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Gunther Schuller

Born: 1925

Died: 2015

Nationality: American

Publisher: AMP

Photo © Bachrach

Gunther Schuller's string of commissions from soloists and ensembles around the world shows no sign of a slower pace. He composed more than twenty works during 2012-14, including From Here to There (2013) for the New England Conservatory and Four Chromatic Adventures (2014) commissioned by Contempo.

Schuller's orchestral works include some of the classics of the modern repertoire written for the major orchestras of the world. Prominent among these are several masterful examples in the "Concerto for Orchestra" genre, though not all of them take that title. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and James Levine premiered Where the Word Ends in February 2009. Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra brought Where the Word Ends to the 2010 Proms in London. More recent is Dreamscape (2012), commissioned to celebrate the Tanglewood Festival's 75th anniversary. An earlier work is Spectra (1958), alongside such works as the Concerto for Orchestra No. 1: Gala Music (1966), written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (1976) for the National Symphony Orchestra; and Farbenspiel (Concerto for Orchestra No. 3) (1985), written for the Berlin Philharmonic. The title of the latter, translatable as "play of colors," echoes the visual metaphor of Spectra.

Only one of Schuller's large orchestral pieces takes the generic title of "symphony": his colorful Symphony, written in 1965 for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and premiered that year. Schuller himself, however, has described his Of Reminiscences and Reflections (1993) as a "symphony for large orchestra." Written for the Louisville Orchestra and winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Of Reminiscences and Reflections is Schuller's large-scale memorial to his wife of 49 years, Marjorie Black. (Another orchestral tribute to Marjorie is The Past Is the Present, written for the centennial of the Cincinnati Symphony and premiered in May 1994.)

One of his first works performed by a major orchestra was his Symphony for Brass and Percussion, played in 1949 by Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic; his Symphony No. 3, In Praise of Winds (1981) is also for wind ensemble. He has also written a Chamber Symphony and a work for solo organ titled, simply, Symphony.

Concertos and concertante works for solo or small ensemble with orchestra form a large subgroup within Schuller's output. With his two piano concertos (1962 and 1981), two violin concertos (1976 and 1991), two horn concertos (1943 and 1976), and concertos for trumpet, for flute, and for viola, Schuller has championed as soloists unusual but deserving instruments, including alto saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, tuba, and double bass. He has shown a predilection for works combining small ensemble and orchestra in his classic Contrasts for Wind Quintet and Orchestra (1961), Concerto Festivo for Brass Quintet and Orchestra, and the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, to name a few. For concert band are Diptych for Brass Quintet and Concert Band (1967), Eine Kleine Posaunemusik for trombone and band (1980), and Song and Dance for violin and band (1990).

As in his concertos, Schuller's chamber music is for a range of both traditional and non-traditional forces. These works appear frequently on the programs of local and internationally known ensembles throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. His String Quartet No. 3 (1986) is prominent in the repertoire of, and has been recorded by, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Juilliard Quartet has championed his String Quartet No. 4 (2002). The Miró Quartet commissioned and premiered his String Quartet No. 5 (2013). The outstanding, exotic mixed-media work Symbiosis (1957) for violin, piano, and percussion, written for a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist and his wife, a dancer, is but one example of Schuller's embrace of unusual performance opportunities and instrumental combinations.

Not to be overlooked are Schuller's original jazz compositions such as Teardrop and Jumpin' in the Future, works that epitomize the composer's "Third Stream" approach, which combines the total-chromatic language of Schoenberg and the structural sophistication of the contemporary classical composer with the ensemble fluidity and swing of jazz.

An educator of extraordinary influence, Schuller served on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and Yale University; he was, for many years, head of contemporary music activities (succeeding Aaron Copland) as well as a director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and served as President of the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the author of The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 and Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development and The Complete Conductor, as well as many other books. In October 2011, University of Rochester Press released the first volume of his memoirs, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty.

His music is published by Associated Music Publishers.

— February 2015

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