He makes the music beautiful
Maestro Gunther Schuller, artistic director of The Festival at Sandpoint, is one of the world's foremost composers and conductors
By Travis Rivers
Conducting is the most complex and most difficult musical profession there is," Gunther Schuller says.
The man should know. He's done it all. Starting as a orchestral French horn player as a teenager, Schuller developed a career as a musical renaissance man a career that's spread to every corner of the musical world except rock and rap.
He became first chair French horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra when he was 20, and went on to write Horn Technique, the standard textbook on horn playing. He played jazz with Miles Davis and John Lewis, was instrumental in forming the Modern Jazz Quartet and wrote Early Jazz and The Swing Era, two definitive books on the history of jazz. He taught at Yale, at the Manhattan School of Music, and he served as president of the New England Conservatory.
From Austria to Australia, Schuller has conducted many of the world's greatest orchestras. His musical compositions are performed widely, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1994. He is a music publisher, a record producer and a globetrotter (a trip to Antarctica in December fulfilled a life-long dream). In 1991, he received a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award. Last spring The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave Schuller its gold medal for lifetime achievement in the arts
In summertime Sandpoint, Schuller is a familiar figure as the big man with the unruly shock of gray hair who conducts the Spokane Symphony at the Memorial Field concerts of The Festival at Sandpoint. He became artistic director of the Festival in 1985 after 22 years at the Tanglewood Festival, the summer series of classes and concerts the Boston Symphony sponsors in central Massachusetts.
In addition to directing the Memorial Field symphony concerts, Schuller heads the Festival's educational arm, the Schweitzer Institute of Music.The institute has offered programs for young professionals in conducting, composition, jazz and chamber music.
Last summer the Festival's financial deficit combined with the uncertainties of the ownership of the Schweitzer Resort led to the cancellation of the Schweitzer Institute's training programs. But this summer, Schuller, now 72, will be back at the Schweitzer Resort Chapel, facing a class of 20 or so men and women bent on a conducting career.
"If you want to be a conductor you know everything about a piece of music you conduct," he says. "Not just to know what is in a score but to know why it's there. How did the composer arrive at the decision to put the note in there in that way, not some other note in some other way? I would go so far as to say that if you don't know that, you shouldn't be conducting."
A lot of people shouldn't be conducting, or at least shouldn't be conducting they way they do. Schuller wrote the book on that subject, too. Last fall Oxford University Press published The Compleat Conductor. The book presents a short history of conducting, Schuller's philosophy on conducting and his detailed analysis of eight symphonic masterpieces from Beethoven to Ravel. He compares the composers' scores with detailed examinations of more than 400 recordings made by some of the world's best known conductors, showing their strengths and, more glaringly, their shortcomings.
At the same time, Schuller's own recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Brahms's First was issued on the GM label. It shows what he means when he insists in the book that performances that follow the composer's score to the letter can be even more exciting than those that don't.
The book and the recording, like Schuller's conducting classes at Schweitzer, are products of his whole career.
Schuller came from a musical family. His grandfather was bandmaster who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. His father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. Schuller's sons percussionist George and bass player Edwin, both internationally famous jazz musicians are keeping up the family tradition.
When Schuller himself was young, only seven, his parents decided he needed the rigorous discipline of a European education. They sent him to a German boarding school, but brought him back to New York after hearing what was happening under the Nazis.
"I got into the famous choir school at St. Thomas Church,'' Schuller says, "where I was lucky enough to begin my music theory and composition lessons with Tertius Noble. The works we sang and the music I heard him play on the organ some of it really pretty radical, such as the music of Olivier Messiaen made a big impact on me." At 16, Schuller's voice had shifted from boy soprano to adult baritone, so he left the choir school and enter Jamaica High School in Queens and attended the Manhattan School of Music.
In 1943, he dropped out of high school to join the Ballet Theater Orchestra. Later that year he became first horn of the Cincinnati Orchestra, where he spent two seasons before returning to New York to join the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. In his 14 years at the Met, Schuller composed furiously on subway rides to and from work, developed an ever more serious interest in jazz and became a father twice. The success of his compositions led him to resign his Met position to devote more time to composing.
But composition took a back seat in the summertime after 1963. Boston symphony conductor Erich Leinsdorf and fellow composer Aaron Copland lured Schuller to the Tanglewood Festival to head the composition department and later to direct the Berkshire Music Center there, becoming co-director of the center with conductor Seiji Ozawa in 1969.
Schuller's interest in music education led, in 1967, to his being named president of the New England Conservatory in Boston, a job he held until his retirement in 1977. The institution had been one of Boston's crown jewels, musically, but by the '60s, it had fallen on hard times financially and artistically. Schuller's 10-year term as president revitalized NEC artistically, doubled the number of students and rescued it financially. Despite his administrative load and his work as a composer, Schuller increased the amount of conducting he had been doing, leading more than 40 performances with the student orchestra and accepting more guest conducting assignments in Europe and the U.S.
In what passed for "retirement,'' he established a music publishing company and, later, a recording company, both run from his home in Newton Centre, a Boston suburb.
Schuller's 20-year connection with Tanglewood ended in 1984, and he accepted his first permanent conducting position as principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Spokane Symphony. As a result of the Spokane connection, he became artistic director of The Festival at Sandpoint in 1985.
A figure nearly as familiar as Gunther Schuller at the Festival was his wife Marjorie. One of the lasting events of Gunther's two years in Cincinnati was his meeting Marjorie Black, a piano and voice student at the conservatory there, a woman who in 1948 would become Marjorie Schuller. People in Sandpoint remember her sitting quietly at Schuller's Memorial Field rehearsals. He says, "She was my greatest, best critic.''
Friends put it more bluntly, saying, "Gunther couldn't get anything done without Margie.'' Or, "She's the calm voice of reason in a storm of creative chaos.''
When Marjorie Schuller died in 1992, followed only a few weeks later by the death of Schuller's father, "I just dried up,'' Schuller recalls. He continued to conduct and work on writing and publishing. But he could not compose.
"I had a number of commissions, some of them already overdue because of my neglect due to Margie's illness,'' he says. "Fortunately when I told the people who'd commissioned these pieces what was going on, they said, 'We'll wait.' "
The wait wasn't long. "Then it was as if the dam broke and music came spilling out again,'' he says. The result was "Of Reminiscences and Reflections,'' a work inspired by nearly 50 years of a shared musical passion with Marjorie. It earned Schuller the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1994. "God only knows how many pieces of music we heard together; this piece has references to the ones we love best and remember together. But I defy anyone to find all of them!''
Music, knowing all it's possible to know about it and sharing the passion for it with audiences and, especially, with students has been what Gunther Schuller's life has been about, whether at The Festival Sandpoint, back home in Massachusetts or on the road.
Travis Rivers is the senior music correspondent of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane and professor emeritus of music at Eastern Washington University.