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.
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.