The composer Gunther Schuller is, famously, a man of many musical pursuits. He began his professional life as a horn player in both the jazz and classical worlds, working as readily with Miles Davis and Gil Evans as with Toscanini; he was principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony from age sixteen and later of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra until 1959.
In the 1950s he began a conducting career focusing largely on contemporary music, and thereafter conducted most of the major orchestras of the world in a wide range of works, including his own. He was central in precipitating a new stylistic marriage between progressive factions of jazz and classical, coining the term "Third Stream" and collaborating in the development of the style with John Lewis, the Modem Jazz Quartet, and others.
An educator of extraordinary influence, he has been on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and Yale University; he was, for many years, head of contemporary music activities (succeeding Aaron Copland) as well as a director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and served as President of the New England Conservatory. He has published several books and recently embarked on the writing of his memoirs.
In the late 1970s he started the GunMar and Margun music publishing companies and later the GM Recordings label. (The GunMar/ Margun catalogs are now part of G. Schirmer/Music Sales/AMP.) Composition has had a continual central presence in Schuller's musical life: he has written more than 180 works dating back to the beginning of his career when, at age nineteen, he was soloist in his own Horn Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goosens. His works range from solo works to concertos, symphonies, and opera, and many fall outside of any genre (for which reason there can be no such thing as a brief and comprehensive overview of his output).
Gunther Schuller's orchestral works include some of the classics of the modern repertoire written for the major orchestras of the world. Prominent among these are several masterful examples in the "Concerto for Orchestra" genre, though not all of them take that title. An early example is Spectra (1958), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the orchestra's departing music director Dimitri Mitropoulos. Schuller reconfigured musical space by organizing the ensemble onstage into smaller chamber groups within the larger orchestra, and also concentrated on instrumental timbre as a defining aspect of the piece's form and expression; both of these aspects were cutting-edge for the time, foreshadowing concerns of later composers. Spectra remains a compelling orchestral essay alongside such other works as the Concerto for Orchestra No. 1: Gala Music (1966), written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (1976) for the National Symphony Orchestra; and Farbenspiel (Concerto for Orchestra No. 3) (1985), written for the Berlin Philharmonic. The title of the latter, translatable as "play of colors," echoes the visual metaphor of Spectra.