Medal to celebrate lifetime of music

Last modified: 6/25/2015 10:11:40 AM
In an unprecedented move, the MacDowell Colony will posthumously award the 56th Edward MacDowell Medal to Gunther Schuller, celebrating his life in addition to his achievements.

The 89-year-old Schuller, a composer, conductor, educator, author and historian who was instrumental in bridging classical music and jazz, died in Boston Sunday morning, less than two months before he was to receive the medal.

“It’s the right thing to honor him. Hopefully he can watch the big celebration of him somewhere,” said composer August Read Thomas, chair of the Edward MacDowell Medal Selection Committee.

“[His life] is something for us to really celebrate. He left us a huge legacy. We can all feel his generosity and celebrate his legacy.” Thomas was mentored by Schuller for three decades.

“My father had an incredibly open mind,” said one of Schuller’s two sons, Ed, on Wednesday. Ed had arrived at his father’s home in Boston that morning.

“He did what he really wanted to do, and inspired a lot of people,” said Ed. “He lived his dream more than most people.”

Ed was thankful the MacDowell Colony is honoring his father, and hopes he and his brother, George, both professional musicians, can attend Medal Day.

“This just adds to the legacy of what he’s accomplished,” said Ed. “This guy really did do a lot of amazing things. He did it his way. To honor that is to be honored.”

The MacDowell Colony has awarded the medal annually since 1960 to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field. Other medal recipients include Aaron Copland, Robert Frost, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Betye Saar.

Schuller will be honored Aug. 9 on Medal Day, the one day each year the MacDowell Colony is open to the public.

Communications Manager Jonathan Gourlay said Schuller will be the first to receive the medal posthumously. Schuller, who lived in Newton, Massachusetts, died of complications from leukemia.

“We were deeply saddened by Mr. Schuller’s death over the weekend. We decided during the early part of the week that it would make sense to honor his life’s work by going forward with Medal Day,” said Gourlay.

Gourlay added that Medal Day will celebrate Schuller’s life, not mourn it.

“It’s a celebration first and foremost of his contribution to American culture. It was always a celebration to his contribution,” said Gourlay. “It might just have a deeper meaning for some people this year.”

The committee chose Schuller not just because of his successes in his musical career, but also because of his relationships with the next generation of musicians.

Schuller began his professional career at 15 when he played French horn for the American Ballet Theater. He moved on to be the principal hornist for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Schuller quickly branched out to jazz, as a musician and a composer. The classically-trained Schuller played on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool.” Schuller also coined the term “third stream” in 1957, to describe the synthesis of classical and jazz styles.

He composed almost 200 works, winning a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for “Of Reminiscences and Reflections.” He was said to be working on a composition weeks before he died.

Schuller was committed to music education. When he was president of the New England Conservatory, he formally introduced jazz to the curriculum.

Thomas and composer Alvin Singleton, who was a member of the medal selection committee, praised Schuller for the mentorship he gave them, as well as countless other musicians.

At the ceremony, a Medal recipient can speak, after which visitors have the opportunity to tour the campus. Pianist and composer Yehudi Wyner and public radio host Terrance McKnight will speak about Schuller’s wide-reaching influence on music.

Benji Rosen can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228, or Follow him on Twitter @Benji_Rosen.


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