Don Gillis (composer)

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Donald Eugene Gillis (June 17, 1912 – January 10, 1978) was an American composer, conductor, teacher, and radio producer. The composition which has gained him most recognition is his orchestral Symphony No. 5½, A Symphony for Fun.


Gillis was born in Cameron, Missouri. His family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and he studied at Texas Christian University, playing trombone and acting as assistant director of the university band. He graduated in 1935, and obtained a master's degree from North Texas State University in 1943.

He became production director for the radio station WBAP, later moving to NBC where he became producer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra during the tenure of its conductor Arturo Toscanini. He held several teaching posts at academic institutions in the southern United States during his career, and also helped to found the Symphony of the Air orchestra. Gillis produced several NBC radio programs, including "Serenade to America" and "NBC Concert Hour." After Toscanini retired in 1954 Gillis, serving as president of the Symphony Foundation of America, was instrumental in helping to form the Symphony of the Air, using members of the old NBC Symphony. Gillis also produced the radio program "Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend," which ran for several years on NBC after the Italian conductor's death.

In 1973 he joined the faculty of the University of South Carolina where he founded, and was chairman of the Institute for Media Arts and was instrumental in establishing the Instructional Services Center. Dr. Gillis also served as USC's Composer-in-residence until his death.

He died in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 10, 1978. His papers and an extensive collection of recorded material are housed at the University of North Texas in Denton.


Despite his administrative responsibilities, Gillis was a prolific composer, writing ten orchestral symphonies, tone poems like Portrait of a Frontier Town, piano concertos, rhapsodies for harp and orchestra, and six string quartets. He also composed a wide variety of band music. Gillis is best remembered as the composer of his Symphony No. 5½, A Symphony for Fun, originally performed by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra during a September 21, 1947, broadcast concert that Gillis also produced; it was preserved on transcription discs but not commercially issued. Since 2005, his symphonies have been recorded on the Albany Records label.

Gillis sought to interpret contemporary American culture musically. His music drew upon popular material, particularly emphasizing jazz, which he considered a revitalizing element in American music. He assimilated popular influences in a simple and straightforward style aimed at communicating with his audiences through an emphasis on clear, accessible, melodic writing. Many of his works are best characterized as fun and full of humor.

Chronological list of principal compositions[edit]


  • The Unfinished Symphony Conductor. Pemberton Press (1967). A satirical conducting manual.
  • The Art of Media Instruction. Crescendo Book Publications (1973).

Memberships & affiliations[edit]

  1. Alpha Alpha, 1958 (National Honorary Chapter)
  2. Gamma Theta, 1941 (University of North Texas College of Music Chapter)

External links[edit]