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Gunther Schuller

Composer and conductor Gunther Schuller, a frequent guest and collaborator with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over the course of the last fifty years, died yesterday in Boston. He was 89.

Since 1965, the Orchestra has performed numerous works by Schuller, both at Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, including several world premieres. To celebrate the Orchestra’s seventy-fifth season, Schuller was commissioned to write his Gala Music; the composer led the world premiere at Orchestra Hall on January 20, 1966. At Ravinia, Seiji Ozawa led the world premiere of his Recitative and Rondo on July 16, 1967. Schuller himself led the Orchestra at Ravinia in the world premiere of his Suite from his opera The Visitation with the Ravinia Festival Jazz Ensemble on July 26, 1970. Sir Georg Solti led the world premiere of Schuller’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra with CSO flute and piccolo Walfrid Kujala as soloist—commissioned for Kujala’s sixtieth birthday by his students and colleagues—on October 13, 1988.

As conductor with the Orchestra, Schuller led the world premiere of Easley Blackwood‘s Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist on July 26, 1970, at the Ravinia Festival. He also led the Orchestra in the U.S. premiere of Alexander Nemtin’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Universe, Part 1 of the Prefatory Action of Mysterium; Mary Sauer was the piano soloist and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by assistant director James Winfield.

A complete list of Gunther Schuller’s conducting appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is below (subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

Sir Georg Solti and the composer acknowledge soloist Walfrid Kujala following the world premiere of Schuller's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra on October 13, 1988

Sir Georg Solti and the composer acknowledge soloist Walfrid Kujala following the world premiere of Schuller’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra on October 13, 1988

July 10, 1965 (Ravinia Festial)
SCHUBERT/Webern German Dances
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
SAINT SAËNS Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33
Frank Miller, cello
SCHULLER Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee

January 20, 21 & 22, 1966
BERLIOZ The Corsair Overture, Op. 21
RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44
PROKOFIEV Concerto for Violin, No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Edith Peinemann, violin
SCHULLER Gala Music (world premiere)

July 26, 1970 (Ravinia Festival)
WALTON Scapino Overture
SCHULLER Suite from The Visitation (world premiere)
Ravinia Festival Jazz Ensemble
BLACKWOOD Piano Concerto (world premiere)
Easley Blackwood, piano
SCRIABIN The Poem of Ecstasy

December 6, 7 & 8, 1979
SCHULLER Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 15 in A Major, Op. 141
SCRIABIN/Nemtin Universe, Part I of the Prefatory Action of Mysterium (U.S. premiere)
Mary Sauer, piano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
James Winfield, assistant director

For the CSO’s Marathon 12 fundraiser in 1987, a radio broadcast performance of Schuller’s Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra, with principal bass Joseph Guastafeste as soloist and the composer conducting, was released on Soloists of the Orchestra, vol. 2. The Orchestra also recorded Schuller’s Spectra for Orchestra with James Levine conducting in 1990 for Deutsche Grammophon.

Gunther Schuller most recently appeared at Orchestra Hall on the Symphony Center Presents series on May 18, 2007, leading Epitaph, an eighty-fifth birthday anniversary tribute to Charles Mingus.

Several obituaries have been posted online in The New York Times, National Public Radio, and The Guardian, among numerous others.


Sir Georg Solti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Easley Blackwood‘s Fourth Symphony on November 22, 1978.

According to Arrand Parsons‘s program note, Blackwood “was one of several composers commissioned in 1970 by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in celebration of the Orchestra’s 80th anniversary. Blackwood began the work on the symphony right away, and the composition has been in progress during these nearly seven years. The first movement was finished in June 1976, at the time Sir Georg Solti was taping for Unitel television the first of a subsequent series of Orchestra Hall concerts with the Orchestra. Getting ready to return to England, Sir Georg scheduled a meeting with Blackwood in the parking area behind Orchestra Hall during the television taping sessions and they reviewed the movement with the score resting on the hood of a truck. Sir Georg encouraged the composer to complete the work, and from time to time after the parking lot incident he made inquiries as to the progress of the work. The completed score in the composer’s own manuscript was delivered to Sir Georg in June 1977.”

Blackwood and Solti in 1978

The composer also contributed to the program note: “When I was first approached about the possibility of composing a work for the Chicago Symphony, it immediately occurred to me that a work for very large orchestra would be most appropriate, given the particular nature and style of the Symphony. Sir Georg was very encouraging . . .

“I find it impossible to describe in words how the three movements go, except to say that all are conceived thematically, with transformations, variations, and fluctuations in modality that are not unlike traditional classical forms. Uppermost in my mind as I composed the work, was the creation of a harmonious musical design. I made no use of serial techniques, nor of any other compositional systems. Everything is written down within the conventional notation; there are no aleatory elements, nor any quotations from other works.

“No conscious effort was made to express anything other than musical ideas. Musical ideas, by their very nature, are evocative of feelings that cover a broad spectrum. Mere self-expression of emotion, must fall far short of the communicative powers inherent within the musical medium. The determination of the true meaning of a composition is more the province of the interpreter than the composer. Of course the composer’s own interpretation is of more than a little interest, but I do not think that it is the controlling factor. I am perfectly content to let the work speak for itself.”

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