Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller at 85

Tim Reynish, August 2010


The number of "professional" musicians who know anything at all about the wealth of the current wind ensemble repertoire and the potential of the wind band as a performing medium of great range of colour and sensitivity, is very small; contacting the profession is one of our major tasks for the next decade. There is one unique musician who is a wind band enthusiast, orchestral horn player, author, conductor, jazz man, publisher, historian, educationalist, administrator and composer in every genre, including his own "Third Stream". Gunther Schuller.

It is difficult to think of any musician as versatile as the now 85 year old Schuller. Born November 22nd 1925, we caught up with him in Manchester nearly thirty years ago when he was only 58, and he gave an interview for BASBWE to Sian Edwards, also a horn player and conductor. I wrote in my introduction to that piece that the place of the band in education, ceremonial and entertainment is obvious, and it is this that clouds the perspective of the musical establishment. As far as the "serious" musicians who run our radio programmes, write criticism in the musical and daily press, organise our festivals, fix the subsidies for commissions, wind- band is somewhere at the bottom of the pile, well below "classical" music, authentic performance, beneath jazz, pop, rock and roll, folk, country and western, reggae. Gunther wrote to me apropos:

Unfortunately the situation is worse... because of the social/professional context to which wind music is relegated. long as wind ensembles and bands are located primarily (almost entirely) in schools and academic institutions, the rest of the music world will never take wind and band music very seriously, no matter how good the music is and how well its performed. They see it as relegated to students and amateurs, and just ignore it, don't give the field any respect.

My first encounter with the great man was in a performance of Alec Wilder's Horn Belt Boogie for horn quartet, harpsichord and rhythm, which I had on an old vinyl 10" record played by the Metropolitan Opera Horns, principal Gunther Schuller, with Mitch Miller's band on the other side playing My Little Black Eyed Suzy.

Decades later it was his clarion call of 1981 in a famous address to the Conference of College Band Directors National Association, that urged the delegates to look outside academe to commission "real" composers:

There are too many fine and/or famous composers that have eluded your grasp thus far. You need more of that kind of international world caliber amongst the composers in your repertory before that world will begin to take you seriously, before a critic from the New York Times or The New Yorker will look in on what you're doing and look in on festivals such as this. And you must more aggressively pursue that establishment world, with its critics and taste-makers, its foundations and other benefactors, its managers, and its musical leaders. You must reach out now beyond your own seemingly large but actually small world. For they will not come to you; you must go to them. Mostly they don't know you exist.


with Sian Edwards

Interviewer. How did you develop an interest in wind orchestras and wind music?

Well, that's very natural for an American, although I'm surprised at how many composers do not avail themselves of this opportunity; after all, 1 think it is fair to say that the symphonic or concert band, if it did not originate in America, certainly developed there in the '20s and '30s, simply as a result of the thousands and thousands and thousands of wind players that we develop in our Colleges and Universities, primarily to play in the football bands; and these bands are enormous, and there are thousands of these Colleges, not just twelve. Now, if you imagine that out of every one of those sections of instruments, saxophones and flutes, horn, tuba euphonium, whatever - these hoards of instruments - if in each band, only one out of each section becomes in some sense a professional musician, you get an enormous number of players out of which some will surely be talented. This enormous pool of talent develops along with it media formations which need to play, which need to exist in order to give all these talents a form of expression; and out of that, through the years, grew this whole new literature of wind ensembles and bands. Guys like Revelli and many others who started a lot of this back in the '30s, the first thing they did was to put all this marvellous talent to use in terms of transcriptions; then very soon they began commissioning new works from composers. The CBDNA, (The College Band Directors' National Association) which is the cream of the crop of the élite, began a very good and vigorous commissioning programme, 1 think in the early '60s, trying to improve the literature. One of their main goals was to bring it more into the 20th century, and I would say they have pretty well succeeded on that. And that's really what got me going because I guess that, along with Aaron Copland, 1 was one of the first to be commissioned. Of course there was no resistance on my part - I imagine that if one had asked, I'm not picking on Elliott Carter, but if one had asked him in 1951 to write a band piece, he might very well have said no.

Is that still the case now?

Well there are people who still look down on the medium as being inferior - 1 don't know why: maybe because it doesn't have strings or it simply doesn't have an 'Eroica' or a 'Tristan' to point to in its heritage. Yes, it is considered by many as second class citizenry; but I don't see it that way at all. In fact 1 consider it just the opposite. 1 find the band medium with its incredible instrumentarium almost more fascinating than a symphony orchestra, and for me as a composer who is very much involved with timbre and orchestral colour, the richness of the palette which one has available in a band, if one uses it discriminatingly and indivualistically, was for me a very exciting prospect. After all, we have all learnt from Webern and Schoenberg how to mix colours with strings or whatever: take a piece like 'Erwartung', which was a breakthrough piece in that respect. There are unbelievable things going on there in the new use of the orchestra - or even in Mahler. So when I was commissioned, I applied those same concepts to this marvellous ensemble and I loved it. Where else am I going to have 4 bass clarinets and 2 E flat contra-alto clarinets and 2 B flat contrabass clarinets? Just imagine! And where else do you have 9 flutes sitting there and you can divide them up into six parts or whatever. It has limitations: Oboes are usually weak in the bands, English horn you have to write for very, very cautiously, although all of that is improving; double reeds seem to be sort of handicapped, too. Then you have 8 horns and 6 trombones, 5 tubas-all these things; it just gives you ideas that in the normal symphonic setting you could never have, so that is certainly one aspect that fascinates me.

The other thing is to try and write music which has the singability, the cantabile quality that one can so easily get on strings. That of course is their natural gift, but try to achieve that now in the wind instruments, particularly with young players not yet fully developed, is another marvellous challenge. The first piece that I wrote was called Meditation: it is a slow, adagio piece, 7-8 minutes long. I tried out this singing quality, knowing that that was actually written for a high school band of 17 year olds, and 1 knew there would be certain limitations - I mean, these aren't all Reginald Kells on the clarinet exactly, or Jack Brymers or whatever! So I had to do it in terms of the instrumentation so that if the individual player failed to deliver this cantabile element, somehow, just by the working of the composition - the lines crossing, the lines complimentative - it would be there.

That was a commission which was, how shall I put it, purposefully asked to be a restful piece of music. It was commissioned by an old gentleman in New Orleans who basically loathed contemporary music, and he started this foundation (1 forget the exact title - something for the creation of restful music) and commissioned a lot of composers, in all seriousness, to write these so-called restful pieces; so 1 wrote this adagio music, but 1 never found out if the old gentleman liked it. His name was Benjamin, I think. I suspect that anything that wasn't tonal was to him unrestful; but this is not an atonal piece, it is a twelve-tone piece, really, and by some standards, rather mild. Anyway, it was performed and has had lots and lots of performances because it is accessible, even with Junior High School bands who play this piece because technically it is just not very hard. Prejudice

Also, in answer to your original question, I played with the famous Goldman Band, principal horn, for about seven years - that is to say, seven summers: it was a summer job for me when the Metropolitan Opera was not in operation.


Do you think it will change? Are there more good composers writing for it now and as the repertoire gets better more people will take notice?

Sure. It has gotten better and I suppose it will continue to get better but

a) certain composers have not yet even been asked to write, or if asked have refused to do so, and

b) there are people in the musical world who simply take no recognition of this music. You just put that under the heading of prejudice. That is sheer ignorance and stupidity: they don't want to know. I am thinking now of people in the symphonic or operatic world, they simply cannot believe that anything worthwhile can exist in this lowly form of human activity. And 1 don't know what you do about that - it's like any prejudice, its very hard to root out, but I suppose if the Stravinskys of the world would all write, regularly, not just once in a while because they get paid 20,000 dollars to write one piece, that in the end would make a dramatic change.

Are there many professional bands?

No, for precisely the same reason, that it is not considered a viable professional activity; what you have is amateur bands and of course all the school bands, and that fulfils the function for those people who want to hear band music. That's great on television and on the Macey Day Parade when they all march down 5th Avenue and all that. That popular tradition which goes back to the Sousa Band and Arthur Pryor and all those fabulous bands at the turn of the century still exists, but professional bands in the sense of playing the fine literature, well, no; it would be nice 1 suppose, but it's not going to happen because that would be really financially competitive with the symphony orchestras - and boy, they'll never let that happen - that would be open warfare. In a way it's not necessary, because the colleges and universities, seen overall on a national scale in the USA, are so good, they play so much good material and all those ensembles do 6 or 7 concerts a school term and, all right, it's not in Carnegie Hall (although they also go there of course for guest appearances and festivals), but it functions very well.


My most recent work for Wind Ensemble is a huge piece, a Symphony In Praise of Music which was written for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the University of Michigan, which was a couple of years ago. The successor to Revelli is a fellow named Bob Reynolds, who is one of the absolute finest band directors/wind ensemble directors we have and the University of Michigan is one of the leading schools through his influence and regard; they've always had a terrific band - in fact they have 3 or 4 - and Reynolds commissioned me to write a piece for this anniversary. So I decided to really go all out and I wrote a 4 movement symphony with no holds barred technically, solos, all kinds of things which you are supposed to be cautious about doing. For example, there is a horn solo which I think lasts about a minute, which is long, for us, you know: The Tchaikovsky 5th is one of the longest solos and that's about 45 seconds or something. And there's a trumpet solo and a virtuosic scherzo in there where everybody's fingers are flying and, well, this band just played it fantastically; I think it requires 110 players but it's not used in massed sounds - it's like a gigantic symphony orchestra with harp and piano and things like that. So I was able to exploit all these unusual timbres: that piece is as demanding technically, conceptually as anything I've written in a non-band medium. 1 mean, it's like writing a symphony for orchestra only this happens to be not using strings, and it takes a very good conductor to do it, it takes very good players to do it, and 1 cannot for the life of me see any qualitative difference (I'm not talking about my music now so much) in terms of the abilities necessary to play that piece. So there's nothing second class about this at all; even so with all of the hoop-la that went on at the 100th anniversary, the symphonic world is totally unaware of that event or of my piece.


Well, anyone who is seriously interested in this, the literature is already vast and good and in fact it's gotten to the point now where the élite of this field has become so obsessed with commissioning new works that 1 felt compelled to say in a key note address which 1 delivered on that occasion for the College Band Directors to urge them to return again to the concept of transcription. Because not every piece written by every composer living today is going to be as good as say the Freischütz Overture or Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique or some Wagner transcription - you know you can't just assume that everything being written today is magnificent as compared with some of the great masterpieces of the past which when played by intelligent, well trained young musicians and a fine conductor can be a wonderful experience for those people. In other words they can learn certain things from that literature, a transcription of a Beethoven piece or whatever, that they cannot learn from a piece of mine or Aaron Copland's or Eric Leidzen or whoever. So they were all a little stunned at this for they had been fighting for decades to get out of this transcription bag and here comes Gunther Schuller reminding them that there is this wonderful, vast literature.

I mean, Elgar Howarth (of course I am a great fan of his), his transcription of Pictures at An Exhibition is a thing of wonder and that would never have occurred to any one of us in America: it comes strictly out of the British brass band tradition. There have been quite a number of performances of that in the States now, and how marvellous for those kids to experience that piece that way; they might never have played it because they might never end up in a symphony orchestra, but here they have a chance to encounter this marvellous piece as an actually, physical, acoustical musical experience. That's very important from an educational point of view. It may not cut much ice with the senior critic of the N.Y. Times but you know, we are not talking about that.


You were head of a conservatory for ten years - what was your influence, what did you try to achieve while you were there?

Amongst other things I gave it a wind ensemble, or three: they had no such thing. They didn't believe in it, they were prejudiced against it. I got a marvellous man who is very famous in the USA, Frank Battisti, who has been here several times. He does marvellous things. He was one of the first to feature very heavily Percy Grainger's marvellous band piece which we all now know; 20 years ago those pieces were hardly known or played.

I remember when Goldman started doing The Lincolnshire Posy: it was a revelation to all of us. Actually, I played with Percy Grainger - he conducted, with his flaming red hair, a strange, strange man, fascinating and very powerful. His eyes burned right through you, very eccentric in his conducting but you knew what to do nevertheless; he had no beat whatsoever, rather like windmills flailing. There was a bit of Sir Thomas Beecham in his humour and in his approach to the band. Anyway, Battisti was one of the real fighters for the music of Percy Grainger, and he's done a marvellous job there. I also created a Jazz Department, an Ethnic Music department, and Contemporary Music Ensembles; but the most outrageous thing I did was to form the Ragtime Ensemble, and I did that as an educational effort at the New England Conservatory. To my utter amazement it became a hit - we had a hit record, you know, that ended up in the charts and that was all because of my recording.


This was in 1972, and if in 1970 you had asked 500 musicians if they had ever heard of Scott Joplin let alone heard his music, they would have said "who?", "is that something to eat?" Totally forgotten! Ragtime is a music that was forgotten because it became absorbed into jazz. It is really the forerunner of jazz and so it was a non-functioning music. 1 mean the most that you ever heard was in Max Sennet comedies you know, somebody would play ragtime on an upright out-of-tune piano with a chase scene. That's about as much as you got of ragtime in the '30s and after that, but it turns out to be a magnificent music, perfect in its highest form of Scott Joplin, James Scott, people like that - as perfect in its miniature form, as are Sousa marches: you cannot change a thing in a good Sousa march. 1 remember that 1 first played that Ragtime in a concert of turn-of-the-century music and 1 probably did some Griffes which 1 did in Manchester now, and I know in that festival 1 also did some other Boston composers like Paine, but in the midst of this sort of symphonic music 1 also did some Ragtime, because it was written around the same time; and the school teachers, the faculties, particularly some of the older faculty, they were wondering what the heck this guy Schuller was doing. Some of the older faculty remembered that Ragtime was some kind of a degenerate popular form of music when they were kids. They wondered why I was doing that and those others who were younger wondered why I was doing it-they had never heard of it. And reaction at that concert was simply stunning: I mean the most erudite musicians in the school faculty came to me and said: "my lord, that's fantastic music, where did you find it? Who is this guy Scott Joplin? We never heard of him." So there was this very positive reaction which developed into all those other things - the rest is history.


Let us start with your career as a horn player and why you finished playing in 1959.

Well, first of all because 1 always was first and foremost a composer: I composed before 1 played the horn. 1 wasn't any kind of a "Wunderkind" or anything, but 1 did start dabbling with composing around the age of eleven and that's a bit early to start the horn, although some people nowadays do. But 1 first played the flute-I think 1 started that at age 12 or something and played about actually three years overlapping with horn, so 1 was having two embouchures and that was brutal, because 1 played flute with my High School Band with one embouchure in the morning and then in the afternoon I practised the horn with another embouchure-pulling my mouth apart. Anyway, I knew however much 1 wanted to be a composer that I couldn't make a living that way, certainly not at age 17 or whatever, so it happened that 1 had a talent for the horn and 1 became a professional horn player (actually within 2 years of playing the first terrible note) and made my living that way, in the meantime 1 was certainly continuing to compose. It got to the point where with a number of successful performances my reputation grew.

I had some New York Philharmonic performances with Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux and some very distinguished conductors and as a result of that, commissions started flowing in at an alarming rate and I realised around 1959 that trying to be a horn player in one of the most difficult jobs in any orchestra - an opera orchestra - playing Wagner and of course Mozart operas and all these things, I was killing myself doing that in the day and composing by night. 1 was really pushing myself and there was a point when 1 actually collapsed in a kind of a coma and I was out for about 15 minutes. My children discovered me lying in the shower: 1 nearly drowned. 1 took this to be a sign from mother nature to say "sure, go easy". So 1 made the decision, very reluctantly because I loved playing the horn, to give up that part of it and to become actually just a composer which was a very daring thing to do at any time. 1 guess, but certainly in America in those years, because 1 think there may have been only 4 or 5 composers at that time who were living from composing: men like Sam Barber, Copland and 1 suppose Menotti and people like that. Barber was independently wealthy and there were others who did not actually have to make a living from composing. So I took this daring leap into the unknown.


I kept up the horn-playing for another two or three years, maybe, as a freelancer in New York, playing anything from jingles to jazz dates and everything else. And, of course, 1 was already well known in jazz circles for a lot of reasons, including that 1 played with Miles Davis and Gil Evans on a number of recordings. So there was a mixture of work; but 1 found that, as we all know who play this beastly instrument-you can't play it part-time. Even if you lay off two or three days, it really is very difficult to get back into full shape, and one of the things about freelancing in New York is that you are of course asked to play every kind of music and every kind of degree of difficulty. You can come into a date and it will be a veritable horn concerto, with high F sharps all over the place, or you can have three lousy minims to play and that's it-and you get your 150 bucks for that. So never knowing what it was put a terrible nervous strain on me: I'm a perfectionist and 1 certainly didn't want to let the contractors down who hired me, 1 didn't want to let myself down, and I didn't want to let the music down.

So after a struggle with this for two or three years and never embarrassing myself or the contractors but always being "on the edge", 1 said this is not worth it, so most reluctantly 1 gave it up altogether; my horn still functions very well and 1 can play about five minutes nowadays and the embouchure collapses. Unlike most horn players who give up playing and are delighted to do so, (you know the famous cliché "Ah, I'm sure glad to get rid of this-throw the instrument in the river", all this cynical musician stuff), 1 loved the instrument and it was almost a torture for me to give it up, but since by then I was a very successful composer, there was just no two ways about it. 1 then started conducting. My conducting actually began just as the horn playing faded out. I guess there is something in me that has to be also a performer: it was that way in Baroque times, everybody was a performer and a composer. For me, the composing is of course the creative aspect and the performing the recreating aspect, and the two complement and one learns from the other. It's a marvellous life.


I want to ask you - I read that you are actually self-taught as a composer - you didn't study with anyone in particular?

Yes, that was again the result of the fact that 1 blossomed rather quickly as a horn player and 1 am a high school drop out. 1 don't have any diplomas from anything and 1 was working professionally at 16 and got in with very fine orchestras as a result of which 1 never went to any school. Normally one goes to college or university and studies composition with somebody. There was a vague notion in my head to study with Hindemith who was at that time at Yale. It just was a pipe dream because 1 started making a very good living as a horn player aged 16, 17, 18. I was already in the Metropolitan opera aged 19, so all those years went by without any real opportunity to study with anybody except maybe on the most ad hoc basis and I didn't see much value in that; in the meantime I was just devouring music. I have a voracious appetite for it anyway but 1 was literally studying hundreds of scores every few months; the best teachers are the Masters themselves, if you can digest all the information that's in there, and so I really took it right from the source rather than from some second hand transmitter which is what a teacher is. A teacher can, of course, also be an inspiration and can direct you: I know there are some things that 1 never quite got because of not having studied - or let's put it this way, 1 got them, but it took me longer to get them by having to find my own way, and there were areas where 1 was weak at first, particularly in the area of form and formal control.

I meant to talk to you about this because you have written several works that try to use classical and even earlier forms.

Yes, that was my way of learning those forms, disciplining myself in that regard, because a little while prior to writing theSymphony for Brass I realised that I had a lot of talent for idiomatic writing for all the instruments. 1 literally grew up in the orchestra because my father was for 42 years a violinist, leader of the 2nd violins, in the New York Philharmonic. 1 suppose from the womb on, or at least from the cradle on, I grew up hearing the orchestra.


So 1 knew all that, and 1 had a sense of orchestral colours and capacities of the instruments and 1 knew harmony very well: 1 had had very good training with an Englishman - a somewhat forgotten but wonderful, wonderful organist by name of Tertius Noble, who founded an English choir school in New York where I went to school as a choir boy. He was my first harmony/counterpoint and composition teacher and 1 had a very good grounding with him. So all those things 1 knew - but what 1 didn't yet know so well was how to form a piece into a logical or coherent state. My music flip-flopped a bit in those early years. Then I thought, well look, besides going to the teacher or looking up the standard books on form, of which there are hundreds, 1 thought the best way to learn is actually to work with some specifically classical forms, Beethoven, whoever, Berlioz - and in a sense graft my music onto those. 1 knew there were risks in that, but as it worked out it actually worked very well; it was an experience very similar to those one has in most composition courses in schools where you are asked to emulate a certain composer's style: that is one of the standard clichés of teaching.

So I just did that on my own and I will not believe, contrary to Messrs. Stockhausen, Boulez and all the great avant-garde pundits, that the classical forms are or were exhausted. 1 think that they are inexhaustible. They are subject, because they are so strong, so grand and so all-encompassing, to renewal for different times for different periods. I simply do not believe the old saw which some of these composers began to propagate that because diatonic tonality was no longer in use in days of atonality and serialism and all that, that therefore all those forms associated with diatonic tonality are in some sense also obsolete. That's a very nice theoretical proposition or argument that doesn't actually hold water. In all my music, I have never suspended tonality altogether: 1 do not use tonality in the diatonic functional way. Tonality has always been a grounding in my music, however atonal it may be. Therefore also in terms of form 1 use concepts. (1 won't say 1 use classical forms) or formal techniques which are analogous, perhaps, to classical forms-or reworking classical forms. All of that went apace through my music through the years, but those first lessons in really sitting down with a master like Beethoven and seeing the fantastic control that he had, was a powerful lesson for me, and to experience it through one's own music, is an even more edifying experience than just copying out a Beethoven sonata.


What about the other influences on your music, jazz for example?

Influences on me come in from so many sides because before there was an over-influence from jazz, there was very strong influence from two sides, Stravinsky and Schoenberg; in those days (the '30's and early '40's) you were supposed, if you were a young composer, to decide between one of those giants, either Stravinsky or Schoenberg. You were certainly not supposed to think of the two of them as compatible for it was the era of either the twelve-tonalists or the Stravinsky neoclassicists. And talk about camps, they were really divided rigidly inter-warring antagonistic camps. As you know, Stravinsky and Schoenberg never talked to each other all the years they lived in America; the disciples of these Masters were even worse in their antagonism, so if a young composer could be captured by one or the other, you were a prize. The thing was that America, under the influence of Aaron Copland particularly, was really on the neoclassicist side, and for a young composer to go more or less in the direction of the twelve-tonalists was a very daring and risky thing to do; the result of which was that you did not get performed, and 1 had a heck of a time getting started: 1 mean I was literally ostracised in New York in the first ten years of my composing until Mitropoulos had the New York Philharmonic, performing all the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern which we'd never heard before - mostly first performances in the late forties and early fifties. Although 1 became a twelve-tone composer, 1 nevertheless had at the same time an enormous reverence for Stravinsky. 1 guess my generation was the first to say

"Look, this separation between Schoenberg and Stravinsky is absolute nonsense, these are both great Masters and we will learn from both".


Apart from all that I had so many loves, as 1 told you: 1 was just a voracious music absorber. For example, right from the start 1 have been a tremendous Delius convert. His harmonic language is unique - one can't hardly figure out where it came from exactly, and still to this day no-one uses those Wagnerian chromatic harmonies the way he does. And I love Scriabin's music very much - I am a very harmonically orientated composer anyway and all those very rich turn of the century harmonies had a tremendous influence on me; that is why, as 1 said earlier, 1 am still so grounded into tonality in its chromatic manifestations. In addition, 1 became very knowledgeable in the literature of all the lesser-known people - I mean, 1 knew practically all the music of Max Reger before 1 was 18 years old. The young Messiaen was not played at all in those days, but it so happened that Tertius Noble, this organist, though he was already in his sixties I suppose, was amazing, playing Olivier Messiaen, when Messiaen was only known in France amongst the organists, you know. So there is an immense amount of literature which 1 knew and which all somehow got absorbed by me in one way or another.

Selective List of compositions by Gunther Schuller:

Headin' Out, Movin' In

Soloist(s) Tenor Saxophone with jazz ensemble

Jumpin' in the Future - 5 minute(s)

fl, ob, ssx, asx, tsx, 2 hn, tpt, tbn, tba, pf, db, dm

1950 Symphony for Brass and Percussion - 10 minute(s)


1963 Meditation for Concert Band - 6 minute(s)


1964 Diptych for Brass Quintet and Concert Band

1966 Study in Textures for Concert Band - 7 minute(s)

Orchestration concert band

1968 Fanfare for St. Louis - 6.00 3333/4431/timp.perc

1980 Eine Kleine Posaunenmusik - 16 minutes Solo Trombone


1981 Praise of Winds, Symphony for Large Wind Orchestra (1981) 25


1989 On Winged Flight - 13 minute(s)

Orchestration concert band; 3 vc

1990 Song and Dance - 16 minute(s)

Soloist(s) Violin


1992 Festive Music - 4.00


1997 Blue Dawn into White Heat - 10.00