Gunther Schuller represented, for countless musicians, concertgoers, and record buyers around the world, American music making at its best, almost as much as Leonard Bernstein did a half century earlier. He was composer, conductor, horn player, jazz performer, writer, administrator, publisher, and teacher, all wrapped up into one tidy bundle of seemingly endless energy. Like American music itself. However, Schuller did not always steered clear of controversy—the very masses that admired him were sometimes baffled by his uncompromising attitudes and blunt statements.
His father played violin in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many decades, and it was he who oversaw Schuller's early training. Schuller mastered the French horn with remarkable speed as a student at the Manhattan School of Music (1939-1941)—in 1942, aged just 16, his horn playing was heard across the country in the American radio premiere of Shostakovich's then brand-new "Leningrad" Symphony. A series of high-profile orchestra jobs followed: first the American Ballet Theater Orchestra, then the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and then 14 seasons in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. During the 1950s Schuller became interested in jazz and made a name for himself as a performer in that field, playing with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz stars; in the years to come, Schuller combined jazz and traditional composition in new ways—something that he called "third stream music." After the 1958-1959 season, Schuller gave up his career at the Met to build a new career as a composer.
Success in the sometimes persnickety world of American serious composition came to Schuller nearly as easily and quickly as success as a performer did, and by 1964 he was on the composition faculty of Yale University. He taught and administered at the Manhattan School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and Tanglewood.
In 1975 he founded his own record label and music publishing companies, GM Recordings and Margun Music (the names are drawn from the first names of Schuller and his wife Marjorie Black). He also wrote several books, including the cherished manual Horn Playing (London and New York, 1962) and the landmark studies Early Jazz: Its Roots and Development (London and New York, 1968) and The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz 1930-45 (New York and Oxford, 1989). In 1997 he poured his many years' experience as a professional conductor into The Compleat Conductor.
As a composer, Schuller ranks among the most eclectic of his generation or any other. Schoenberg's techniques meet jazz meets Stravinskian rhythmicism meets Haydn in ways that one could never imagine without the score on the table. And his output is very large: 20-plus concertos for solo instrument(s) and orchestra, several dozen other orchestral items (including the 1965 Symphony and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Reminiscences and Reflections), better than 70 miscellaneous chamber pieces for ensembles and combinations of all kinds, a pair of operas, and a library of arrangements of other composers' music.
Gunther Schuller passed away on June 21, 2015 in Boston, at the age of 89.