NEP’s Composer Laureate
Gunther Schuller’s professional music career began as a horn player, performing with the American Ballet Theater, as principal horn in the Cincinnati Symphony (1943-1945) and with the Metropolitan Opera from 1945-1959. Schuller’s jazz career also began as a French horn player on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool recording (1949-1950). As an educator, Schuller first taught at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950-1953. From 1964-1967 Schuller held the position of Professor of Composition at Yale University. At the request of Aaron Copland, Schuller began teaching at the Berkshire Music Center (at Tanglewood) in 1963 and subsequently served as its Artistic Director from 1969-1984.
From 1967-1977, Schuller served as President of the New England Conservatory where he formalized NEC’s commitment to jazz by establishing the first degree-granting jazz program at a major classical conservatory in 1969. Shortly thereafter, he instituted the Third Stream department (subsequently named the Contemporary Improvisation department) to explore the regions where the two musical “streams” of classical and jazz meet and mingle (Schuller had coined the term “Third Stream” during a lecture he gave at Brandeis University in 1957). He hired the iconic Ran Blake to be the department’s chair. Early jazz hires included the legendary Jaki Byard and George Russell..
Schuller has composed over 180 works, spanning all musical genres including solo works, orchestral works, chamber music, opera, and jazz. Among Schuller’s orchestral works are Symphony (1965), Seven Studies of Paul Klee (1959), An Arc Ascending (1996), Four Soundscapes, and Shapes and Designs. Schuller’s large scale work Of Reminiscences and Reflections was composed as a tribute to his wife of forty-nine years, Marjorie Black. In addition to composing for the standard concerto instruments – piano, violin, horn etc., Schuller also wrote concertos for instruments which had been previously neglected in the concerto repertoire such as the alto saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, and double bass. Schuller also composed a number of works for solo ensemble with orchestra (or in some cases, band). Examples include Contrasts for Wind Quintet and Orchestra (1967), Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, Diptych for Brass Quintet and Concert Band (1967), and Eine kleine Posaunemusik for trombone and band (1980).
Schuller has composed two operas: The Visitation (1966), based on a Kafka story; and the children’s opera The Fisherman and his Wife with text by John Updike, derived from the Grimm fairy tale. Notable among Schuller’s works in the chamber music genre are the String Quartet No. 3 (1986), String Quartet No. 4 (2002) and Symbiosis (1957), a piece for violin, piano, and percussion performed in conjunction with a dancer.Schuller’s original jazz compositions occupy an important place in his overall oeuvre. Many of these works epitomize the Third Stream style. These include Transformation for jazz ensemble (1957), Concertino for jazz quartet and orchestra (1959), Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960), Teardrop, and Jumpin’ in the Future.
Schuller has also been the recipient of several prestigious awards. These include the William Shuman Award (1988) given by Columbia University, the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award (1991), a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his piece Of Reflections and Reminisciences, the Gold Medal for Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and an inaugural membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
In 2013, the New England Philharmonic named him Composer Laureate.