Remembering Gunther Schuller

American composer, conductor, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller (1925-2015)
Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), Renaissance man of American music

 

American composer, conductor, horn player, writer, educator, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Schuller’s compositions fused elements of jazz and classical music into a style he called “Third Stream.” His remarkably diverse career included principal horn positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, as well as collaborations with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. In the 1960s and 70s, he was president of New England Conservatory of Music. He served as director of new musical activities at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. More recently, he served as artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington.

Gunther Schuller talks about his musical development and the influence of orchestra playing, Scriabin, Ravel, and Duke Ellington in this 1999 conversation with David Starobin.

Selected Recordings:

Where the Word Ends was written in 2007 for James Levine and the Boston Symphony. In the opening of the piece, ghostly voices emerge out of silence, suddenly thrusting us into a dark world of apprehension. As the piece progresses, we hear faint echoes of the music of Anton Bruckner (9:48), Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky. At 21:27, a lonely, jazzy solo horn line briefly emerges. Where the Word Ends is a haunting dreamscape of color and sound.

In this live BBC Proms performance, Semyon Bychkov leads the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne:

The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center’s recording of Octet, written in 1979, first movement:

The bluesy second movement, Passacaglia, from Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959):

Leonard Bernstein’s March 11, 1964 New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concert,” Jazz in the Concert Hall featured Gunther Schuller conducting his educational narrative, Journey into Jazz:

  • Find Gunther Schuller’s music at iTunes
  • Find books by Gunther Schuller at Amazon

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

Teaching Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In addition to composing and conducting, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the greatest music educators of all time. Starting in the late 1950’s, Bernstein educated and inspired a national television audience with his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. Later, in 1976 came The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at HarvardHis message was consistent: classical music isn’t stuffy or hard to understand. It’s fun and it’s something everyone can enjoy.

In Teachers and Teaching, Bernstein talks about his own education from Serge Koussevitzky, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner to Aaron Copland. The documentary, made in the final years of Bernstein’s life, is filled with interesting and thought-provoking anecdotes. Bernstein discusses the contrast between the warmth of Koussevitzky’s approach to conducting and the more cerebral Reiner. As a student, he was able to combine the best of both worlds.

For Bernstein, teaching and learning were closely linked:

[quote]Music…can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.[/quote]

-Leonard Bernstein

Tilting at Windmills

tilting at windmillsThis week my orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, returns to work after a holiday hiatus with Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Quixote, Op. 35. Strauss wrote some of the most virtuosic and technically demanding orchestra repertoire and this program is a great way to get back into the swing of the season.

Richard Strauss was a master of programatic tone poems, music inspired by a story. In Don Quixote, a series of variations depict scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la ManchaA solo cello represents the delusional Don Quixote who inhabits a world of knights and chivalry, hundreds of years after their existence, and fights noble but imaginary battles against giants and windmills. In his visions, Don Quixote defends the honor and earns the love of the beautiful Dulcinea. The solo viola, tenor tuba and bass clarinet depict Don Quixote’s comic sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote is a powerful and fascinating character partly because of his mixture of delusion and nobility. He would seem pathetic if it were not for his earnestness and transcendent idealism. Strauss’s music captures these paradoxes.

Let’s listen to a great recording by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. Can you hear Don Quixote’s good-natured insanity in the opening? Musically, a sense of mental instability is reflected in phrases which suddenly and happily end in new and distant keys (0:27). Trumpet fanfares (around 1:58, and later in the fatal duel in Variation X) suggest medieval exploits. Notice sound effects, such as brass flutter tonguing (11:12), suggesting a flock of sheep which Don Quixote sees as an advancing army. The dissonances we hear in moments like this anticipate the sound world of twentieth century music. In the third variation, the dialogue between the cello (Don Quixote) and the viola (Sancho) is almost like an opera without words. At 15:43 Don Quixote angrily interrupts Sancho’s mindless chatter and changes the subject to the glories of knighthood (16:10).

Throughout the piece, listen to Strauss’s dense and complex layers of counterpoint (melodic material occurring simultaneously). At times, such as Variation VII, layers of background sound, including a wind machine in the percussion, combine to create strange new and unexpected sonorities.

  1. Introduction: “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant” (0:00)
  2. Theme: “Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance.” (6:06)
  3. “Sancho Panza” (7:11)
  4. Variation I: “Adventure at the Windmills” (8:11)
  5. Variation II: “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron”) [actually a flock of sheep] (10:51)
  6. Variation III: “Dialogue between Knight and Squire” (12:29)
  7. Variation IV: “Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims” (20:14)
  8. Variation V: “The knight’s vigil” (22:00)
  9. Variation VI: “The Meeting with Dulcinea” (26:05)
  10. Variation VII: “The Ride through the Air” (27:11)
  11. Variation VIII: “The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat” (28:26)
  12.  Variation IX: “Battle with the magicians” (30:11)
  13. Variation X: “Duel with the knight of the bright moon” (31:18)
  14. Finale: “Coming to his senses again” – Death of Don Quixote (35:30)

As an orchestral showpiece, Don Quixote demonstrates the wide ranging color palate of a full orchestra. The emotional impact of Strauss’s programatic music comes not as much from the literal representation of the plot as from metaphor and a range of feelings which cannot be put into words. Leonard Bernstein makes this point, discussing Don Quixote in his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert, What Does Music Mean? 

For me, one of the most extraordinary moments comes at the end of the piece when Don Quixote draws his last breath (the downward cello glissando at 40:35). The final two chords which follow are dominated by the bright, sparkly sounds of the upper woodwinds. The eternal spirit of Don Quixote, perfectly summed up in these two chords, has the final word.

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