Gunther Schuller and Cincinnati: Personal memories from a patron and a critic

Gunther Schuller had lifelong ties to Cincinnati
Gunther Schuller had lifelong ties to Cincinnati

Gunther Schuller, a giant of American music, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and the man who defined the fusion of classical and jazz as “Third Stream,” died on June 21 at age 89. Many tributes note that he was the youngest French hornist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra early in his career (1943-45).

“It was a very rich and rewarding period in my life, a growing period because I was 17 to 19 (years old),” Schuller told me in an interview.

After concerts, he often continued playing in late-night jazz clubs in Cincinnati. However, his ties to Cincinnati continued for his entire life. In fact, he taught at the old College of Music, which is where he met his wife Marjorie. (Perhaps he was also their youngest-ever faculty member!)

“I was away from home for the first time, so I was feeling my oats in many ways,” he said. “That meant reading, going to museums – and I met my wife.” They were married for 50 years, until her death in 1992.

Next season, the Cincinnati Symphony is slated to perform the premiere of his Symphonic Triptych, made possible with support from arts patron and longtime friend Alice Weston.

In 1962, Weston, and her late husband, Harris Weston, traveled to New York to commission their first piece of the composer, a piano concerto for former Naumburg winner Jeanne Kirstein. Max Rudolf, then-conductor of the CSO, chose Schuller to compose it.

“Over a Japanese luncheon we talked and talked,” Weston said. “We were impressed with his meticulousness when he asked the waitress, after he had ordered seaweed, as to what kind of seaweed it would be. We were actually impressed with everything he said. This was the start of a lifelong friendship.”

In a pamphlet entitled “Gunther Schuller Three Concertos”, he provided his own program notes accompanying the premiere performance of Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.  “Such as, he had to answer how a serial technique could relate to an obsolete form such as a concerto. He found he could use the conventional techniques in a new way,”  Weston said.

“Over the years we had many occasions to be together,” she said. “We were his guests at Tanglewood. He was my house guest when he came to Cincinnati to conduct the United States Military Band at the launching of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

“My family was in Boston when my granddaughter graduated from Tufts. We arranged to pick Gunther up for dinner. On returning him home, he played a recording just for us. It was his commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with (Cincinnati native) James Levine conducting.

“In 1996, Cincinnati hosted the national conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras).  For that event, they commissioned Gunther to compose a piece on an American theme,” she said.

It was while he was staying with Weston, an accomplished photographer, that he found his inspiration for the piece. As her guest was coming from his room, he noticed her photograph of the Winter Solstice as seen in native American earthworks known as Fort Ancient. She had photographed these earthworks over 15 years in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia. They deal with the cosmic cycles – cycles of the sun and the moon.

That inspired a collaboration with Weston entitled An Arc Ascending, based on her photographs.

“It was performed at Music Hall, (which was) was completely darkened. There was no light and sound at all. My annual seasonal calendar, starting with my single Winter Solstice photo was phased, very slowly, in, and out, in proportion to the hall’s 80-foot screen. …” After all three photos phased in and out, Schuller’s evocative work, a 10-minute tone poem, was performed by the orchestra.

About two years ago, the Cincinnati Symphony asked Weston if she would agree to underwrite another work by Schuller. That commission is his Symphonic Triptych,(2014), to have its world premiere next January.

Weston shared a recent note that Schuller sent to her about the piece, in which he said, “I felt very inspired all the time I worked on it. It just sort of flowed out of me, almost like an improvisation.” He added that it makes subtle allusions to Brahms, “a composer I sometimes feel is the greatest of them all,” as well as to Bach or Beethoven.”

Said Weston: “Gunther died the morning of June 21. He will be sorely missed. Ironically. he died the morning of the Summer Solstice.”

 Excerpts from my interviews with Schuller about Cincinnati

In 1994, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize, Schuller told me that he had originally planned to submit The Past is in the Present, the work he premiered in Cincinnati in 1994, to the Pulitzer committee, rather than the one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize. But the Pulitzer committee advanced the deadline by one month. So his publisher submitted Of Reminiscences and Reflections, commissioned by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra.

Both works were memorials to Schuller’s late wife of 50 years, Marjorie Black, whom he met in Cincinnati while, as a teenager, he was principal French hornist of the CSO, 1943-45. They met at the old College of Music (now the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music). “We were the same age, but she was a student, and I was on the faculty,” he said. “She was a soprano and excellent pianist.”

The Louisville work “is about our life together as two musicians,” he said. “It’s not as much a requiem as the Cincinnati piece. . . . It is a reflective, lyric piece.”

Schuller, who was then 68, said that his two years in Cincinnati “helped so much to make me what I eventually became.”I have such cherished memories, not only because of the personal relationship with my wife, but the whole maturing and opening up of my life as a musician that Cincinnati and Eugene Goossens provided me.”

Schuller made his debut as soloist and composer in 1945, when his Horn Concerto was premiered by the CSO under Goossens.Two other important works associated with Cincinnati were Schuller’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion, premiered at the College of Music and conducted in 1981 by the composer with the CSO at Music Hall; and his previously mentioned Piano Concerto, composed for late CCM faculty member (and my own teacher) Jeanne Kirstein.A CD from the original tape of Kirstein’s Music Hall performance under Max Rudolf was released on Schuller’s own label, GM Recordings.

Hired by Eugene Goossens, Schuller considered him one of the great conductors of our time.

“One of the things I cherish the most was (Goossens’)  tenure with the orchestra. Apart from the fact he gave me my debut as a composer and horn player in my Horn Concerto (1945), his programming was so fabulous. There is no one like that today, except maybe Zubin Mehta, with the variety, the richness, not stopping at contemporary music,” he said.

After leaving Cincinnati in 1945 for Kenyon College in northern Ohio, Schuller experienced a turning point in his life, when he discovered the entire Schoenberg circle of composers, “who introduced me to a concept and language in music that I knew little about.”

Many of Europe’s musicians had fled Nazi Germany. So it was in the unlikely place of Gambier, Ohio,  that Schuller met Edward Steuermann, Rudolf Kolisch and other important figures of the Second Viennese School.

At the time, he considered his own personal style “a healthy amalgam of the two great composers of the 20th century: Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But had I not had that chance encounter at Kenyon, everything might be different!”

Schuller also spent a lifetime in jazz and was fond of combining jazz elements in his classical works. One example is Concertino for Jazz Quartet, performed by the CSO under Max Rudolf in 1959.

Schuller spoke to me several times of his despair that American orchestras and their conductors did not perform more new music — unlike the days of Goossens, Pierre Monteux, Koussevitzky or Mitropolous.

On the other, he knew that orchestras feared for survival.

“We have overproduced musicians and artists, and we have woefully under-produced an audience for our product. The irony is, we are a consumerist society, and we have no consumers for our artistic product. We’ve totally neglected education,” he said.

He proposed more diversity in programming. Part of that diet might include cross-pollination between jazz and classical, a phenomenon he once coined “third-stream” music.

The last time we spoke at length, he was working 18-hour days as a composer, publisher, record producer and guest conductor. He had written several books for Oxford University Press, including a set of renowned jazz histories, as his excellent book on conducting,, “The Compleat Conductor.”

And he was working on his memoirs, which would come out in 2011.

“I have had such an incredibly rich and rewarding life, not because I have all these successes, but because I have been living a full life on both sides of the fence – in classical and jazz. You will not be able to name anybody who played with Arturo Toscanini and also played with Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. I’ve had the privilege of doing that, both composing and playing.

“Before I get Alzheimer’s, I want to document all of that.”

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