Gunther Schuller

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Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller and A.B. Spellman.jpg
Gunther Schuller (left) receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy in 2008, alongside A. B. Spellman
Background information
Born(1925-11-22)November 22, 1925
DiedJune 21, 2015(2015-06-21) (aged 89)
Genres Jazz, classical, third stream
Occupation(s)President of the New England Conservatory
Instruments French horn, flute
Associated actsModern Jazz Society, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Gunther Alexander Schuller (November 22, 1925 June 21, 2015) [1] was an American composer, conductor, horn player, author, historian educator, publisher, and jazz musician.


Biography and works

Early years

Schuller was born in Queens, New York City, [1] the son of German parents Elsie (Bernartz) and Arthur E. Schuller, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. [2] He studied at the Saint Thomas Choir School and became an accomplished French horn player and flute player. At age 15, he was already playing horn professionally with the American Ballet Theatre (1943) followed by an appointment as principal hornist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1943–45), and then the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, where he stayed until 1959. [3] During his youth, he attended the Precollege Division at the Manhattan School of Music, later going on to teach at the school. [4] But, already a high school dropout because he wanted to play professionally, Schuller never obtained a degree from any institution. [5] He began his career in jazz by recording as a horn player with Miles Davis (1949–50). [6]

Performance and growth

In 1955, Schuller and jazz pianist John Lewis founded the Modern Jazz Society, [6] which gave its first concert at Town Hall, New York, the same year and later became known as the Jazz and Classical Music Society. While lecturing at Brandeis University in 1957, he coined the term "Third Stream" to describe music that combines classical and jazz techniques. [7] He became an enthusiastic advocate of this style and wrote many works according to its principles, among them Transformation (1957, for jazz ensemble), [8] Concertino (1959, for jazz quartet and orchestra), [9] Abstraction (1959, for nine instruments), [10] and Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960, for 13 instruments) utilizing Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. [10] In 1966, he composed the opera The Visitation. [11] He also orchestrated Scott Joplin's only known surviving opera Treemonisha for the Houston Grand Opera's premiere production of this work in 1975. [12]

Career maturity

In 1959, Schuller largely gave up performance to devote himself to composition, teaching and writing. He conducted internationally and studied and recorded jazz with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis among many others. [6] Schuller wrote over 190 original compositions in many musical genres. [13]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Schuller was president of New England Conservatory, where he founded The New England Ragtime Ensemble. During this period, he also held a variety of positions at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home in Tanglewood, serving as director of new music activities from 1965 to 1969 and as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center from 1970 to 1984 and creating the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. [14]

In the 1970s and 1980s Schuller founded the publishers Margun Music and Gun-Mar and the record label GM Recordings. [15] [16] Margun Music and Gun-Mar were sold to Music Sales Group in 1999. [17]

Schuller recorded the LP Country Fiddle Band with the Conservatory's country fiddle band, released by Columbia Records in 1976. Reviewing in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), Robert Christgau wrote: "The melodies are fetchingly tried-and-true, the (unintentional?) stateliness of the rhythms appropriately nineteenth-century, and the instrumental overkill (twenty-four instruments massed on 'Flop-Eared Mule') both gorgeous and hilarious. A grand novelty." [18]

Schuller was editor-in-chief of Jazz Masterworks Editions, and co-director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra [19] in Washington, D.C. Another effort of preservation was his editing and posthumous premiering at Lincoln Center in 1989 of Charles Mingus's immense final work, Epitaph , subsequently released on Columbia/Sony Records. [20] He was the author of two major books on the history of jazz, Early Jazz (1968) [21] and The Swing Era (1991). [22]

His students included Irwin Swack, [23] Ralph Patt, [24] John Ferritto, Eric Alexander Hewitt, Mohammed Fairouz, Oliver Knussen, Nancy Zeltsman, Riccardo Dalli Cardillo [25] and hundreds of others. See: List of music students by teacher: R to S#Gunther Schuller .

Accomplishments in final decades

From 1993 until his death, Schuller served as Artistic Director for the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington state. Each year the festival showcased works by J.S. Bach and other composers in venues around Spokane. At the 2010 festival, Schuller conducted the Mass in B minor at St. John's Cathedral, sung by the Bach Festival Chorus, composed of professional singers in Eastern Washington, and the BachFestival, composed of members of the Spokane Symphony and others. Other notable performances Schuller conducted at the festival include the St Matthew Passion in 2008 and Handel's Messiah in 2005.

Schuller's association with Spokane began with guest conducting the Spokane Symphony for one week in 1982. [26] He then served as Music Director from 1984–1985 [27] and later regularly appeared as a guest conductor. Schuller also served as Artistic Director to the nearby Festival at Sandpoint. [28]

His modernist orchestral work Where the Word Ends, organized in four movements corresponding to those of a symphony, premiered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2009. [7]

In 2011 Schuller published the first volume of a two-volume autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. [29]

In 2012, Schuller premiered a new arrangement, the Treemonisha suite from Joplin's opera. It was performed as part of The Rest is Noise season at London's South Bank in 2013. [30]

Schuller died on June 21, 2015 in Boston, from complications from leukemia. He married Marjorie Black, a singer and pianist, in 1948. Their marriage produced two sons, George and Edwin, and lasted until her death in 1992. [31] [1] His sons survive him, as does his brother Edgar.

Awards and honors


As arranger

As conductor

As a sideman

With Gigi Gryce

With John Lewis

With Mitch Miller

With Frank Sinatra

With others


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