Gunther Schuller, one of America’s most wide-ranging musicians — a French horn prodigy and tireless advocate for bridging classical music and jazz — died Sunday morning in Boston, his son Ed Schuller said. Gunther Schuller was 89.
Extraordinarily active and influential as a composer, conductor and educator, he was also hailed as an author, publisher and record producer — and, not incidentally, as a friend and colleague of everyone from Miles Davis to Frank Zappa. Schuller had an omnivorous appreciation of — and heavy involvement in — music from nearly every conceivable genre. As he told The Guardian in 2010, “The thing that may make me unique is that I have simultaneously had seven full-time careers in music over the last 50 or 60 years. That’s more than Leonard Bernstein.”
Born in New York Nov. 22, 1925, Schuller had an early interest in music that was not happenstance. His father served as a violinist in the New York Philharmonic for more than four decades.
in 1932, his parents sent him to a boarding school for mostly international students in their native Germany, where he remained for four years. The experience was anything but happy, as Schuller lost his left eye in a knife accident, after which his parents promptly pulled him out of the school. It was also at this school where the young boy was enrolled against his will in the Nazis’ Hitler Youth.
As Schuller told New Music Box editor Frank Oteri in a 2009 interview, “These private schools were supposed to be off-limits, but [Hitler] never stayed with any treaties or agreements that he ever made, and so suddenly we were all in brown uniforms. All of us kids from China, from Brazil, from everywhere. Ridiculous. And then the commandant, who was a sadist, beat the s – – – out of us once a day just for practice. And I got alarmed. I wrote my parents and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And they couldn’t believe what I was writing them. They thought maybe I was fantasizing or exaggerating or something, but anyway they eventually inquired and were told yes, the school had been taken over by [Baldur] von Schirach who was the head of the Hitlerjugend. So it was a good thing that I got out of there.”
Schuller returned with his mother to New York in 1936, and was enrolled in the choir school of St. Thomas Church. As a teenager, Schuller rapidly gained a reputation in the city as a good French horn player — good enough to drop out of high school and, at age 16, to perform Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony under Arturo Toscanini in the work’s first American broadcast. Relocating to New York also provided Schuller with the opportunity to begin devouring jazz on records and by going to clubs as often as he could. He shocked his violinist father by calling music by Duke Ellington as great as Beethoven’s.
After a season playing with the American Ballet Theatre, Schuller joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1943 as its principal horn player. He remained for two seasons before joining the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, where he served as principal until 1959. (His first book, Horn Technique, originally published in 1962, remains a standard text.) In the summers, when the Met was off-season, he played in the pits of Broadway theaters. And it was sitting in the Met’s pit night after night, Schuller told Oteri, that he learned the structure of music “from the inside, sitting in that sound … People ask me who my teacher was. Well, I didn’t have any teachers. But my two teachers were the scores and playing in orchestras.”
It was also during these early years in New York that Schuller’s work as a composer — and what became his consuming interest in jazz — took flight along with his performing career. Eugene Goossens, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, conducted the world premiere of Schuller’s First Horn Concerto in 1945, with the composer as soloist. And three years later, a burgeoning friendship with pianist John Lewis was cemented in a historic meeting of musical minds: the recording of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. Lewis recommended Schuller as a hornist to Davis; Schuller went on to record with Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie.
Lewis and Schuller founded a group in 1955 called the Modern Jazz Society. Soon after, they renamed it the Jazz and Classical Music Society. In a 2010 conversation with writer Marc Myers, Schuller observed, “We felt we had to put teeth into what we were saying about jazz-classical fusion … Many musicians felt they would wind up in trouble with the critics if they [used the word “classical”]. And they were right. John and I did use it, and that of course made it controversial.” It was during this period that Schuller began using the term “third stream” to describe work that melded classical, jazz and new art music.
In 1959, Schuller gave up his job at the Metropolitan Opera and largely stopped playing to focus more fully on his own work as a composer, conductor and author. It was also soon after that he began teaching widely, first at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950s, and from 1963 to 1964 as a composition professor at Yale University.
His closest teaching ties, however, were in Massachusetts. At Aaron Copland’s invitation, Schuller began teaching in 1963 at the Berkshire Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, now called Tanglewood. He was Tanglewood’s artistic director from 1969 to 1984.
Schuller also served as president of the New England Conservatory from 1967 to 1977, and it was there that he began codifying the connections between classical and jazz within an academic setting. Under his leadership, the conservatory became the first eminent classical institution to establish a degree-granting jazz program, which he founded in 1969. It became known, following Schuller’s parlance, as the Third Stream program.
Among his more than 180 compositions, Schuller wrote numerous pieces for orchestra, two operas, several concertos, many works for small groups and a number of pieces for jazz ensembles. In addition to his book on French horn technique, he authored two books on jazz as well as The Compleat Conductor, a lengthy and provocative 1998 tome in which he castigated many of the biggest names among 20th-century conductors for what he perceived as their shortcomings on the podium.
In 1994, Schuller won the Pulitzer Prize for his Of Reflections and Reminiscences, a large-scale tribute to his wife Marjorie Black, whom he had met when both were just 17 years old, and who had passed away in 1992. He was also awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1991.
You read another CPR classical story to the end. We have got just the thing for classical music lovers like you: a weekly email newsletter! Sign up here to stay up-to-date on CPR Classical programming, events and stories from the world of classical music.