Gunther Schuller, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 22, 1925, in Jackson Heights, NY
Died June 21, 2015, in Boston
Composed in 1959
Premiered on November 27, 1959, at the Northrop Memorial Auditorium in Minneapolis by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati
Performance Time: Approximately 21 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 3 piccolos, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, wood block, guiro, claves, triangle, hi-hat, suspended cymbal), 1 piano, 1 harp, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 double-basses

Gunther Schuller was a brilliant polymath: a virtuoso horn player, a visionary administrator, a celebrated conductor, an author, an influential teacher, and a gifted, self-taught composer. His career began as a choirboy at St. Thomas Church Choir School in New York, where he also began lessons on the French horn. By 1943, he was appointed principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra—at the age of eighteen. He then joined the horn section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained until 1959. Schuller taught composition at the Manhattan School and at Yale University before joining the New England Conservatory; he was president of that institution from 1967 to 1977. He taught composition at the Berkshire Music Center from 1963 to 1984. Much honored for his music as well as for his championship of American composers, Schuller earned a Grammy in 1974 for a recording of Scott Joplin’s music. He received a McArthur Foundation “Genius” Award in 1991 and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1994.

An unusually intellectual composer, Schuller made a connection between the expressionism of Schoenberg and the bebop style of jazz developed during the 1950s by Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane. Never a snob, Schuller sought to combine progressive classical music and modern jazz into a “third stream.” In addition to jazz, Schuller was powerfully inspired by visual art. Several of his scores, such as the coruscating Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, are musical analogues of sculpture or paintings. Schuller wrote that in Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee he sought a “retranslation into musical terms of the ‘musical’ elements in certain Klee pictures . . . Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems.” Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee includes one of Schuller’s chief preoccupations: the movement entitled “Little Blue Devil” is an engaging example of the composer’s “third stream” practice, a witty evocation of Klee’s sinister and gleeful image.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.