History will rightly remember Gunther Schuller as an important composer, conductor, author and teacher. But many organizations he so generously helped will remember him as a wonderful mentor and friend.
Pro Musicis is one of these organizations. In 1965 Father Eugène Merlet, a French Capuchin-Franciscan priest and musician (organ and piano), founded Pro Musicis, pioneering the concept of a classical music award combined with a social mission. He wanted to give exceptional concert musicians an opportunity to mature in their artistry by performing both in concert halls and in community service venues: prisons, hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, shelters for the homeless, centers for the disabled.
In the mid-1970s Father Merlet, seeking to establish Pro Musicis in the US, asked Schuller to chair the jury responsible for selecting artists for the Pro Musicis International Award. Schuller agreed. This was the beginning of a deep friendship spanning almost four decades and resulting in an extraordinary roster of nearly 100 artists from more than 20 countries. Describing the award, Schuller said: “The emphasis is on choosing artists who are readily committed by their nature and talent to a much broader and deeper involvement with music.”
Since 1990 I had the privilege of working with Schuller. In one of our last conversations, he said: “Looking back I realize that Pro Musicis has been only a small part of my life, but one that means a lot and is very important to me. Sometimes people ask me why I devote so much time to Pro Musicis. I respond, How can I not? Father Merlet’s whole concept appeals to me. It has a religious aspect inspired by Saint Francis, respects the gifts of the artists, and shares the beauty of classical music with people who otherwise would never heard it.”
Schuller’s contributions to Pro Musicis were many. He served on the board of directors from 1983 until 2002, and volunteered as artistic director on numerous occasions. He listened to scores of recordings submitted by applicants and spent hours consulting with his colleagues to select finalists for the auditions. During his tenure as chair of the jury, he ran more than 30 auditions in New York City and several in Paris. It was a marvel to witness him lead deliberations with jurors like Jacob Avshalomov, Bethany Beardslee, Martin Bookspan, Michel Debost, John de Lancie, André Emelianoff, Margo Garrett, Byron Janis, Gilbert Kalish, Louis Krasner, Mark Kroll, David Leisner, Sol Schoenbach, Lucy Shelton, Russell Sherman, Joel Smirnoff, and Frederica von Stade. Despite strong differences of opinion, he managed to achieve consensus, selecting yet another group of stellar artists. Schuller didn’t ask for much, just a ham and cheese on rye mit pickle. You can bet he wasn’t happy the one time I forgot the pickle!
At our 30th-anniversary gala in 1996, we honored Schuller with the Francis of Assisi award “for outstanding service to Pro Musicis and the music world.” Pro Musicis artists performed his music for an appreciative audience at Wellesley College. Robert de Rothschild, board chair, and Boston Concert Committee members—Nicholas Anagnostis, Mary and Richard Bradley, Jean Farrington, Robert J. Lurtsema, Sylvia and Ralph Memolo, Josette and Paul Vatter—organized the event.
When Schuller was in New York City, he would always see John Gingrich, his trusted and devoted manager. Sometimes he would also visit the Pro Musicis office. On one occasion he wasn’t feeling well, so I suggested he lie down on the Murphy bed. He welcomed the offer but instead didn’t skip a beat talking about the upcoming auditions.
In the mid-1990s Father Merlet and Schuller achieved another breakthrough, opening the auditions to Chinese musicians performing their music on traditional instruments. The Pro Musicis Foundation in Hong Kong led by Sir David Tang held auditions on mainland China to select artists for the finals in New York City. In 1998 Schuller chaired the first audition in history where concert artists playing ancient Chinese music competed on the same stage with artists playing Western classical music. Bao Jian, guanzi player, and Guo Ya Zhi, suona player, were named among the winners.
John Haag is an arts administrator, university professor, and wedding officiant. He has served as Executive Director of Pro Musicis USA for 25 years.
Schuller’s greatness, personally and professionally, is best reflected in emails from members of the Pro Musicis family upon hearing of his death.
“Gunther was a true Renaissance man and his contributions to the art form are without equal. Along with Father Merlet, he was a galvanizing force in promoting young artists who cared about this earth and its people. The world will not soon see his like.” Gilbert Kalish, jury member
“Gunther was one of a kind whose gifts will long be with us. I mourn the loss of our great and dear Gunther.” Margo Garrett, jury member
“The past thirty years for me were enriched with Gunther’s friendship that started immediately after my audition for Pro Musicis. His musicianship and wisdom changed my life.” Michael Faust, 1987 Award
“Gunther had an honorable, long, wonderful life, loved and respected by many, a rich and wonderful journey. I am fortunate to have crossed paths with him! And, surely, many feel as I do.” Inna Faliks, 2005 Award
“We all loved Gunther so much, and he loved us.” Stephanie Jutt, 1978 Award
“The success of an organization like Pro Musicis rests on the musical brilliance of its artists, and the dedication of its volunteers and director. To have had the additional support of a major musician like Gunther Schuller along with his special dedication to the cause is something to be treasured.” Mary Bradley, Leader of Boston Volunteer Services
“Father Merlet and Gunther were present at my audition. I will never forget the experience of openness and acceptance I felt there. The breadth of Gunther’s musicianship was really inspirational. He’ll be missed for sure. Diane Monroe, 1983 Award
“Indeed, the world has lost a great musician and a unique human being. I had the privilege and pleasure to know Gunther, perform with him, hear and admire his music, and play it, each experience memorable and enriching. There are many others who can say the same thing, and more.” Mark Kroll, jury member
“I will always remember how nice Mr. Schuller was to come to my recital at Longy in 2011 and the lovely conversation we had afterwards.” Sivan Magen, 2009 Award
“Gunther was a musical giant, as broad in his accomplishments as Leonard Bernstein, a friend to us all and one of the most generous musical citizens in the community. I am glad that he lived almost as long as Elliott Carter. I was honored to know him and cherished his support and friendship.” David Leisner, jury member
“Mr. Schuller was the rarest of artists embodying the highest artistry and integrity in his work. His compassion and generosity in promoting generations of musicians is to be admired and held as an example. I remember him to be one of the most sincere and magnanimous individuals I have had the honor of meeting. He and Father Merlet will continue to inspire me, they live on.” Sonia Chan, 2002 Award