- Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty by Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller, born in 1925, has done and seen a lot. So much, in fact, that this sprawling account of his life and accomplishments ends around 1960, before he abandoned his impressive career as a professional horn player—fifteen years with the Metropolitan Opera, the majority of those years as principal horn—and turned his focus on composing and education. Schuller’s tenure as president of the New England Conservatory, his role in the revival of ragtime, and his views on contemporary music from his two-decades-long career in the composition department at Tanglewood understandably receive scant mention in this volume. Instead, Schuller reminisces in these memoirs about all the marvelous music he [End Page 366] made in his first careers, all the wonderful—and some not-so-wonderful—people he met in the United States and Europe, all the spectacular sights and hikes and meals and drinks he consumed, all the breathtaking films and paintings and sculptures he saw, even all (or so it seems) the thrilling erotica he encountered in the first thirty-five years of his life.
This volume, the first of a promised two, is more than anything a love letter. Throughout the middle of the book, the object of his affection is the cultural world of New York, where opportunities abounded: to see the latest films; to hear some of the best classical music performances in the world; and to take in the past, present, and future of jazz, a genre Schuller discovered in his teens and decided from then forward to master and champion. The book’s excursions into the jazz scene result in some of Schuller’s most vivid writing, as his enthusiasm for the music leaps off the page. Here one will find stories galore of a skinny white guy rubbing shoulders with the greats and the not-so-greats, from bunking down with Duke Ellington and his orchestra backstage in the Palace Theatre in Cleveland (189–91) to tracking down Buster Smith in Dallas for an elusive recording session (484–87). Schuller’s interactions with jazz are liberally interspersed throughout the book, and two chapters are expressly devoted to the genre. Wherever Schuller traveled, he frequented clubs and met new musicians. But his stories about hearing and recording jazz in New York elicit some of Schuller’s most evocative prose, including the story of walking through a blizzard on the night he met John Lewis, pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet and lifelong friend, at Lewis’s home in Hollis, Queens (373).
These stories illustrate how the memoir is also a love letter to the many people Schuller had the chance to meet in what necessarily reads as a remarkably charmed life. His father, a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, was also an émigré from Germany who had played under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Europe. This attachment to the Heimat led Schuller’s parents to send him to school in Germany in January, 1932, ultimately giving Schuller an intimate fluency in German language and culture that stood him in good stead over the decades. (Schuller retells here the gruesome accident that led to him losing his right eye in December, 1936 and returning from Germany to his parents’ home in Jamaica, Queens; the story indirectly helps to explain how nearly every professional photo of Schuller shows his left profile.) Germany reenters the picture as he relates his recollections of the summer courses at Darmstadt in the 1950s—and particularly his conversations with Karlheinz Stockhausen. On one occasion, Schuller concluded that the politics and the faux intellectualism was a waste of time (517). It makes for riveting reading, and Schuller loves to regale the reader with stories of chance encounters that have peppered his life. Often, though, these retellings have more of the feeling of self-indulgence than of wider importance. For example, one reads...