Former New England Conservatory president—as well as composer, conductor, author, publisher, historian, record producer, virtuoso hornist, educator, and polymath—Gunther Schuller has been selected to receive the 2015 Edward MacDowell Medal. Schuller will receive the medal on Sunday, August 9, at the MacDowell Colony grounds in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
The MacDowell Colony has awarded the medal every year since 1960 “to an individual artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field. He joins a notable list of past Medal recipients, including Aaron Copland (1961), Robert Frost (1962), Georgia O’Keeffe (1972), Leonard Bernstein (1987), Stephen Sondheim (2013), and Betye Saar (2014).” As Augusta Read Thomas, chair of the Edward MacDowell Medal Selection Committee notes in their press release: “It was easy for the selection committee to choose Gunther. He’s a composer’s composer with laser-sharp ears, a sensitive, fertile, creative mind, endless energy, and a generous, humane soul.”
Schuller steered New England Conservatory through one of the most turbulent and formative decades of American and Conservatory history, beginning with NEC's centennial year. During his tenure as President from 1967–1977, as the Western world rocked to the rhythms of social upheaval and burgeoning youth culture, Schuller formalized NEC’s commitment to jazz by establishing the first fully accredited jazz studies program at a music conservatory. Shortly thereafter, he instituted the Third Stream department (which lives on today as Contemporary Improvisation) to explore the regions where the two musical “streams” of classical and jazz meet and mingle, and hired the iconic Ran Blake to be its chair. Early jazz hires included the legendary Jaki Byard and George Russell.
“We’re very proud of Gunther’s life and what he’s meant to our school,” says composer and NEC faculty member John Heiss. “This award is highly deserved. He has been a key player for NEC and we’re grateful to him for all that he’s done for the school. Gunther has also achieved a magnificent standing through his compositions, which are at the top level of anything we have today. I am pleased that we will be celebrating Gunther’s contributions to NEC and his music with a 90th birthday concert on November 19.”
Schuller continues to visit NEC almost every year to work with students on special projects ranging from historic jazz scores to performances of his own compositions. NEC commissioned Encounters as a cornerstone work performed during the Jordan Hall centennial celebration in 2003.
Schuller increased NEC’s profile among the world’s great music institutions in remarkable ways. He insisted from the earliest days of his tenure that contemporary music have equal billing next to the acknowledged classical masterpieces, and that students be equally adept at performing both. He bolstered and revitalized NEC’s string, piano, and composition faculties, hiring artists whose influence remains intact to this day, among them Louis Krasner, Laurence Lesser, Russell Sherman, and Donald Martino. In one of Boston’s most notorious periods of racial disharmony, he created community outreach programs that sent young, eager musicians to bring the gift of music into some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. And, championing the forgotten music of a neglected American composer, he founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble and recorded Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book, which won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance, ignited a latter-day ragtime revival, and spurred tours across America, Russia, and to the White House.
Schuller’s presidency was marked by unprecedented creative energy and growth, but also by controversy and fiscal distress. During the Vietnam War era, no colleges were immune from upheaval. At a time of protest "strikes" that shut down academic activities nationwide, NEC was unable to hold a Commencement for its Class of 1970 (President Daniel Steiner invited them to walk belatedly with the Class of 2000). At the same time, music was brought into play as a creative response to war. But by the time of Schuller's resignation as President in 1977, the Board of Trustees was revitalized, a new era of financial responsibility had dawned, and applications were arriving in record numbers.
Schuller's immediate predecessor, Chester Williams, said that "one of his greatest contributions to the Conservatory was that he generated excitement for performing at the highest level. Holding a high level of professional achievement himself, he accepted nothing less than the best." But perhaps Schuller’s greatest legacy at NEC was the personal vision he brought of training that would produce the “compleat musician”—one who embraced musics of the past and present, and who looked towards the future with intelligence and artistic curiosity. NEC became less a place where the traditions of European music were conserved, and more a hothouse where exotic new hybrids could propagate and flourish.
Among previous recognition of Schuller's work in broad areas of music are the Pulitzer Prize in composition, Ditson Conductor's Award, MacArthur Fellowship, and NEA Jazz Masters Award. NEC bestowed an honorary Doctor of Music degree on Gunther Schuller at commencement ceremonies in 1978.
Photo by Andrew Hurlbut of Gunther Schuller with NEC students in Jordan Hall, 2010