Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 39
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 21, 1970
Gunther Schuller, conductor
Background on the Music
Gunther Schuller, then 31 and serving as principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera, started planning his orchestral work Spectra in 1956 and finished composing it in 1958. The premiere took place in 1960; Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall.
In Schuller's recent autobiography about his early years, Gunther Schuller: A Life In Pursuit Of Music and Beauty, he writes, "Mitropoulos's generosity to me manifested itself in many ways, but most significantly in his determinate devotion to my music, including the commissioning in 1958 of what was to be one of my best and most important early compositions, Spectra. . . The three performances given were remarkably good, considering the difficulty and complexity of the work, which was in a style that most of the Philharmonic musicians had neither experienced nor liked nor understood. But I know the performance was as beautifully played as it was because of Mitropoulos's obvious devotion and commitment to my music, not to mention his intimate knowledge of the work. I also like to think - I could feel it at the rehearsals - that the musicians liked and respected me for having played with them so often over the last fifteen years, they thought of me as one of them. They also liked and respected my father [a longtime member of the orchestra]. So, it was almost like a family affair. But in the end it was Mitropoulos who once again extracted from those musicians not only a technically secure but also a highly expressive performance - a kind of miracle."
Spectra takes several ideas that were in the air in the mid 1950s and merges them into something that is different from the sum of its parts and strikingly original. It was written for a large orchestra, subdivided into six chamber ensembles - Schuller devised a radically different seating plan for the musicians that makes performance practical and possible. Each ensemble can operate independently but also interacts with the others to create one collaborative identity - what Schuller, in his original program note, called a "web of sound." At a time when stereo recording was being developed Spectra is also about music experienced in a spatial context. The music creates and moves across an aural landscape that Schuller delineates precisely. Several other 20th-century devices appear - vast waves of color, as in Varèse, for example, and the use of changing strands of color as form and structure. Spectra also synthesizes the opposing manners of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, 12-tone procedures propelled by driving rhythms. The whole thing adds up to an astonishing 20-minute firebomb.
The work is not quite a repertory piece yet, but adventurous conductors have taken it up as a mid-20th-century classic. Former BSO music director James Levine, for example, conducted a student performance as far back as 1968; he later conducted and recorded it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and celebrated Schuller's 80th birthday by leading the BSO in performances in Symphony Hall in 2005.
This performance is another in this Tanglewood 75th Anniversary download project that features a prominent composer conducting his own work. In 1965, Schuller was appointed director of new music activities at Tanglewood, a position he held for four years before being named the artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center (1970-1984). In addition to being a prolific composer, a gifted conductor, a prominent writer on music, a music publisher and record company executive, Schuller has been a dominant figure in musical education. He was one of the giants in the history of the Tanglewood Music Center, and he used the post not to further his own career but to showcase countless other adventurous composers of his own and younger generations. His departure in 1984 was painful both for him and for Tanglewood, but he has returned several times for performances of his own music and this summer gave the spoken address at the opening exercises of the Tanglewood Music Center In 1994 Schuller's Of Reminiscences and Reflections won the Pulitzer Prize for music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned his most recent major orchestral work, Where The Word Ends, and James Levine led the world premiere in 2009. His most recent work, Dreamscape, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, had its premiere under Schuller's direction on July 8, 2012, and it will be repeated during the annual Festival of Contemporary Music on August 13 (Schuller was the creator of this festival).