught and in fact lived by, was the axiom that the best conducting, the finest conducting is when a minimum of physical exertion produces a maximum result. He conducted in such a modest and small way. His idea was, and Reiner said to us many times, ‘Look, you play the music. You are the musicians. I just guide the traffic.’ And he did so by his simple, clear beat — and he was a genius. He knew every note in every piece of music he conducted by memory, although he used the score always. It’s this modest humble approach that serves the music best.”

He clearly still resents some conductors who asked him to play the music “wrongly.” But then, those are the experiences that have shaped his approach to conducting.
“Conductors like Reiner, like Max Rudolf, or Pierre Monteux who had a simple, clear approach to conducting, said ‘Look, I conduct and you play the music. It’s your job to play piano (softly) I don’t have to show you that it’s piano. It’s your job and my job that it’s played piano. But you are putting the air into the instrument so you have to do it.’ So it was the simple direct approach that I said right away: ‘I’m a modest person vis a vis the music. ‘ The great music is sacred to me. I wouldn’t tinker around it. Ever. I don’t want anybody tinkering around with my music either.”

In addition to his career in classical music, Schuller also had a full, nearly parallel life in jazz, participating in epochal recordings such as those with the Miles Davis Nonet that make up what is now known as the Birth of the Cool or, later on, the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration masterpiece Porgy and Bess. And he also established long, significant collaborations and friendships with artists such as pianist and composer John Lewis (of Modern Jazz Quartet fame), pianist Bill Evans (who visited Schuller at his apartment to read four-hand transcriptions of the entire Wagner Ring), Davis (who Schuller tried to help with his trumpet embouchure) or Charlie Parker, who asked Schuller for lessons and was interested in the music of Bartok and Stravinsky.

Given his love for classical music and jazz, and the ease and effectiveness with which he moved in either genre, it was only natural that Schuller would speak up of a Third Stream, and with it, unwittingly coin a term. For Schuller, it was not just an intellectual construct but also a natural expression of a lived-in point of view.

“The idea of Third Stream was more about an American problem because jazz and classical music were completely segregated,” Schuller says. “And I use that word rather than separated. That was inadmissible to me. How can you say Beethoven is great and Duke Ellington is nothing – or vice versa? So for me [the issue] was to bring these musics together.”
In fact, Schuller points out that well before the term Third Stream became fixated into a musical category by a New York Times headline, jazz, and classical music had come together earlier in the 1920s, “and nobody seems to remember that.” In fact, that’s why he explained, he chose for his appearance at Festival Miami to conduct a performance of Milhaud’s La Création du Monde.

“It’s a jazz-influenced work, and what I was trying to say [with Third Stream] was ‘Look this is not something entirely new, but now let’s bring these musics together again and this time let’s include improvisation, because [the attempts] in the 1920s … had no improvisation. The composers didn’t know that’s what is supposed to be. So I was talking about something ongoing not as a label. But I always had the idea that it wouldn’t be just jazz and classical. It could be Greek bouzouki music and classical; or Turkish dance music and classical and jazz and all that has in fact happened, eventually, gradually, over the last 60 years.”

For all his different activities over the years, one constant in Schuller’s life has been his work as an educator. A self-described high school dropout and “eternal student,” Schuller has taught at Yale University, the Manhattan School of Music, the New England Conservatory (becoming its president in the 1960s), and the Tanglewood Music Center. Even in a phone interview, he makes certain points passionately and, as good teachers are known to do, avoids connecting the dots for his listener, but rather inspires a curiosity for how they might.

For Schuller, teaching is “very simple: I take every student and look at what they can do, and what they can’t do, what they know, what they don’t know. And then I just work.”
“I have worked in every arena of music,” he said matter-of-factly. “So I apply my accumulated knowledge and experience to whatever problem this student has. I don’t come with a pre-planned ‘I’ll just do this and this and this.’ I see what the composer or the horn player or the violinist lack or what they excel in and I teach on that basis,” he says before pausing.
And then, for the first time in the conversation, Gunther Schuller says: “I’m proud of that.”


And edited version of this feature appeared in the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s SCORE Magazine, Spring 2012

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *