Composers Datebook®

Schuller and the MJQ

Composer's Datebook - Jan. 4, 2023


On today’s date in 1961, the New York City Ballet presented a new work scored by a 35-year old composer named Gunther Schuller, who was conducting the pit orchestra. On stage, in the middle of the green- and purple-garbed dancers, were four additional musicians: namely, the Modern Jazz Quartet, decked out in their usual white ties and tails. Schuller’s score, entitled Variants, was an attempt to fuse modern music and jazz into a style he labeled Third Stream.

”I had this idea of the First and Second streams [classical and jazz] getting married and giving birth to a child, which is the Third stream," recalled Schuller years later, ruefully noting that today one would have to call it the 10,000th stream as composers have since introduced a multitude of ethnic, folk and vernacular music into the mix as well.

But back in 1961, the idea attracted a lot of press – not all favorable. The New Yorker, for example, thought it odd that the MJQ “sat like a quartet of hunters in a duck blind, anxiously shooting out carefully calculated notes.” Time magazine wrote: “Schuller’s score was the essence of the cool – spare, fragmentary, but resembling jazz only in its rhythmic drive.” If this was the Third Stream, the reviewer concluded, “it never seemed to be flowing anywhere.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Gunther Schuller (b. 1925) Conversation Modern Jazz Quartet and ensemble; Gunther Schuller, conductor. Wounded Bird 1345

On This Day


  • 1710 - Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, in Jesi, Marche;

  • 1720 - German composer, organist, singing teacher and writer on music Johann Friedrich Agricola, in Dobitschen, Saxe-Altenburg;

  • 1874 - Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk, in Krecovice; The famous contemporary Czech violinist and Supraphon recording artist Josef Suk (b. 1929) is this composer’s grandson;


  • 1869 - Symphony No. 1, at a Russian Musical Society Concert in St. Petersburg conducted by Mily Balakirev (Gregorian date: Jan. 16);

  • 1880 - Brahms: Piano Pieces, Op. 76, in Leipzig;

  • 1881 - Brahms: "Academic Festival Overture," in Breslau, with the composer conducting;

  • 1961 - Gunther Schuller: jazz ballet "Variants," in New York City;

  • 1996 - Richard Danielpour: "Toward the Splendid City" for Orchestra, by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Slatkin and commissioned by the Philharmonic for its 150th Anniversary;


  • 1840 - The climax of Franz Liszt's triumphal return to his native land occurs at the old Hungarian National Theatre, where the composer is presented with a bejeweled "Sword of Honor"; Liszt delivers an impassioned speech that calls for Hungarian cultural and political independence;

  • 1950 - RCA announces it will produce long play records as Columbia did two years earlier (RCA had unsuccessfully attempted to compete with Columbia's new 33.3-rpm LPs by issuing some of their classical catalog as multiple disc 45-rpm sets).

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®