Bruce Creditor Remembers Gunther Schuller

On November 23rd, at 7pm, at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline, our featured contemporary work will be the Sonata for Oboe and Piano by composer, conductor, author, and educator Gunther Schuller, who passed away on June 21st this year at the age of 89. Our concert is the last in a series of events honoring Mr. Schuller, and to learn more about him, we spoke with Bruce Creditor, a long-time friend and colleague of both Mr. Schuller and our artistic director, Peggy Pearson. Mr. Creditor’s biography can be found at the end of the interview, but to introduce our conversation, we’d like to share the elegy he wrote for the local union, the Boston Musician’s Association, after Mr. Schuller’s death.

Gunther's death brought an end to an era. Or several eras. There are obituaries in many publications and online which speak to the more public aspects of his life - the composing, the conducting, the writing, the Third Stream, the leadership of various institutions.  But what lies below that public persona is the Gunther Schuller that we knew as a musician. For those who were fortunate to experience his life force we were inspired by his drive for excellence in performance, how to approach music, the arts and life. Many of us call him our mentor, our muse, our friend. Make no mistake about it, Gunther spoke his mind in rehearsals as well as in more formal occasions. Because he cared.  And now we mourn his loss. 

How did you first meet Gunther?
Interestingly enough, it was at a performance of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, there were three composers conducting their own works on the program, in 1968. I was in high school, and it was the premiere of Gunther’s double bass concerto. He was then in a more thorny, abstract, modernistic mode of composing, and I really disliked the piece. It didn’t speak to me at all; the other two pieces on the program, by Bernstein and Copland, really did get to me, but that piece did not. That did not stop me from applying to New England Conservatory, and in fact, one of the aspects that appealed to me was that he was the president. My first interaction with him at NEC was the audition that decided which orchestra I would be in, and he asked me to play the first page of Don Juan, which of course, the clarinet is not soloistic, it’s very rhythmic, repetitive notes, so I thought “What the heck?” but I was chosen for his orchestra, so I guess that went ok. Those were my first two interactions with Gunther.

What role did he play in your life?
There were many roles over the many years. From the start of my playing at NEC, he was of course a conductor and teacher at that point, and in fact he had rather large sessions — he wanted to make sure the student body knew about rhythm and all the breakdowns and subdivisions. So he held these masterclasses of sorts giving his explanations of rhythm; they were called the Rhythm Lectures. So from then I was invited to play in the Ragtime Ensemble, which had a good twenty-five year lifespan. That interaction was just one of joy, of learning that genre of music, touring, recording with Gunther, just an amazing experience. Mentor — he was just a wonderful mentor. Although some of the things that he said were rather biting and acerbic, his intent was always to convey the integrity of the music.

After that, he was the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and I spent two summers there. While there, I started working as an editor and copyist for him, for his music publishing company, which is Margun Music, and later, its affiliate company, GunMar Music. The names were combinations of his and his wife’s, Gunther and Margie. From then, I was librarian at the Tanglewood Music Center while he was the artistic director, did more of this type of editing, and eventually he invited me to be the general manager of the company. So there, he was my boss, although he disliked the term “boss,” which I found out just before he died; he preferred “employer” and “coworker.” Learning from him in that role, preparing publications, working with composers — he saw part of his mission as to encourage and promote and publish music of younger composers, that other publishers would not necessarily take on, and also the large catalogue of the American composer Alec Wilder. This he did fully self-subsidized. We had some income from sales and rentals, but the predominant financial support was his own. Then, of course, we started a record company, GM Recordings, spreading out a little bit more. In time, I needed to seek other things, so I left his employ and over the next twenty, twenty-five years, we retained the relationship of friends and colleagues. We would chat every once in awhile, he’d call me for some arcane information, I was supposed to remember where something was in the house twenty-five years later! It was through various roles that my relationship with him evolved throughout the course of my life. I was very fortunate, and I also saw these roles played out with other conductors, composers, his colleagues, those mentoring relationships were with many people.

What role did chamber music play in his life?
Throughout his life, he participated in chamber music, early on, I know with some groups from the Cincinnati Symphony, when he was there, but more importantly, when he was at the Metropolitan Opera, he founded the Metropolitan Opera Wind Quintet. He thought his colleagues there were wonderful, and they in fact got together to learn and perform the Schoenberg Wind Quintet. They were the first group to record it, on Dial Records. It took them several years to prepare it, and I don’t know how many times they performed it — they would perform it on tour, when the Met Orchestra was touring — he would set up concerts for the Wind Quintet along the way. (Just as an aside, the Emmanuel Wind Quintet — which was me, Peggy, David Hoose, Chris Krueger, and Phil Long — was formed to study and perform the Schoenberg Wind Quintet, so that’s another interesting connection there.) From his experiences in that quintet, he came to realize that the repertoire was rather sparse, as far as works from the nineteenth century, and he did quite a few transcriptions for wind quintet.

Emmanuel Wind Quintet: Phil Long, David Hoose, Peggy Pearson, Chris Krueger, Bruce Creditor. Photo courtesy of Peggy Pearson

And did the Emmanuel Wind Quintet make use of those transcriptions?
Several of them. There’s a transcription of the Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin which includes all six movements, where another popular transition only includes four. It’s very difficult, he tried to stay as true to the original orchestration as possible, so where solo lines were in certain instruments, he would try to keep them there. We played that a good number of times. And his compositional catalogue includes — not as many as for orchestra — but a good deal of chamber music. And in particular, he liked the idea of consorts of similar instruments. He wrote a piece for a group of sixteen horns, four cellos, etc. He wrote a piece for twelve trumpets recently that was premiered at Tanglewood, so he had that ear and desire to write for those groupings of like instruments.

Gunther started teaching in 1950 at the Manhattan School of Music, but by 1967 he had been appointed President of the New England Conservatory. How did he come to that appointment? What was the conservatory looking for from him in particular?
I know that the line goes from Manhattan, then to Yale, and at the same time became the Composition Chair at Tanglewood. Erich Leinsdorf invited him to that position on the recommendation of Aaron Copland, who had been the Chair at Tanglewood, which you can read about in the Copland letters. From that, I’m not sure how the search committee at NEC worked. I know they were looking for artistic direction — the then-president, Chester Williams, had a music ed focus. He was a pleasant, warm and caring person, and became the dean when Gunther became president. He was a very valued and loved person, but I think they were looking for a stronger artistic figure, and I guess Gunther came to their attention. I also know that the financial situation was starting to become a concern, and I believe he was also brought in to spearhead the effort to shore up the finances as well.

If they were looking for artistic direction, it must have been a very strong signal that Aaron Copland recommended him for the Composition Chair at Tanglewood.
Yes, there’s a very clear line there. Let me go back a moment to the roles he played in my life. He was obviously an important writer, and he authored many books, articles, liner notes, etc., including two jazz histories, a horn tutor, The Compleat Conductor, and a first volume of his autobiography. One of these is a book called Musings. When I worked for him, our offices were on the third floor of his house. While I was working there, there were lots of piles of music and writings around. I happened to look through them, and I thought that these unpublished writings should be published and made available, instead of just sitting on the floor. I spoke to his publisher and editor at Oxford University Press. Long story short, for his sixtieth birthday, we put together that volume and it was published as Musings. I bring that up because I believe a speech of his while at the conservatory is included in that book, and would give insights into what he understood the conservatory to be asking of him.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Creditor (seated lower left in this photo!)

Other than the addition of jazz and Third-Stream as focuses of conservatory training, what was his impact on the conservatory in a larger sense?
Faculty. He brought such important faculty that came from different areas and had great impact on that school and on the students. For instance, Russell Sherman, the pianist, came at his invitation. Also John Heiss, who is still there. Donald Martino, Rudolf Kolisch, Ran Blake, Richard Pittman, Frank Battisti, who led the Wind Ensemble, and these are just a few. If one was to look through the catalogue of NEC during those years, you would see an amazing amount of faculty who came because of Gunther. They respected Gunther enough to come to the conservatory. That was his immediate and lasting impact on the conservatory. Another was his standard of believing in the complete musician, which was one of his driving forces.

Can you describe your understanding of what he believed to be a complete musician?
All aspects: listening, playing, learning, looking. Everything. All of the senses. All of the available means of assimilating information and then not to have only one focus. Another impact on the conservatory: his choice of repertoire for the orchestra was amazing. There was one concert that started with Japanese court music and went through Schoenberg Erwartung, and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and ended with Ligeti’s Lontano. And in his last year at NEC, they performed Wozzeck and Gurre-Lieder! That’s just a microcosm of his desire to have the orchestral program be striking and not limited.

I’ve read that he was proud of his status as a self-taught composer (as several great composers have been). How did this self-image play out as the president of a conservatory?
I don’t think it ever did. No one ever stopped to say: “Oh, he doesn’t have a high school degree.” I think it was beyond that. He never used it as an excuse or as a badge of honor. He had the greatest ears in the world. There is the violin concerto by the composer Alban Berg, and Gunther had an early 78 RPM recording of that concerto, but there was no score available in this country at that time. He listened to that recording and transcribed it in music notebooks. He was proud to say that there were only a couple of mistakes he made in the course of it, which is astounding, but he didn’t say, “Oh, I’m doing this because I didn’t go to school.” He did it because he soaked up music of all kinds. It was just part of his being. I really don’t think it had any impact or relevance to how we saw him at the conservatory.

What was his teaching philosophy like, either as a private teacher or coach, or in a classroom situation?
I think it just goes back to what I mentioned about the complete musician concept and the integrity of the music. This comes up a number of times, specifically in his book The Compleat Conductor. Sincerity to what the score says. That was an overriding attitude of Gunther’s philosophy that he tried to impart. That’s perhaps a controversial concept, because then there’s the whole interpretation idea of performance, and it could be somewhere in between that, but his meter was to the side of respecting the letter of the composer. I don’t know if he was a classroom teacher, except, as I mentioned, during those rhythm lectures. He obviously taught composition classes at Tanglewood, and there were techniques that he used to teach those, but I wasn’t witness to that.

Incorporating jazz into contemporary classical music has become much more familiar and attractive to audiences and musicians than it was when Gunther began his career. Did he ever discuss with you, or did you observe, how the jazz musicians in his life viewed the incorporation of their idiom into a world that had, at least in some part, disdained their contributions to music?
First, let’s not forget his devotion to the music of Duke Ellington — the first and perhaps most important influence in his assimilation of jazz into his creative process. He had, from the beginning of his involvement in jazz, which was the early ‘50s, very strong allies and advocates in certain jazz performers. I wouldn’t say this was across the whole spectrum of jazz. Based mainly in New York, because that’s where he was, and because that’s where a large part of the jazz scene was based. Aside from his performing and helping out in recording sessions with Miles Davis, which is of course the badge of honor that is always mentioned with him, the Modern Jazz Quartet truly was an ally of his and worked with him in this mode of music. There were others, other jazz performers, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, among others. He was not alone. Some of them he enlisted just by the power of his personality. They were looking, perhaps, for this outlet, this new creative impulse. Gil Evans was another; he was the arranger for a number of these projects, and also the pianist Bill Evans. That gave some cohesion to this effort. One comment: Third Stream incorporated what was then called “modern jazz” or “post-be bop jazz” and contemporary American music. It was not pop. It wasn’t Top 40. Some people think, when you’re talking about Third Stream music, “Oh, jazz and classical, it’s that simple stuff.” This was not. This was very advanced, very on the edge. It wasn’t comfort music, or easy listening.

 A.B. Spellman (right) with the 2008 recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, Gunther Schuller (left). From Wikimedia Commons

 A.B. Spellman (right) with the 2008 recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, Gunther Schuller (left). From Wikimedia Commons

Gunther was obviously highly lauded and the recipient of several high-profile awards, including the Pulitzer and a MacArthur Foundation Grant. How did he respond to this recognition?
I think it gave him some validation. He didn’t need it, but I think when he saw his colleagues being honored in this way, he enjoyed it, but he never bragged about it. When the awards came into the house, they sat somewhere, they weren’t up front, and in the center of things. I wouldn’t say that he accepted them sheepishly, that’s not the right idea, but humbly. With a sense of validation, but humility.

Do you have a favorite composition of his?
Have you got an hour to listen? There are so many, it would be hard to say one piece. Of the pieces I can play: Sonata Serenata, which is a piece for the Messaien grouping: clarinet, piano, violin, cello. It’s a chamber music piece of his; I played on the premiere. It’s inventive, there’s some Third Stream moments in it, it’s just well-written for the ensemble, and I enjoyed playing it tremendously. There is a work for solo clarinet, Episodes, which is one of those thorny pieces that I learned and played for Gunther when he had it published, by Schirmer, at that point. I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite, but it’s a piece that instrumentally got under my skin. There are of course the orchestral works, and his catalogue is mainly instrumental, although he has the two operas and other works. Of those pieces: there’s the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, which was one of his earliest repertoire works (pieces that really got picked up). It’s just so imaginative, and he was about 32 or 33 when the piece was written, and it’s just an amazing work combining a lot of different musics. There’s one called “Arab Village” which has a Middle Eastern flute offstage. A couple of other works that I’d love to point out: there’s the work for twelve trumpets which was just done, and not just twelve regular trumpets, it’s a whole range in the family of trumpets. It’s one of those consort pieces that starts to sum up a lot of his musical life. You can hear a lot of different references in it. Then there’s Deai, which has only been performed twice. It was written for the Boston Symphony and the Toho School of Music in Japan. It’s a piece for three orchestras: one on stage and two satellite orchestras in the hall. "Deai" means “encounters” and what happens in the course of the piece, specifically in the third movement, is that the two orchestras gradually infiltrate and meld into the orchestra onstage, hence the “encounters.” I think it’s a masterpiece not only because of the drama in it, but the musical content is just amazing, and there’s a wonderful clarinet solo in the second movement! The only other time it was performed was with the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Like other orchestral or wind ensemble pieces of Gunther’s, it calls for large forces, and it limits the performances they’re going to get, but that was of less concern to him than his sound world and what the pieces should contain. The one other piece to mention: he has a whole series of concertos, and among them is the Concerto Quaternio which is for a group of four soloists: flute, trumpet, violin, and oboe (a Brandenburg group), and each of the soloists has a satellite orchestra with them, and again, it’s just amazing what he brings with the concept of those soloists. It should also be noted that other concertos that could be on my favorites list are: the trumpet concerto, the trombone concerto, and believe it or not, the contrabassoon concerto. And also important: works for large wind ensemble. 

Photo courtesy of Bruce Credit

Can you share a favorite memory of Gunther?
To narrow them down is difficult.  Performing with the New England Ragtime Ensemble (NERE) for over 25 years - which started out as the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble but changed our name when we who all were students at NEC graduated provided many great experience. We performed at all of the major music festivals and indeed all over the world, recorded several albums one of which - The Red Back Book - won a Grammy Award, tape TV shows, etc. But the point I want to highlight is that every time a concert started, usually with Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, the joy that spread over Gunther's face is something I'll never forget. It spread from him to each of us and to the audience. Ragtime was only one such music he championed. From Charles Ives to Paul Whiteman, from Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus to George Perle and many, many others. There's a poster, a caricature of Gunther for a festival at the Hartt School of Music showing him with all of these different hats floating around him.
There is one other indelible memory - this time on a NERE trip.  Our plane was fogged in and we were waiting in a small airport near Buffalo.  There were empty chairs in the room and Gunther just took stuff out of his briefcase, laid it around and just started working.  I don't remember if he was composing at that point, but there were papers all around.  He make use of any and every opportunity.  This was the work ethic that governed his entire life.  That's how he accomplished enough for several lifetimes.  He was very focused and concentrated in his focus.  His work was his joy.

Bruce Creditor has been Assistant Personnel Manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra  since September 1992, having joined the Personnel Office in March 1986. Mr. Creditor is an honors graduate of New England Conservatory in both clarinet (studies with former BSO clarinetist, the late Peter Hadcock) and musicology. He was a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1976 and 1978 and then joined the TMC staff as orchestra librarian. Mr. Creditor's extensive freelance activities have included performances with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops and Boston Pops Esplanade orchestras, as well as the New Hampshire Symphony, Boston and Rhode Island philharmonics, Boston Ballet, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, Cantata Singers and Ensemble, Emmanuel Music, Winsor Music, Andover Chamber Music, Holy Cross Chamber Players, Brandeis Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Aeolian Chamber Players, and other ensembles. He has performed, recorded, and toured worldwide, including many of the major summer music festivals, as clarinet and assistant conductor of the Grammy Award-winning New England Ragtime Ensemble. 

A founding member of the Emmanuel Wind Quintet (winner of the prestigious Naumburg Award in Chamber Music), Alea III (the contemporary music ensemble in residence at Boston University), and Montage Music Society, Mr. Creditor has given the Boston premieres of works by Schuller, Martino, Wyner, Harbison, Antoniou, Tower, Lerdahl, Starer, and others, and has recorded for Albany, Arsis, CRI, GM, Koch, Naxos, Neuma, New World, and Nonesuch (with Natalie Merchant). Prior to coming to the BSO, Mr. Creditor was general manager of Margun/GunMar Music and GM Recordings, twice receiving the Paul Revere Award for Graphic Excellence from the Music Publishers Association, and assistant to composer/conductor Gunther Schuller. He was also orchestra manager of the 1988 "Making Music Together" American-Soviet cultural exchange, has been on the faculty of New England Conservatory, and has co-chaired peer review panels of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Creditor is also a contributing editor to The Clarinet, journal of the International Clarinet Society, is associated with the Zamir Chorale of Boston, and is active in various non-profit and religious organizations. He enjoys collecting and listening to recordings of a wide range of musical genres. He lives in Sharon, Massachusetts with his wife Susan.