Gunther Schuller, Boston’s most versatile and accomplished musical citizen, who over the course of a long career was a composer, horn player, conductor, jazz historian, educator, and the president of New England Conservatory, died Sunday morning in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of complications from leukemia. He was 89 and lived in Newton.
Mr. Schuller’s vast erudition and range of talents made him an unparalleled figure in American musical life and earned him the abiding respect and appreciation of generations of Boston musicians.
“He was the center of musical activity in Boston,” said the pianist Russell Sherman, who is distinguished artist-in-residence at the conservatory. “We were all his satellites and he was the sun.”
Mr. Schuller’s tenure as president at NEC, from 1967 to 1977, was a period of rebirth for a struggling school.
“Gunther Schuller took an old and sleepy institution, shook it hard, and how it awakened! It’s impossible to think of today’s NEC without his period of leadership,” said Laurence Lesser, president emeritus of the conservatory.
Mr. Schuller was also associated with the Tanglewood Music Center from 1963 to 1984, including serving as director.
His uniqueness flowed in part from his deep embrace of both classical composition and jazz. Arnold Schoenberg and Duke Ellington were both musical lodestars, and in his writing, his performance career, and his work as an administrator, he refused to privilege one form over the other. He even invented the now well-known term “Third Stream” to describe the fertile meeting ground between the two. As president of New England Conservatory, Mr. Schuller introduced jazz formally to the curriculum, a first among the nation’s classical music schools.
As a composer, Mr. Schuller wrote approximately 200 works and was said to be planning a composition during this last week of his life. The first work to earn him international recognition was “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee.”
In 2010, for its 125th anniversary, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned a large work by Mr. Schuller, “Where the Word Ends.” More recently, the BSO has performed his “Dreamscape” in both Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall. A memorial concert, planned for Nov. 19 at New England Conservatory under the direction of faculty member John Heiss, will offer representative samples from his vast output.
Part of Mr. Schuller’s success as an administrator and educator flowed from his insistence on preserving a connection between technical training required for high-level performance and the broader humanistic values of the cultures that gave birth to classical music’s core repertoire. Addressing the National Association of Schools of Music in 1972, he said: “I plead for a climate of musical training and education in which the frightening rampant anti-intellectualism of today will be exposed and rejected. I plead for a working together on all our parts to unite the art of music and the education of music into an inseparable whole.”
He was also an idealist in the mold of BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky, and when he saw musical institutions drifting, he could be trenchant in his criticism. In a now-famous address to incoming students at Tanglewood in 1979, Mr. Schuller decried the “apathy, cynicism, [and] hatred of new music” that he saw as “spreading like a cancer through our orchestras.”
Gunther Schuller was born in New York City in 1925 and educated partly in Germany. An extremely precocious horn player with a father who played violin in the New York Philharmonic, he was appointed as principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 17. Also in Cincinnati he met his future wife, Marjorie Black, a singer and pianist, whom he married in 1948.
During the 1940s, Mr. Schuller developed his interests in jazz rapidly and with abandon. In his memoirs, “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty,” he recalled his first live encounter with the music of Ellington: “While most people were dancing or having a drink, I stood there riveted, thunderstruck, mesmerized by the beautiful sounds coming from that stage.”
Mr. Schuller’s horn playing earned him a place in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in which he played for 15 years, a period during which he also extended his interest in jazz, recording with Miles Davis, and appearing on the album “Birth of the Cool.” His two jazz histories — “Early Jazz: its Roots and Musical Development” and “The Swing Era” — both became landmarks in the field. His book “The Compleat Conductor” is an exhaustive study of the subject of conducting in its theory and practice. His attempts to address what he saw as shortcomings in the music industry also included ventures such as establishing the GM Recordings label, which issued several historically significant recordings.
Ms. Black died in 1992, a devastating loss for Mr. Schuller that led to a creative crisis. “I couldn’t compose at all for 10 or 11 months, and sometimes wondered if I would ever be able to compose again,” he recalled at the time. The creative block ended with “Of Reminiscences and Reflections,” a work for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.
Mr. Schuller leaves two sons, George and Edwin, both of whom live in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
In the final pages of his memoir, Mr. Schuller struck a reflective tone. “All I can say for myself is that I at least have tried hard to use my all too brief time on this planet as fruitfully as possible, as productively as I could imagine.”
He added: “The only thing about the prospect of dying that upsets me — that I grieve over — is that I will never again hear all that beautiful music that I have come to know and love. But then some people tell me that I will, in fact, hear all that music — and more — in the afterlife.”Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.