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A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty
University of Rochester Press
664 Pages, hardback
Gunther Schuller was born of German parents in Manhattan in 1925. He grew up there, but travelled back to Germany for his education, thus becoming truly bilingual. In America, his mother learned English by doing crosswords. His father, a viola player who had played under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Mannheim, auditioned for the New York Philharmonic’s string section. “As the New York Phil’s chief conductor Josef Stransky started to put the audition repertory on the stand for my father to read,” says Schuller, “He quietly told Stransky that he didn’t need any music; he would play the entire audition by heart, whatever he would be asked for.” After fifteen minutes his father was given the job.
Gunther Schuller is a man of many achievements. Precociously talented, all things musical seemed to come easily to him. An outstanding French horn player, he joined the Cincinnati Symphony as principal horn at the age of seventeen, and participated in three of the Birth of the Cool sessions in 1950. He wrote several highly regarded books, including The Swing Era, The Compleat Conductor and Early Jazz, activities he describes as ‘the opposite of making a living’. He coined the term Third Stream in 1957, succeeded Aaron Copland as Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, then served as president of the New England Conservatory. For decades he has worked at the centre of New York’s boundlessly protean cultural life.
At 660-pages Schuller’s biography, described by his publisher as ‘exquisitely detailed’, is enormous, tiefernst (very serious), thorough and prolix, even though his account only carries us up to the end of the 1950s! Sensitive editing (by which I mean cuts!) would perhaps have been a benefit. Schuller’s obsession with films could have been omitted, as could the details of various church sermons heard, as well as comments about snowy weather, his reports of the punctuality of his wife Margie, his day-by-day accounts of visits to Europe and the retelling his own dreams.
But Schuller is a polymath diarist; one shouldn’t read his fascinating account solely for the musical content, though that is mostly what concern us here. He met Duke Ellington, and was invited to join his band. He played on Frank Sinatra recording dates. He knew Ernst Krenek, Roger Sessions, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Parker and Edgard Varèse. He helped Miles Davis to get a flugel horn and to change his embouchure. “It was such a joy to see Miles’s smile of relief when, with the new mouthpiece position, a high Bb or high C floated out of his horn with the greatest of ease.” Schuller knew the composer Harry Partch, met Ray Brown and the raging alcoholic Constant Lambert (“the British George Gershwin”), witnessed and was appreciative of Earl Hines’ band of protoboppers, had great praise for Alvino Rey’s band, and (incredibly) would regularly meet Bill Evans to play piano scores of all the Wagner operas, four hands, Evans on the top staff, Schuller on the bottom and dealing with all the pedalling.
An essential read for anyone interested in mid-twentieth century music.
John Robert Brown