Just in: A towering music personality has died

Just in: A towering music personality has died


norman lebrecht

June 21, 2015

We are saddened to learn of the death of Gunther Schuller, aged 89.  Christopher O’Reilly reports that he died at 7.55 on Sunday morning, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing by his bedside.

A composer who was equally at home in orchestral music and jazz, in 1957 he coined the term ‘Third Stream’ to point optimistically to a fusion future.

Gunther was a formidable advocate for fine music, a lucid writer and a generous teacher.

He leaves more than 160 scores.

gunther schuller

By way of brief biography, he played principal horn in the Met orchestra in the 1950s, founded the Modern Jazz Society with John Lewis and served as president of the New England Conservatory. A rich and varied life.

UPDATE: First obit in the Boston Globe. Updated file obit from Allan Kozinn in the NY Times.

UPDATE: Read a personal memoir here.


  • Larry says:

    I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Gunther Schuller. He was my teacher, mentor and inspiration. It was my privilege to be a student at the New England Conservatory for 3 years (1972-75), when Gunther was its president. I played numerous concerts with him — orchestra, chamber music, and as the drummer/percussionist for the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. I remember each and every one of them, as if they happened yesterday.

    He was a horn player, conductor, composer, teacher, author, lecturer, concert promoter, music publisher, recording company executive, tireless champion of American music and American composers, equally at home with the New York Philharmonic or the Modern Jazz Quartet.

    I will paraphrase Jerome Kern’s comment about Irving Berlin: “Gunther Schuller has no place in American music, He is American music.”

  • harold braun says:

    A giant of American music!Musical polymath,living music history!Just finished reading the first part of his autobiography…What a life!

  • AZ Cowboy says:

    His advocacy of the American rag was invaluable. How long would the delightful scores of Scott Joplin and others lay unknown if it weren’t for Schuller? We were blessed to have him as long as we did.

  • Johnny h says:

    A minor music personality that only in America, a county without history and music tradition, could be referred as important.

    • Anonymous oc says:

      Couldn’t agree more… but perhaps right after his death and in an obituary is not the best time and place

    • Anon says:

      An and short-sighted comment. Besides his own musical accomplishments Gunther Schuller was an influential educator and mentor. As President of New England Conservatory and head of Tanglewood, Boston Symphony’s internationally renowned training program for gifted orch. players, conductors and composers, Schuller impacted and inspired legions of young musicians who are now working successfully around the world.

      Europe is rich with musicians in top orchestras, in prominent positions whose careers Schuller had a hand in shaping. We, those he mentored, are now fundamental players in Europe’s music scene, particularly in European orchestras. We, with our colleagues around the world, whose lives he touched, mourn his loss.

    • harold braun says:

      Most idiotic comment ever on this page!

      • harold braun says:

        I meant Johnny H,of course…

      • George west says:

        He would invite talented young composers to Tanglewood , listen to their fresh ideas and new sounds, wait 6 months, write a piece with their ideas and his signature– and use his political connections to have “his” work performed. Once.

    • Anon says:

      Yeah, all that stupid American jazz and ragtime and blues. Who do they think they are calling that crap music? Now if this guy were, say, an advocate of Gilbert and Sullivan his death might be more newsworthy.

      I mean just because he played horn with the Metropolitan Opera. Big deal. The MET is nothing compared to our beloved Katherine Jenkins, the great English opera singer.

      And what kind of important music educator could he possibly have been if he didn’t rape any young music students during his career as so many of our conservatory professors do here in the UK? How boring is that?

      Those Americans. Who do they think they are honoring this guy, anyway?

    • DWildener says:

      An inconvenient truth American readers of this blog don’t seem to like. Oh, well!
      – D. Wildner, München (De).

      • Anon says:

        Dear Mr./Ms. Wildener in Munich,

        Perhaps you can enlighten us as to the countries which you feel DO measure up musically. Countries in which musicians are justified, in your opinion, in paying homage to a musician they believe to be important and influential.

        I am really curious. If the US doesn’t measure up, then who does and why, please? I’m thinking you might see it as being limited to Germany, of course, to England, and perhaps to France. That’s overlooking a pretty huge part of the world. Interesting and worthwhile music, often with traditions long pre-dating your beloved Beethoven, is going on in many other countries. The great composers of your small triad of “important” musical nations were often inspired by such far flung styles as Debussy’s love of the Javanese gamelan.

        Don’t you feel credit is due to the music taking place in any other cultures besides your own? Do you really feel the Germany rules the world in classical music and everything else, ie, the US, is inferior.

        Please do explain yourself. Thank you.

        Notify me of followup comments via e-mail

  • william osborne says:

    Schuller made many valuable contributions to American music. I notice in some of the obituaries, however, a bit of historical confusion that is often repeated. In the obit published by ABC News, for example, Schuller’s comment in a 2010 interview is quoted:

    “When I started the whole thing in 1957 with the Third Stream … it was extremely controversial. I was vilified on both sides. Classical musicians, composers and critics all thought that classical would be contaminated by this lowly jazz music, this black music. And jazz musicians and critics said, ‘My god, classical music is going to stultify our great, spontaneous music.’ It was all nonsense and ignorance, of course. Eventually the two came together anyway.”

    Works like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” were written in 1924, thirty-three years before 1957. Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” followed in 1925. George Antiel’s “A Jazz Symphony” was also written in 1925. Arthur Honegger’s “Concerto for Piano” in in 1925. Ernst Krenek’s “Johny Spielt auf” in 1926. Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” in 1926. Copland’s “Clarinet for Concerto” in 1948. Boris Blacher’s “Concerto for Jazz Orchestra” in 1948. Etc.

    Schuller didn’t “start the whole thing in 1957,” but he did continue an important tradition.

  • william osborne says:

    Another especially important example in the context of Schuller’s work would be Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for 11 Instruments” written in 1918.

  • itsjtime says:

    One MUST recognize what this man contributed to American ART. Perhaps his compositions will be recognized as masterpieces in the future. That is one of the great mysteries of art and time.
    But for the here and now, let us celebrate a career that MOST DEFINITELY enriched the American culture.

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    I played in a few jazz ensembles at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, led by Mr. Schuller, where we performed his arrangements of these unusual works. He was a great advocate for this genre which ought to make a comeback.

  • Larry says:

    Johnny H, can you please tell us what country you live in?

    • Anon says:

      A native English speaker with a haughty disdain for all things American? Has to be the UK.

      • Catherine Hopperc says:

        As one of the many British relatives of Gunther Schuller (third cousin by marriage) I can see immediately that Johnny H is writing with heavy irony, something British people often allege is not understood by Americans. He’s clearly joking! A British cultural snob couldn’t possibly suggest that Gilbert and Sullivan were more worthy of praise than Schuller. If Johnny H is indeed British, his comments may be part of the great tradition of British humour, but they are very offensive, nevertheless, especially since Cousin Gunther is barely dead.

    • Ppellay says:

      I’d settle for him telling us which parallel universe he has just stumbled out of………! Schuller was one of the very few remaining giants amongst today’s composers, and his departure leaves our world much the poorer. R.I.P., Gunther Schuller

  • Hilary says:

    Gunther Schuller taught a many UK composers : Simon Bainbridge, Oliver Knussen, Mark Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir spring to mind.
    In the book ” New Sounds New Personalities ” Knussen remarked that his way of writing for the orchestra “owed more than a little to his ( Schuller’s ) example”

  • clarrieu says:

    I remember seeing Gunther Schuller many years ago when he was invited to conduct the student orchestra at the Paris Conservatory. Having scheduled his own “Studies on Paul Klee”, he promptly changed the work to Schubert “Unfinished” when he realized it was too big a rhythmical challenge for the orchestra…During the concert, I was wondering how many of the people in the audience knew this conductor had been the french horn player on the legendary “Birth of the Cool” sessions…

  • John McLaughlin Williams says:

    Don’t forget William Grant Still with his Symphony No.1 “Afro-American” (1930) and many other works of hybrid style.

    • william osborne says:

      True. He’s one of the best examples of all, a winner of two Guggenheims who was awarded 9 honorary doctorates during an era when African Americans faced severe and often brutal discrimination. Listen to the first movement of his fantastic First Symphony written in 1930 here:


  • Steven Honigberg says:

    If I’m remembering correctly, Mr. Schuller could be quite contrary, quite abrasive to musicians and to others. He could be downright nasty. This could be one reason he wasn’t more celebrated in old age say like Aaron Copland. His accomplishments certainly warrant a festival of some kind, possibly something substantial down the road.

  • Bruce Coppock says:

    Gunther had fabulous ears, as everyone knew — or learned the hard way — but his greatest gift to us was his eagerness to surround himself at NEC with an astonishing array of composers, performers, theorists — Rudolf Kolisch, Russell Sherman, Louis Krasner, Benjamin Zander, Don Martino, John Heiss, Ernst Oster, Eugene Lehner, George Russell, Ran Blake, Robert Helps, Leonard Shure and many many more, all of whom were bound together by fierce, original and passionate musical points of view. They all understood that Gunther had created an especially dynamic and stimulating world at NEC, that it was a place they could thrive and in so doing they contributed mightily to the fertile musical environment in Boston. Gunther taught us, through his own musical quests and in those of the people he brought to Boston, that there were many many ways to be successful musicians, perhaps the most important lesson of all.

    As he was to so many others, Gunther was a great mentor to me. Because he didn’t drive due to his sight impairment, I drove him home to Newton very frequently during those years. Whether in was discussions about how long it was going to take for Nixon to resign, or figuring out the row of the Fourth Schönberg Quartet, or discussing the piece he was writing, it was always fascinating and enlightening. He opened the door to so many ways of thinking about music, never minced words, and had the courage to say things and try ideas without fear of consequence. Sometimes he got himself in trouble that way, but he was almost always right. Over the past 25 years, we stayed in good communication. He was a regular visitor to the Twin Cities, and I made it a point to call on him at his house in Newton when in Boston. To the end he was idealistic, impassioned and inspiring.

    It is a scandal that no major publication reviewed his — albeit overflowing – autobiography. It paints of picture of a musician with omnivorous curiosity, boundless energy, and a wildly infectious love for music — the study of it, the making of it, the creation of it and the teaching of it. It also is a vibrant account of musical life in New York in the 40s and 50s, an era now long lost and nearly forgotten. Unfortunately, his first volume only got to 1960, so we are missing his account of the next 50 years. I badgered him about getting to work on the second volume, but — blessedly — he was overwhelmed with commissions toward the end and was experiencing a tremendous surge of compositional creativity and energy. He wisely chose creation over narration with the precious little time he knew he had left.

    In every way, personally, musically, professionally, he was a giant among musicians, and will be long remembered and treasured by those of us lucky enough to have spent so much time with him.
    Bruce Coppock
    President, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • Maarten Brandt says:

    Gunther Schuller was one of the most fantastic musical personalities ever. A real homo universalis in the widest sense of this word. And what is more, in whatever subject, be it classical music, Jazz, the art of conducting, musical philosophy and not to forget the art of programming the musical repertoire of all ages, well he was no less than a real genius. And, beside this, a very charming man and a real pedagogue. In every respect he was very inspiring. Due to a good female friend of mine I was able to meet and to talk with him.This was real life-time experience. So I do not understand the insulting commentary of Johnny H, whose words are a bloody shame!

  • Felipe Izcaray says:

    Maestro Schuller admired Norman Lebrecht’s work. When I was working on my Doctorate at the UW-Madison (USA), he visited once (early 90s) to conduct his Flute Concerto performed by New England’s alumn Stephanie Jutt. He accepted our lunch invitation (Conducting Doctoral Students), and we had a great time. Your book “The Maestro Myth” was thena hot issue, and he made good comments about it. He even reinforced the CAMI/Ronald Wilford issue with an anecdote of his own:

    A few years before, while he was guest conducting the NY Philharmonic, the Orchestra Manager asked him if he would be willing to cut a rehearsal short, because they were having an audition for a young conductor. He graciously said “yeah, sure”, partly because he was curious about what was going on. The audition had been arranged in a hurry. He finished rehearsing and stayed quietly in a box seat. After a short pause, entered RW with roughly a dozen Orchestra Managers from all over the country, who sat in orchestra seats near the stage. Then came a young conductor, apparently a Karajan Protegé, who proceeded to render what Schuller described as a horrendous readings of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony.

    In spite of the musician’s cold reaction to the young Maestro (name reserved) after the first movement was over, GS learned later that all but two orchestras represented in the session had hired him for future guest conducting engagements. GS ended his story saying “So, as you see, Lebrecht is damn right”.