Schuller, Gunther Alexander
SCHULLER, Gunther Alexander
(b. 22 November 1925 in New York City), composer, conductor, and musicologist who almost single-handedly forged "third stream" music, a combination of jazz and traditional western music.
Schuller was the son of Arthur E. Schuller, a violinist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Elsie Bernartz. As a boy he sang soprano in the St. Thomas Choir School in 1937, learned flute and French horn, and studied music theory at the Manhattan School of Music. He played the horn for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Arturo Toscanini in 1942; the Ballet Theatre Orchestra in New York City in 1943; the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1943 to 1945; and New York City's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra from 1945 to 1959. Schuller also taught music at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950 to 1963. He married Marjorie Black on 8 June 1948; they had two children.
In 1959, after holding the position of principal French horn with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for fourteen years, Schuller became its musical composer. The first work he presented in this capacity, Seven Studies on Themes ofPaul Klee (1959), applied the principles of serial music—a style based on a series of tones in a particular pattern, chosen without consideration of traditional tonality—to the bold, surreal canvases of the expressionist artist. His "Twittering Machine" and "The Arab Village" are especially vivid passages within the larger work.
As the 1960s dawned, Schuller's work showcased a concept he had long been considering in his capacity as a music theorist and teacher: the idea of "third stream" music, a combination of jazz (an American music form with African roots) and western styles from classical to serial composition. In Schuller's mind, western music could benefit from the rhythms and the improvisational, impromptu techniques of jazz, while jazz would be well served by incorporating the discipline and structure of western styles. His career has been largely devoted to the synthesis of these styles.
During the early 1960s, Schuller received numerous grants and awards—two Guggenheim fellowships (1962, 1963), a Brandeis University Creative Arts award (1960), and others—that made it possible for him to pursue his compositions and his "third stream" ideas without concern for earning a secondary income as a teacher. During this time he sharpened his knowledge of jazz by working with John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Among his other work during the 1960s, Schuller served as music director of the First International Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1962; as acting director from 1963 to 1965, and as head of the composition department from 1965 to 1969 at the Berkshire Music Center in Boston University's Tangle-wood Institute; associate professor of composition at Yale University; and organizer and conductor for the "Twentieth Century Innovations" concert series at Carnegie Hall from 1963 to 1965.
In 1965, while serving briefly as a composer in residence in Berlin, Schuller completed The Visitation, an opera first produced in Hamburg the following year. The libretto was a double adaptation; taken from Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, it was recast with African-American characters in the southern United States. Perhaps because of the underlying racial themes and the existing tensions over segregation and civil rights in the United States, the opera—a classic example of "third stream" music—did not fare well when subsequently presented in that country. Other Schuller compositions of the 1960s and early 1970s include Spectra (1960), Six Renaissance Lyrics (1962), String Quartet No. 2 (1965), Symphony (1965), The Fisherman and His Wife (opera, 1970), Capriccio Stravagante (1972), The Power Within Us (1972), and Tre Invenzioni (1972).
Although Schuller's first published book focused on a highly specialized topic—Horn Technique (1962)—his second was a 401-page tome on the early history of jazz, with emphasis on its African roots. Of Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968), Frank Conroy wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Here, at last, is the definitive work" on the subject. Two decades later, Stanley Crouch was even more effusive. The book, he maintained, "brought a sometimes Olympian precision to writing about an art that has often languished in the whale's belly of sociology, obscured by pretension and blubbery thinking." The occasion of Crouch's observations was the publication of The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989), which Schuller has promised will be followed by another work to complete the history as a trilogy.
Although he left the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1967, Schuller stayed very busy. He served as director of the Berkshire Music Center from 1969 to 1984 and as president of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1967 to 1977. In the latter capacity, he presented the conservatory's ragtime ensemble in 1972, catalyzing a revival of ragtime music. As founder, in 1975, of Margun Music, a publishing company devoted to the principal that "all musics are created equal," Schuller has continued to pursue his goal of synthesizing musical styles.
Additionally, Schuller worked as music director of the Spokane Symphony in Spokane, Washington, from 1985 to 1986, and as artistic director of the Festival at Sandpoint, Idaho, from 1985. He has been a regular feature on the weekly radio series Contemporary Music in Evolution on WBAI-Radio in New York City and has made guest appearances as conductor for ensembles that include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the French Radio Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. In 1994 he published The Compleat Conductor, a detailed examination of the varying interpretations of eight symphonic works. Schuller also won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in music for Of Reminiscences and Reflections.
The presentation accompanying the Alice M. Ditson Award from Columbia University in 1970 aptly characterizes the scope of Schuller's career. "You have already achieved distinction in six careers," it said, "as conductor, as composer, as horn virtuoso and orchestral musician, and as author and educator." With his vast musical knowledge, his boundless energy, and his ever-inventive wellspring of creativity, Schuller has contributed immeasurably to the American musical lexicon.
The only full-length book on Schuller is Norbert Carnovale, Gunther Schuller: A Bio-Bibliography (1987). Also noteworthy are Gilbert Chase, ed., The American Composer Speaks: A Historical Anthology, 1770–1965 (1966); David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968) and American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary (1982), which contain short biographical sketches and analyses of the composer's work; and Schuller's own work, Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller (1986). Down Beat (Sept. 1993) profiled Schuller when it bestowed on him its Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement awards.