How Gunther Schuller got his students into a White House dinner

How Gunther Schuller got his students into a White House dinner


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2015

Mary O’Reilly, a violinist in the Rottderdam Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of hundreds of students who bonded with the great musician Gunther Schuller, and who never lost touch after they left college.

Mary has written this memoir of Gunther for Slipped Disc.


Although I regularly think of Gunther Schuller, today I am flooded with memories. When in the early 1970’s I as an 18 year old freshman first stood on the stage of New England Conservatory’s renowned Jordan Hall auditioning for orchestral placement I had of course no inkling of what the future would bring, just dreams, hopes and aspirations. And there I first encountered ‘President’ Schuller.

In the course of the years to follow, it transpired that he guided me continually and intensely. It would be an enormous understatement to simply say that he influenced me profoundly, no; he shaped me in a multitude of ways as a musician and person. Through him I gained deep insights into practically ever aspect of the career I would later carve for myself. The knowledge and training he offered me (as well as to scores of others), and the information he imparted, gave us the tools to pursue our dreams, each in our own fashion.

I could reminisce about personal experiences gained (as solo first violinist) during worldwide tours with the NEC Ragtime Ensemble, concerts in major American summer festival venues, recordings and television appearances, a state dinner in the White House – all envisioned, coordinated and directed by himself.

It was a state dinner for the Italian government, with President Ford. We were on tour in Europe with the NEC orch and chorus (another massive undertaking on his part), and I had planned to go visit my parents in Ireland. But that all changed when the invitation from the White House came in – off we went to DC!

gunther schuller ragtime
Gunther Schuller with the NEC Ragtime ensemble, Mary is 3rd from right

Then there were the years I was granted to benefit from his intense tutelage whilst concertmaster of the NEC orchestra and first violinist of his Contemporary Ensemble with two marvellous summers studying at Tanglewood. The performance opportunities he provided were invaluable, though we as students took them all in stride. It can safely be said that he was more than demanding, highly critical, and never minced any words. Often I do think and reflect upon these highlights, but the thoughts that today preside in my mind regard his undying affection and consideration for his students.

He and I never lost touch, and would always meet whenever he was engaged in a production here in the Netherlands. The fact that an ocean separated us never kept us apart. We would often drive around Amsterdam looking at hotel rooms which might possibly suit his him on his next visit. Major criteria? The size of the desk – for composing, of course! Only recently he called just for a chat, and gave me the full rundown on his many endeavors of the moment. Without Gunther’s mentorship my musical life would have been far less fulfilling and/or successful. He offered us as students the opportunity to acquire the tools necessary to enter the world of the successful professional musician. And he loved us and stood by us throughout our careers. It was education par excellence. Thank you Gunther Schuller, what a gift to have known you for so long. Already I miss you exceedingly, but you will live with me forever.

(c) Mary O’Reilly/Slipped Disc


  • Larry Fried says:

    Great to read this from my classmate and fellow Ragtime Ensemble member. Gunther was an inspiration to me and still is, even though I no longer perform. I still can’t believe that the very first time I met him I went out of my way to point out a mistake in his book “Early Jazz!!” I’d like to think that (maybe) I earned a tiny bit of respect from him because of that. I joined the Ragtime Ensemble right after the White House concert; it was decided to have my predecessor (Mark Belair) perform that special gig since I had not yet learned the music. Ironically, one of the very last times I played professionally was when the Ragtime Ensemble went to Italy in 1982. I was called back to do the tour and it was great.

    The Ragtime Ensemble did four concerts at the Bergen (Noway) Festival in 1975. Two were “regular” ragtime shows, the other two were contemporary chamber music of all kinds, including some Norwegian composers. An incredible experience. I could go on and in and I’m sure Mary could, too. He was an amazing artist and I don’t know that we will see his kind again anytime soon.

    Larry Fried

  • Bruce Coppock says:

    How wonderful of Mary to start this chain!

    Gunther was a huge inspiration for so many of us who were lucky enough to be in Boston during the 70’s and 80’s with him. That White House dinner with the Ragtime Ensemble, just a month after Nixon resigned, was perhaps the most glamorous thing we did, but really just the merest indication of what he gave us.

    Gunther had fabulous ears, as everyone knew — or learned the hard way — but his greatest gift to us was his eagerness to surround himself at NEC with an astonishing array of composers, performers, theorists — Rudolf Kolisch, Russell Sherman, Louis Krasner, Benjamin Zander, Don Martino, John Heiss, Ernst Oster, Eugene Lehner, George Russell, Ran Blake, Robert Helps, Leonard Shure and many many more, all of whom were bound together by fierce, original and passionate musical points of view. They all understood that Gunther had created an especially dynamic and stimulating world at NEC, that it was a place they could thrive and in so doing they contributed mightily to the fertile musical environment in Boston. Gunther taught us, through his own musical quests and in those of the people he brought to Boston, that there were many many ways to be successful musicians, perhaps the most important lesson of all.

    As he was to so many others, Gunther was a great mentor to me. Because he didn’t drive due to his sight impairment, I drove him home to Newton very frequently during those years. Whether in was discussions about how long it was going to take for Nixon to resign, or figuring out the row of the Fourth Schönberg Quartet, or discussing the piece he was writing, it was always fascinating and enlightening. He opened the door to so many ways of thinking about music, never minced words, and had the courage to say things and try ideas without fear of consequence. Sometimes he got himself in trouble that way, but he was almost always right. Over the past 25 years, we stayed in good communication. He was a regular visitor to the Twin Cities, and I made it a point to call on him at his house in Newton when in Boston. To the end he was idealistic, impassioned and inspiring.

    It is a scandal that no major publication reviewed his — albeit overflowing – autobiography. It paints of picture of a musician with omnivorous curiosity, boundless energy, and a wildly infectious love for music — the study of it, the making of it, the creation of it and the teaching of it. It also is a vibrant account of musical life in New York in the 40s and 50s, an era now long lost and nearly forgotten. Unfortunately, his first volume only got to 1960, so we are missing his account of the next 50 years. I badgered him about getting to work on the second volume, but — blessedly — he was overwhelmed with commissions toward the end and was experiencing a tremendous surge of compositional creativity and energy. He wisely chose creation over narration with the precious little time he knew he had left.

    In every way, personally, musically, professionally, he was a giant among musicians, and will be long remembered and treasured by those of us lucky enough to have spent so much time with him.


    Bruce Coppock
    President, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra