The son of German immigrants, Gunther Schuller was born in New York on November 22, 1925. His professional music career began as a horn player, performing with the American Ballet Theater, as principal horn in the Cincinnati Symphony (1943-1945) and with the Metropolitan Opera from 1945-1959. Schuller’s jazz career also began as a French horn player on Miles Davis’s "Birth of the Cool" recording (1949-1950).
As an educator, Schuller first taught at the Manhattan School of Music from 1950-1953. From 1964-1967 Schuller held the position of Professor of Composition at Yale University. At the request of Aaron Copland, Schuller began teaching at the Berkshire Music Center (at Tanglewood) in 1963 and subsequently served as its Artistic Director from 1969-1984.
From 1967-1977, Schuller served as President of the New England Conservatory where he formalized NEC’s commitment to jazz by establishing the first degree-granting jazz program at a major classical conservatory in 1969. Shortly thereafter, he instituted the Third Stream department (subsequently named the Contemporary Improvisation department) to explore the regions where the two musical “streams” of classical and jazz meet and mingle (Schuller had coined the term “Third Stream” during a lecture he gave at Brandeis University in 1957). He hired the iconic Ran Blake to be the department’s chair. Early jazz hires included the legendary Jaki Byard and George Russell.
Along the way, Schuller increased NEC’s profile among the world’s great music institutions in remarkable ways. He insisted from the earliest days of his tenure that contemporary music have equal billing next to the acknowledged classical masterpieces, and that students be equally adept at performing both. He bolstered and revitalized NEC’s string, piano and composition faculties, hiring very influential artists, among them Louis Krasner, Laurence Lesser, Russell Sherman, and Donald Martino.
In one of Boston’s most notorious periods of racial disharmony, Schuller created community outreach programs that sent young, eager musicians to bring the gift of music into some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. And, championing the forgotten music of a neglected American composer, he founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble and recorded Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book, which won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance, ignited a latter-day ragtime revival, and spurred tours across America, Russia, and to the White House.
Schuller composed over 180 works, spanning all musical genres including solo works, orchestral works, chamber music, opera, and jazz. Among Schuller’s orchestral works are Symphony (1965), Seven Studies of Paul Klee (1959), An Arc Ascending (1996), Four Soundscapes, and Shapes and Designs. Schuller’s large scale work Of Reminiscences and Reflections was composed as a tribute to his wife of forty-nine years, Marjorie Black. In addition to composing for the standard concerto instruments – piano, violin, horn etc., Schuller also wrote concertos for instruments which had been previously neglected in the concerto repertoire such as the alto saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, and double bass. Schuller also composed a number of works for solo ensemble with orchestra (or in some cases, band). Examples include Contrasts for Wind Quintet and Orchestra (1967), Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, Diptych for Brass Quintet and Concert Band (1967), and Eine kleine Posaunemusik for trombone and band (1980).
Schuller wrote two operas: The Visitation (1966), based on a Kafka story; and the children’s opera The Fisherman and his Wife with text by John Updike, derived from the Grimm fairy tale. Notable among Schuller’s works in the chamber music genre are the String Quartet No. 3 (1986), String Quartet No. 4 (2002) and Symbiosis (1957), a piece for violin, piano, and percussion performed in conjunction with a dancer. Schuller’s original jazz compositions occupy an important place in his overall oeuvre. Many of these works epitomize the Third Stream style. These include Transformation for jazz ensemble (1957), Concertino for jazz quartet and orchestra (1959), Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960), Teardrop, and Jumpin’ in the Future.
In addition to his musical compositions, Schuller wrote several books of note. These include Horn Technique (1962), Early Jazz: its Roots and Musical Development(1968) and its sequel the Swing Era: the Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, as well as The Compleat Conductor (1997).
Gunther Schuller also made his mark on the music publishing industry, founding Margun Music (1975) and GunMar Music (1979). Through these firms, Schuller published his own editions of ragtime music by Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and Eubie Blake, as well as jazz and third stream music by such artists as Charles Mingus, George Russell, Johnny Carisi, Ran Blake, and Jimmy Giuffre. (The GunMar/Margun catalogs are now part of G.Schirmer/Music Sales/AMP). A short time later, in 1980, Schuller founded the record company and label, GM.
Schuller was the recipient of several prestigious awards. These include the William Shuman Award (1988) given by Columbia University, the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award (1991), a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his piece Of Reflections and Reminisciences, the Gold Medal for Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and an inaugural membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. Schuller was named the 2007 Fromm Visiting Professor in Music Composition at Harvard University. In 2005, Schuller had previously held the position of Artist in Residence for 2005 at the University of Wisconsin. In addition, Schuller also maintained a longtime involvement with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, which named him Conductor Laureate in 1990, and their Principal Guest Conductor in 1998.
Gunther Sculler passed away on June 21, 2015. To learn more about Schuller's impact at NEC, see this memorial page.
Richard Dyer, “Gunther Schuller”, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 30
October 2007), <http:www.grovemusic.com>
"Gunther Schuller” [Jazz], Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 30 October
"Gunther Schuller,” G Schirmer Inc., (Accessed 2 November 2007),
"Gunther Schuller”, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, (Accessed 2 November
This Gunther Schuller Papers encompass three record cartons (approximately 3 lin. ft.) consisting almost entirely of paper files along with a few photographs.
This collection includes the materials created by, and belonging to Gunther Schuller, who served as President of New England Conservatory from 1967-1977. The materials in this collection have been stored at NEC since Schuller’s tenure. One particular letter from composer Arthur Custer (July 5, 1973) was individually donated to the NEC library by Schuller on June 20, 1977.
Access to the Schuller Papers is granted by the Archivist. Appointments must be scheduled in advance. There are limited restrictions pertaining to this collection.
All copyrights to this collection belong to the New England Conservatory. Permission to publish materials from this collection is granted by the Director of Libraries. This collection should be cited as: NECA 1.8. Gunther Schuller Papers, New England Conservatory Archives, Boston, MA.