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Classical 101

Gunther Schuller and Saint Peter

Gunther Schuller, iconic Jazz-Classical composer, horn player and teacher shown here conducting Charles Mingus' "Epitaph," in 2007 for the New England Conservatory.
New England Conservatory
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Gunther Schuller, iconic Jazz-Classical composer, horn player and teacher shown here conducting Charles Mingus' "Epitaph," in 2007 for the New England Conservatory.

There are two ways to look at the title of this post.

Gunther Schuller died last week at age 89. He was a composer, conductor, professor and arts administrator with a seventy year career. He could be in heaven telling St. Peter the celestial chimes are out of tune OR we could be discussing Schuller's performance of Saint Peter, an oratorio by John Knowles Paine.

There was a time that I'd believe even St. Peter would run away if he saw Gunther Schuller coming. He --Gunther, not St. Peter--was President of the new England Conservatory in Boston when, as a fifth grader, I was taking piano lessons in that august building on Huntington Avenue.

Even I could tell that Schuller had a fearsome reputation among students. He was very exacting. He had been recruited to play horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at the age of 17; he had been a protégé of conductors such as Fritz Reiner and Bruno Walter. He brought the world of jazz --of which he was THE expert--to academia. He did not suffer fools gladly. I was never his student but at age 10 I thought he was scary. I wasn't afraid of Sister Francis Michael, but I was scared of Gunther Schuller.

Then, a few years ago, Schuller came to OSU to be artist in residence for one of the peerless Donald Harris's  Modern American Music Series. Donald asked me to interview Gunther Schuller. I wondered, "had he mellowed in his 80s?"

Yes. He was tired from endless rehearsals and classes. Still he was patient and charming and helpful and everything you would want a distinguished older musical figure to be. He had a copy of his newly published memoir, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty sent to me. You'll have to buy your own or go to the library. There's no way I'm lending mine out. 

Anything you'd ever want to know about the life of a musician who loved Bach as much as he loved Fats Waller is in this book.

John Knowles Paine, born in Maine in 1839 was an important composer of the "Second New England School." He studied in Germany, but was based at Harvard for most of his career. St. Peter is a grand, soulful Victorian era oratorio that Gunther Schuller recorded many years ago. The recording is presented in Schuller's memory on Musica Sacra, July 5 at 8 pm on Classical 101.  Tune in. You might hear him in a postlude by Bix Beiderbecke.