Skip to page content

About this Piece

Gunther Schuller's father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic for more than 40 years, and the composer himself was a professional horn player, including nine years as principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. His awards include a MacArthur "Genius" Award in 1991, and a composition written for the Louisville Symphony, Of Reminiscences and Reflections, won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

While playing in the Cincinnati Symphony in the early 1940s, Schuller heard a Duke Ellington concert that sparked an obsessive interest in jazz. He began to play and record with Miles Davis and Gil Evans, among others, as well as writing and arranging for the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1957 he coined the term "third-stream" to describe "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music."

His most popular manifestation of the third stream genre is Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, composed in 1959 when Schuller left the Met Orchestra to pursue composition. It was commissioned for the Minneapolis Symphony and Antal Dorati (under whom Schuller had played for a season in the orchestra of the American Ballet Theatre), and it attempts to find musical equivalents for seven paintings by the Swiss modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940). "Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems," Schuller wrote. "Some relate to the actual design, shape, or color scheme of the painting., while others take the general mode of the picture or its title as a point of departure."

In "Antique Harmonies" Schuller tried to suggest both the block-like shapes of the Klee painting and its amber and brown colors with dark, dense orchestration and brighter blocks of "antique" open fifths. "Abstract Trio" is played almost exclusively by three instruments at a time, though which instruments play changes over the course of the movement, from bright colors to dark. "Little Blue Devil" depicts 'blue' with a jazzy theme over a distorted blues progression.

"A piece based on Klee's famous The Twittering Machine should, it seems to me, do primarily one thing: twitter," wrote Schuller. "The mathematical constructive element in present-day [1959] serial technique seemed to lend itself with special logic to such a pointillistic musical presentation."

In "Arab Village" Schuller suggests the sounds that might be heard by someone floating above the North African village abstracted in Klee's painting. Schuller tried to play with the title of Klee's pen drawing An Eerie Moment and to convey the atmosphere of its "slinking shapes." Klee subtitled his Pastorale as "Rhythms," and Schuller represents that with "several rhythmic-melodic shapes [that] occur on various register and speed (temporal) levels."