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Gunther Schuller, 1925-2015


Composer, educator, classical / jazz crossover artist and promoter, French horn virtuoso, conductor, writer and historian, indeed musical giant of the widest-ranging sort, Gunther Schuller died last Sunday in Boston, age 89.

Gunther Schuller in 2011 (BMint Staff Photo)
Gunther Schuller in 2011 (BMint Staff Photo)

Born in NYC into a family of classical musicians, he became a jazz hound in high school, telling his NY Philharmonic violinist father “I heard some Duke Ellington last night [on the radio], and that music is as great as Beethoven’s and Mozart’s. He almost had a heart attack.” He went on to blow his horn with the ABT and Cincinnati and eventually the Met orchestras, as well as in NYC bebop groups at the most exalted levels. In 1967 he turned from performance to presidency of NEC, instituting jazz degrees and helping spur the Joplin revival among much else. His heart and mind also remained solidly and intricately in modern classical idioms; he received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his Of Reminiscences and Reflections written for the Louisville Orchestra, and a MacArthur Grant in 1991. He completed 19 commissions since 2012.

Initial good life survey and obituary writeups are here and here; naturally there will be longer, detailed appreciations this week in all of the usual places. BMInt’s coverage begins here and works backward, but first see this birthday summary as well as a remarkable recent interview of our fertile, influential, beloved, towering figure.


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

  1. This seems most complete thus far:

    Comment by David Moran — June 22, 2015 at 2:03 am

  2. The New York Times obituary made no mention of his wife Marjorie (nee Black), who died in 1992 after 49 years of marriage. “We had chemistry,” he once told me, and the smile on his face showed he meant it. She was a singer. Her presence in his life is reflected in the name of his publishing company, Margun Music. One spring afternoon, when I picked him up to take him to a concert, or perhaps it was a Chinese dinner, I admired the tulips blooming in his yard. He told me that she loved gardening and had planted them. He liked seeing them come back into bloom each year.

    Comment by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely — June 22, 2015 at 2:37 pm

  3. Sure it does.

    This too is nice, drawing on his writing:

    Comment by David Moran — June 22, 2015 at 3:02 pm

  4. We salute our recently departed friend Gunther Schuller, one of the major figures in the history of American music. Perhaps best known for his efforts to bring American jazz and its musicians onto the map of “serious” music, he was also a friend and supporter of many musical styles and modes of expression.

    He expressed support very early on for Camerata’s efforts, writing us a letter of congratulations on our first production of “A Renaissance Christmas,” circa 1971. Then, when Camerata separated from the Museum of Fine Arts circa 1974, he offered us a new performing home. As then-president of the New England Conservatory, he proposed that Camerata present regular concerts at the school’s splendid Jordan Hall, and so we did for several seasons, until his departure from NEC.

    He also honored us by transcribing from the Nonesuch LP, and then publishing it, our performance of “A Medieval Christmas.” What a tour de force! He had previously done this for important jazz musicians, including the recently deceased Ornette Coleman. “Classically trained musicians take music more seriously when it’s written down,” he said to me. “Early music like yours needs to be seen as something carefully considered and developed.” And indeed, his meticulously detailed score for “Medieval Christmas,” which won an award for oustanding music publication, superficially looked more in places like Brahms than Perotin.

    Then, many years later, he helped us put together a pit band for the production of Kurt Weill’s musical, Johnny Johnson. Gunther knew all the best players, and the resulting team was superb, helping the recording to receive several critical awards and distinctions.

    The Gunther we knew had a big heart, a generous disposition, an open and continuously probing mind, and a prodigious musical gift. What a man! There will never be another quite like him. Rest in peace, dear friend, and bravo.

    Joel Cohen

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 22, 2015 at 5:14 pm

  5. It was a blow to hear of Gunther Schuller’s passing on Sunday. He’s been in poor health in recent years, but with an astonishing philosophical patience about his medical problems, Gunther remained positive and working at his lifelong marathon pace and produced a tremendous amount of music at his highest level. To speak with him would only give the slightest indication that all was not physically well with him.

    I am very proud that Gunther agreed to be the New England Philharmonic’s Composer Laureate. (When I asked him, he said, “Do you really think I would say, ‘No?’”) This resulted in our programming a work by Gunther every season, for the most part works that had not received recent performances and/or had never been performed in Boston.

    I am comforted by the fact that Gunther was able to attend our performance of his very early Meditation on May 2 and that he found the performance beautiful – very high praise from the consummate, demanding musician he was. Moreover, although he planned to leave our concert after his piece, he decided to stay to the end because he was enjoying it so much. Gunther loved Rachmaninoff and he was very pleased with NEP’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Gunther told me that he had conducted the Symphonic Dances five times in his life and always had difficulty getting the orchestras to play the syncopations accurately.

    The last words Gunther said to me at the end of the evening were, “Vielen, vielen, vielen Dank.” (Many, many, many thanks.) Since he and I were both German speakers, our exchanges were often peppered with “Germanisms.”

    On a personal note, Gunther brought me to Boston from the Eastman School faculty to start a second student orchestra (the Repertory Orchestra) at the New England Conservatory. Two years later he made me the Orchestral Conducting Teacher.

    I could write volumes about Gunther’s genius and his many brilliant talents and accomplishments. He was great at so many things. His greatest contribution to the world is the enormous number of great works he composed. For me his two most outstanding traits as a human being were his tremendous enthusiasm and love for music (unmatched by anyone in my acquaintance) and the seriousness with which he took not only the musical world but the entire world (human, political and geographical) and the way he worked long hours every day of his life to make things better.

    I and all the musicians with whom I’ve worked have grown as musicians every time he attended a rehearsal of his music with us. He was a great man and left behind a rich legacy to all of us who had the privilege to know him.

    Comment by Richard Pittman — June 24, 2015 at 8:51 am

  6. I met Gunther Schuller some years ago through Pro Arte Orchestra and had a number of chats with him recalling how delightful they were especially when we tuned in on concerts of the past we felt were classics such as the incomparable BSO/Monteux Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” as an example. For me musically my first two encounters with his music were the “7 studies on themes of Paul Klee” I loved (especially the haunting Pastorale) and later on his magnificent Atlantic LP “Jazz Abstractions”. My musical world and life were transformed by them and remain cornerstones to this day.

    Comment by Peter Barkley — June 27, 2015 at 7:00 pm

  7. Lee was hoping that this tribute would engender reminiscences, and what wonderful ones it has called forth. They were a delight to read, and I look forward to more. My last conversation with Gunther was when he asked me to correct some of what he considered were misconceptions in the review of his Dreamscape with the BSO in April. He wished to make it clear that he thought the review a good one, but he had a few quibbles with comments on the genesis of the idea and its realization in this performance. My impression at the time was that he cared so deeply that what he surely must have felt was close to the last performance of one of his pieces that he would hear, and certainly the last one performed by the BSO, would be understood.

    We all know his love of many musical genres and the whimsy and intelligence that emerges from his compositions. One of my fondest memories is of the performance of his composition inspired by paintings of Paul Klee at Tanglewood a few years ago. I have a photograph of him by my computer in Boston, of that birthday cake I made for him that Lee and I delivered, which he whimsically suggested he cut with a pair of scissors. He inscribed the photo to me, “In friendship.” Indeed. And thanks to recordings and YouTube, I can enjoy his music and commentary, over and over.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 30, 2015 at 7:47 pm

  8. And more:

    Comment by David Moran — July 1, 2015 at 12:31 am

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