This challenging giant was never Mueller light

Robert Fitzpatrick, former dean of Curtis, remembers a legendary professor, who died last night.


Otto Werner Mueller (1926-2016) was a giant in many respects: physically at over two meters in height, intellectually because of his incredible analytical mind, and musically both as a teacher and as a conductor, especially of conservatory orchestras at Yale, Juilliard and Curtis. His first position in America was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Born in Germany, he immigrated to Canada and eventually became a proud American citizen.

Students in his orchestras and in his conducting classes often endured a psycho-drama that ran the gamut from respect to fear, from anger to admiration, and finally to love and back to respect. His entrance test for conductors was a legendary ordeal that tested the aural, keyboard, and intellectual capacities of a candidate. Only after surviving this baptism of fire were they permitted to conduct a “lab” orchestra of students in a work of the candidate’s choice and the celebrated Mueller reduction for small orchestra of the “Glorification of the Chosen One” from “The Rite of Spring.” Those who showed a talent that attracted the ears and eyes of the Maestro were given a brief lesson in front of the orchestra. If the candidate’s potential and docility were compatible with Otto’s uncompromising standards, the chosen one gained admission to the Mueller studio which numbered between three to five students, with one or two admitted each year as others graduated.

At Curtis, students coveted a place in the Lab Orchestra because they learned so much about orchestral playing and conducting technique while they observed their fellow students on the podium reacting to Otto’s inimitable teaching style which included compliments, cajoling, critical remarks, and occasional Zeus-like thunder bolts of short-lived paternal anger. His teaching approach embodied the proverbial velvet glove covering an iron first even though the iron melted a bit over the years. Unforgettable musicianship is the term most often heard from former students concerning OWM, with lasting influence running a close second.

The list of his students who are currently musical directors of orchestras around the world is impressive. At Curtis, he had 38 students between 1986 and 2014. His classes at other schools also boasted many successful graduates who are currently pursuing careers on the podium. Otto Werner Mueller, musician, teacher, conductor, and remarkable human being…we will never forget you.

(c) Robert Fitzpatrick/Slipped Disc

otto-werner mueller



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  • It was an honor to learn the great German repertoire from a man who was truly invested in the development of America’s finest orchestral students. This was a man who was responsible more than any other teacher in the development of the most fine American orchestral playing of the last 40 years.
    He was also a Canadian dance band director! Werner Mueller and his orchestra

    • Werner Mueller (1920-1998) and Otto Werner Mueller were different folks. He was definitely a great teacher, and — I think — in private, a rather shy and self-effacing man. I played oboe and English horn in his Wisconsin orchestras and audited his studio classes and later participated in an ACDA workshop with Otto, Alfred Mann, and Margaret Hillis. He was a giant in many ways beyond the physical. I suspect it was through his days teaching at the Moscow conservatory that he taught Maxim Shostakovich. He liked to say “I taught him his daddy’s first symphony.”

      I also remember that he hated being addressed as Maestro

      In my rather inconsequential career as a conductor, I was decidedly better at my craft for what I learned from “Mr. Mueller”. I’m sorry to know that he’s no longer with us.

      • It’s true that he preferred “Mr. Mueller” to Maestro but he did not lead a Canadian dance band, IMHO. However, Celibidache did play piano in night clubs in Berlin during WWII before he was named MD of the Berliner Philharmoniker by the US military. Imagine Celibidache and Mueller playing piano 4 hands! The mind boggles…to my knowledge, they never met.

    • While Otto-Werner Mueller did do popular music in Canada, the link here is to a different conductor, Werner Mueller.

  • Actually, while he didn’t have a regular dance band in Canada, and should not be confused with Werner Mueller, in his early years in Canada he did do a lot of popular music, either as a pianist, conductor or arranger. In fact, a few months ago Dad was proudly telling my daughter and me stories of when he directed a band for Greek weddings in the early fifties.

    • Dear Pipo,

      I really hope that you are all well.

      I am deeply saddened by the news of your loss. He was a very thoughtful and wonderful person. I will keep very good memories of him forever.

      I don’t know if you remember the time when all your Family were living in Montreal. Marga and Otto had very good Friends at Saint-Bruno, South shore of Montreal. Gisele and Roger Racine. They often came to visit them, and we had a good meal with all of you.

      Otto and Roger had often conversation about classical music, and my mother, Gisele, was having fun with Marga. The children were playing together.

      Pipo, you were quiet Young at this time, but I believe that you can remember some very nice moments that we had together. I can also remember well Michael and Bernie.

      I remember your Father, he was a real giant for me, I was so small. He was very nice with children, and he was able to speak French with us. I was completely impressed when he conducted a symphony on our living room, while studying a new language and speaking with my Father. My sisters and brothers were at this time unable to speak English, except Michele, but that was not important and we had a very good time.

      Time is running so fast, but it was a good time for me that I won’t be able to forget.

      Since that time, I learned German in Germany when I lived two years in Regensburg. It is a long time ago now and I forgot a lot, but it was a good experience for me.

      With my deepest sympathy to you and all your Family.

      With all my love,

      Marie Racine
      Montreal (Quebec)
      E-mail :

  • I got to work with him at Juilliard, both as a student orchestra member and as the assistant to the director of performance activities, Louis Jean Brunelli. Otto was highly opinionated, controversial, sometimes inappropriate in today’s standards of political correctness, but ALWAYS at service to the music. His baton technique was clean, clear, and understated. He brought pristine clarity to the most raucous passages of Strauss. I learned a great deal from him, and I will miss him.

    • I agree with you, Orlando. He was honest and sometimes inappropriately so. I remember some unfortunate incidents when I was at the University of Wisconsin. But he was a superb musician, committed to his art and to his students.

      Margaret Hillis, famed Chicago Symphony Conductor, told me she relearned her own technique from him. And I’m told Robert Shaw had a similar story to tell. I remember him talking about how he did not teach technique, that the conductor’s most important tool was his brain and his knowledge of the score, and that any technique for communicating that knowledge to the orchestra grew from that knowledge. He told me once that if he had a headache prior to a concert he wouldn’t take anything for it because he didn’t want drugs getting in the way of his work.

      I’ll also never forget something else that Hillis said, that while major names out on the conducting circuit had to learn hundreds if not thousands of scores in a career, “Otto knew maybe 100 scores, but he knew them better than anyone in the world.”

      I learned a great deal from him, and while I haven’t seen him in nearly forty years, I’ll never forget him.

  • Music is not a branch of the natural sciences but an art. It can noy be studied nor be presented objectively because, interpretation is ALWAYS something highly subjective Even the most “positivist” view at the score has been born in someone’s subjectvive mind. Therefore, none can really know the composer’s “true” ideas behind the score. “Internal logic”, “sense of structure”, etc. are all concepts someone uses in order to organize the musical text in a way that makes it more organizedand predictable to himself only. Hence, if someone pretends to “know” an orchestral score the best in comparison to others, he/she probably thinks him or herself a sort of a God or other omnipotent enitiy that has the answers to all world’s questions and issues. I think that was the main porblem that Mr. Mueller could not understand throughout his entire life in the American classical-music showbusiness. I hope that my opinion will be published..

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