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Upcoming Schuller Performances Provoke His Ruminations on 12-Tone Music


Noting that two concerts featuring works by Gunther Schuller are being performed at Jordan Hall in the next ten days, first by the Borromeo String Quartet on November 30, then by New England String Ensemble on December 6, BMInt staff interviewed a hale and hearty Schuller on November 24, the day after his 84th birthday. The stereo was playing Sibelius’ 1st Symphony when they arrived. Mr. Schuller was immediately didactic: “Do you know who’s conducting? Look. Who are the two greatest conductors today?” (It turned out to be Osmo Antero Vänskä.) “Most interpretations are so slow and draggy. This guy makes it like an operatic drama, the way Sibelius wrote it.” With pieces of his birthday cake, brought by BMInt staff, the interview began. Listen to an excerpt here.

Happy 84th Birthday! (BMInt Staff Photo)
Happy 84th Birthday! (BMInt Staff Photo)

How did the Borromeo Quartet come to be playing your fourth quartet in a few days, then recording all four quartets soon after?

Ah, I have almost nothing to do with that. First of all, they did play my third quartet three or four years ago, and I think they played it something like 20 times, including what I consider the best performance of the third quartet that ever happened — in Jordan Hall. They played it beautifully. The Borromeo is one of the two or three best quartets in the United States— just marvelous. Nicholas [Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo] and a young composer who was at the Conservatory, his name is Mohammed Fairouz — he’s very talented he’s only 24 years old, and he’s written already an immense amount of music and happens to be a fan of mine — he and Nicholas are good friends, and he once mentioned my upcoming birthdays — this is only eighty-four — but the next one will really be the big one. So they came up with this scheme of doing all four of my quartets, and not just once, but several times. So that’s how it started.

Fairouz has a piece on the November 30 Borromeo program, too?


Yes, they are playing his Lamentations and Satire, along with both Bartok’s and my fourth string quartets.

Your quartets are not exactly new music; over what period were they written?

The fourth is only, well now, it’s actually six years old! It was written for the Julliard Quartet.

When was the first written?

The first was written in 1957.


Stylistically, do they change very much?


No. No! I don’t change stylistically. My music is  virtually the same stylistically, linguistically, as it was when I was 19 years old.  It’s of course, I’d like to think, more mature, better organized, and so on, and of course it’s more complex. It’s become more complex over the years. But stylistically? No. No. The thing, is I am so proud of these four quartets partly because each one of ’em is totally different in character. But not in style.

By style, do you mean tonal language?

I mean, yeah, well no. My language is always atonal, 12-tone, most of the time. So I just mean that; that’s what we mean by style. C major or tonal music is a style, right? But Beethoven wrote 32 different string quartets. None of ’em sound alike, and that’s my model. In everything. Mozart and those guys.

When you write in this very complex modern language that we have — I prefer to call it a language, rather than a style — and when you work with certain techniques like 12-tone,  there is certainly the danger that successive pieces could sound alike, just because you’re dealing with so  many sort-of rules of behavior. Although you work with rules in classical music, too —  Boy! were they strict. My goodness, they were more strict than what we have  — but anyway, there’s always this danger that you will repeat yourself, you know.

The first quartet, as I said, was written in 1957. The next was 1965.  I wrote the second quartet in seven days on a transatlantic trip on the Europa — oh, no! The New Amsterdam. The third quartet was dedicated to Louis Krasner, who was retiring from his teaching at the Conservatory and other things, and then the last quartet was for the Julliard. They are all, they are in my language, this is what I am proud of, and yet they are distinct animals. Different breeds.


On to the upcoming performance of another work of yours:  You made a remark about liking to use double sharps, just for fun.* I have figured out that you like being provocative —

No. No! People say that, but I don’t think of myself as being provocative… I say this in all seriousness, it’s just that I am a very honest person; I don’t mince words. You could say even that I’m outspoken, but that’s because I think I am congenitally incapable of lying or dissembling, or avoiding. If someone asks me a Q, I am going to answer that question, even if it hurts. So If that’s provocative, I don’t know, I think that’s a misuse of that word.

What I was thinking of, is about the Ode to the minor 2nd and major 7th that is to be played at the New England String Ensemble concert on Dec. 6.


That’s not provocative! That’s didactic!


Okay …


No. Because, look. Let me tell you why? Here’s something. I am the only person in the world that I know of who makes an issue of the fact that when we write in so-called dissonant intervals, like the minor 2nd, or the major 7th, or the minor 9th, and we do that all the time — by the way, Bach wrote them, already, Mozart,… but they had to resolve the dissonances. We don’t have to resolve them any more. Let’s say, a minor second is played by two musicians, D and C# right next to each other, one of those musicians, I guarantee you, one  will —

will hold back —

Yes, will pull back from that note. And that is human nature with most people. They just don’t like dissonances, so they try somehow to back off, or avoid them. A lot of musicians will tell you, I HATE dissonances!  They like to play major thirds, and major sixths. No, no. That’s a fact. Some people actually admit it. But I have noticed over the last 65 years, in all my music-making, my playing, my conducting, hundreds of orchestras, when there are dissonances and musicians hear there is a dissonance, one of them will back away, a whole section will back away, differently, to one degree of another. And I am so tired of this.

By the way, I should say the word dissonance doesn’t exist for me. Not in music. The minor 2nd is a consonance for me! the word dissonance came into being when there was only tonal music, and the dissonances that came along had to have a name. And they had to be resolved, as I said before. But atonal music is full of dissonances that came about of chromaticism, which came along in Wagner’s time, and Brahms’s,… Even then at age 11 or 12, these were not dissonances for me. When I started to play Scriabin’s music on the piano, or try to, or Stravinsky, I just loved all those sounds! I couldn’t understand that dissonance was understood to be something nasty, bad!

It’s the nature-nurture question: are we wired for tonality or are we trained?


Ah, that’s a good question!

Anyway, this little four-minute piece is composed entirely, almost entirely, of minor seconds, major 7th, and minor 9ths, and it’s very slow, Adagio, to that there’s no big technical difficulty in the piece, so musicians can really concentrate on balancing all these dissonances and playing, finally, playing the dissonances with feeling, and understanding them, and liking them, and loving them, and that’s what happens. So far the piece has been played quite a few times. And every time, by the time these young musicians are through with it, they love it! O my God. that’s a major symph— that’s beautiful. I don’t tell them that. I just tell them why I wrote the piece. If that’s provocative, I don’t know.

I want to read to you what Federico Cortese [Music director of New England String Ensemble] says of it, “The whole thing is of course charming, conceived for student orchestra, an inviting piece, asking ‘how you can succeed in endearing a piece based on the hardest interval? How does one create an attractive, pleasing sound based on minor second and major 7th?’

That was sort of a subtext, subtitle to my piece. I wanted to show that all these so-called horrible dissonances, intervals, you know, you can make very beautiful, what other people would call even beautiful music!

Do you think it’s necessary, though, to explain ahead of time to an audience, to prepare them so that they should open their minds a bit?

I have done that, at request, sometimes I feel it is necessary. to tell people why I wrote this piece, why does it have this weird title? An ‘Ode to the Minor 2nd and Major 7th’? That’s going to raise some questions in the average lay listener.

That’s what I mean by ‘provocative.’ Provokes questions.

Oh! I see. That’s a good way. That’s a good sense of the word ‘provocative. People use it mostly as, you know, ‘in your face.’ …

But what we’ve done very often and I hope Fed will do this, play the piece again, right away. Because the first time, people are sitting there, a little bit amazed, not quite —. But the second time, they are much more relaxed.

It’s a two-hour piece?

[general laughter]
No! it’s a four-minute piece.

* This is the first of two articles from the interview. The second will contain Mr. Schuller’s roles at New England Conservatory and Pro Musicis, along with more of his musical analysis. Prt Two is HERE.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Beethoven actually wrote SIXTEEN, not 32 String Quartets (plus the String Quartet Movement Op 133 called the “Grosse Fugue” and an arrangment of one of his piano sonatas for SQ).

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — November 27, 2009 at 3:27 pm

  2. You are right. He said quartet, but he meant sonatas. He knows this, we know this, and we should have caught it. We didn’t. So, thank you!

    Our hope with this, and subsequent excerpts of this interview, is to keep the conversational tone. I do hope that doesn’t mean we miss more obvious errors.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — November 28, 2009 at 2:55 pm

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