Gandolfi Remembers Schuller

NEC's current composition chair, Michael Gandolfi, writes about his encounters with the late Gunther Schuller.

One of a Series

New England Conservatory's current chair of composition, Michael Gandolfi, is also an NEC alumnus. This reminiscence takes him all the way from life as a student during Gunther Schuller's presidency, to thoughts about Schuller's legacy.

He Will Never Be Replaced

Gunther Schuller’s last year as president of NEC was my first year as a young NEC undergraduate. During that year, Gunther led several lectures on composition that still resonate today, mounted spectacular performances of Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at Jordan Hall, and organized the first U.S. hosting of the annual International Society of Contemporary Music Festival. He provided opportunities for the composition students to perform at that ISCM festival. I volunteered and was placed on a percussion part in a performance of a large orchestral work of Helmut Lachenmann, under Gunther’s baton. It was an invaluable experience to witness his profound grasp of that complex score.

My principal composition teacher, William Thomas (Tom) McKinley, was a protégé of Gunther’s, so I felt like a grandchild in the Schuller "household." Tom worked closely with Gunther, who was championing and publishing Tom’s music. Donald Martino and John Heiss, two of Gunther’s faculty appointments, also had a profound impact on my compositional development. I was also regularly playing Jazz in those years, so the welcoming environment of NEC in this regard, thanks to Gunther’s vision, was a perfect fit.

Most recently, I was fortunate to have spent time at Tanglewood with Gunther. Although he was quite ill at the time, his drive, inquisitiveness, and commanding intellect were all working at full force. I invited him to lead a class for the Tanglewood composition fellows, for which they prepared by reading excerpts from his autobiography. We engaged him with questions about his life, culled from that great tome. (It is a most impressive volume of some 600+ pages, and is part one of a two-part series. Whether the second volume was completed remains uncertain. I queried him about it a few months ago and he indicated that he was still working on it.)

While preparing for the Tanglewood class, I read through several of Gunther’s works and was quite struck by his Six Early Songs, a MarGun publication (Gunther’s publishing company), and a work of meticulous craft, replete with a prudently edited and beautifully engraved score. It is indicative of the great care that he gave to every endeavor in which he was involved. I realized then that I needed to acknowledge Gunther’s life as a publisher when introducing him to the class. But I couldn’t stop there. So, I introduced Gunther as composer, conductor, jazz musician and historian, author, hornist, educator, publisher, and record company owner. While voicing that impressive list, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of his accomplishments in each of these endeavors. It seemed not humanly possible for one person to have done all of that—and at the highest level in each case. At the end of the introduction, I posited that there were seven or so Gunther Schullers in the world, all cleverly working to appear as one. He seemed to enjoy that notion.

The 2015 Tanglewood session commenced on June 20. I led the composition class on a tour of the grounds that day, sharing some of the history of this great place with them. Of course, Gunther was a major contributor to that history, and he was very much in the conversation as we made our way through the day. Before the start of class on June 22, I shared a few personal memories of Gunther with the class, after which we observed a moment of silence.

To say Gunther Schuller will be missed is simply not saying enough. He will never be replaced. We have lost a giant. No, we have lost myriad giants.