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Schuller was born to German immigrant parents. He studied flute, horn, and theory, and by age 17 was a professional horn player with the Cincinnati Symphony. He became an active member of the New York bebop scene, playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. As both a composer and performer, he straddled the line between the classical and jazz worlds, and in a lecture in 1957, he coined the term “Third Stream” to describe music that incorporates jazz improvisation and the techniques of classical composition. In the 1950s, he began a conducting career that has focused largely on contemporary music. Founder of the famous jazz program at the New England Conservatory, he served on the faculties at the Manhattan School of Music and at Yale University, and also succeeded Aaron Copland as the head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood Music Center. He currently serves as Artistic Director of the Spokane Bach Festival. Schuller has provided the following program note:
“The Quartet for Doublebasses was composed in 1947, with some revisions in the last movement in 1959. When presented to a well-known bass teacher and ‘virtuoso’ in 1948, it was declared unplayable and the aberrant meanderings of a French-horn playing composer who didn’t know how to write for the bass. I look upon this somewhat bemusedly today, but at the time this rejection of my labor of love on behalf of the bass fraternity and the dearth of serious bass literature depressed me considerably. But then, these things were not unusual in the 1940s – when composers more or less expected not to get performed, unlike today when one has a reasonable expectation of performance of almost any new chamber work with our hundreds of university symposia, arts festivals, and contemporary performing groups.
“In any event, my bass quartet was taken up many years later – in 1959 – by Fred Zimmerman and a group of dedicated young bass players who subsequently gave the first performance of the work under my direction in Carnegie Recital Hall in the spring of 1960. It has since been widely performed all over the world.
“The quartet is nothing more than an attempt to write a non-compromising serious piece for four basses, just as one might normally write a string quartet. It is far removed from the genre and character pieces that have weighted down the bass repertory for decades and centuries.
“The work is in three movements. The first, largely homophonic in concept, groups the four basses into various combinations (two parts, one player accompanied by the other three, etc.). It may be of interest that the initial high-register opening chord, played tremolo, is identical to the last sounds in the fourth movement of Schoenberg's Opus 16, Five Pieces for Orchestra; and in a sense, the entire bass quartet was inspired by and evolved from that single chord, which seemed to me in 1947 (and still does) such an extraordinarily daring instrumental conception for 1909, when Schoenberg's work was written.
“The second movement is a scherzo, complete with a trio (in sustained chords in double-stop harmonics). The third movement is an adagio, including a cadenza-like section featuring the first bass in the highest register, a jazz-pizzicato section, and fade-away coda.
“Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the quartet and its only truly innovational contribution is the special tuning of the basses in the second and third movements. Each bass has a different tuning, thus enabling me to avoid the endless quartel harmonies and double-stops limited to fourths and fifths that afflict so much bass literature. Perhaps the most striking example of the possibilities permitted by such retuning of the strings is the eight-part chord in harmonics in the third movement, a chord literally not possible in harmonics with the conventional tuning.”
- Jessie Rothwell is a freelance writer and musician living in Los Angeles.