Monday, June 22, 2015

In Memoriam, Gunther Alexander Schuller, 1925-2015: Dominique-René de Lerma

Gunther Alexander Schuller (1925-2015)

Dominique-René de Lerma

He was born in New York, the son of a violinist with the New York Philharmonic (1923-1965): German-born Arthur Schuller.  His formal education began at a private school in Germany (1932-1936) then in New York at the St. Thomas Choir School, with pre-college study at the Manhattan School of Music.  He never was a university student, although a high-school dropout who never earned a college diploma, he held ten honorary doctorates.  While in high school, he was introduced to the music of Duke Ellington on a radio broadcast, remaining an Ellington enthusiast for life.   He was only 15 when he joined the orchestra of the American Ballet Theatre as hornist in 1943, the same year he was appointed principal horn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to 1945, then occupying the same position with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra until 1959.
He had already become active in jazz, working with John Lewis by 1955.  In later years he worked, mainly as arranger, with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus, but he was a sideman in recordings with Frank Sinatra (1950), Mitch Miller (1951), Gigi Gryce (1955), Johnny Mathis (1956), and Miles Davis (1949, with Birth of the cool).  In 1957 at Brandeis University, he introduced the term "third stream," indicating an ecumenical alliance of jazz with concert music.  With David Baker, he was conductor of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
He visited T. J. Anderson after T.J.'s move to Tufts University where, following supper, T. J. played a tape recording of his 1972 Atlanta performance of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha.  Gunther subsequently made his own arrangement of the opera, commercially videotaped and recorded in Houston, followed by tours.  A second version secured a 2012 performance in London.
Early jazz (1968) and The sing era (1991) are significant histories, which he published with Oxford University Press.
As administrator, he was director of the Tanglewood Music Center (1965-1984), meanwhile serving as president of the New England Conservatory.  From 1993, he directed the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane. 
He died in a Boston hospital, to the sound of Beethoven's final symphony.
On a personal note: I invited Gunther to participate in the 1969 conference held at Indiana University (reference: Black music in our culture, Kent: Kent State University Press, 1970).  Although he replied with regrets, he nonetheless attended on his own, observing the lack of ethnic identity taking place in the globalization of music.  I next encountered him at Lawrence University where he greeted me, surprised I had left Indiana.  He was then on his way to a university convocation where he spoke on the importance of a liberal-arts education, not having realized this was the prime mission of the University.  He returned to Lawrence two more times, a guest of Professor Robert Levy.  At the first of these, we sat together at a luncheon, discussing Leopold Stokowski.  A musical polymath -- prodigy horn player, Pulitzer-prize composer, advocate of the Third Stream, jazz historian and performer, publisher, administrator -- he secured popular notice with his recordings of Scott Joplin while at the New England Conservatory (167-1977).  I was ever tempted, but never followed through, to call his attention to Paul Laurence Dunbar's text for Will Marion Cook's 1903 In Dahomey: "When they hear our ragtime tunes, White folks try to pass for coons."

Dominique-René de Lerma

No comments: