Death of a Pulitzer winner, 87

Death of a Pulitzer winner, 87


norman lebrecht

July 04, 2019

The richly accomplished and brilliantly communcative composer Michael Colgrass died this week at the age of 87.

His wife and son issued this bulletin: ‘Yesterday was Michael`s last day of a remarkable life. His health had been gradually failing, and he left us at age 87. As most of you know, he enjoyed life until the end, surrounded by friends and family and helped along by wonderful health care workers.”

‘Neal and I will miss him very much, as we are sure others will. He touched so many lives through his music and friendships. Thank you to all who sent greetings during his illness, came to visit from near and far and to play  music in our house.”

‘Michael did not want any ceremonies after his death, nor did he want you to be sad. Instead, visit him by playing his music and feel his spirit soar.
Neal and Ulla Colgrass

A Chicago jazz musician, Colgrass won the 1978 Pulitzer for a symphonic piece Déjà vu, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Boston, Minnesota, Detroit and others rushed in with further commissions. He wrote extensively for wind bands. His music was always warmly received.

In Canada, where he took citizenship, he worked closely with the Toronto Symphony and was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.


  • Michael had a profound influence on me as a musician. I commissioned two major keyboard works from him and conducted his wind symphony music. But above that musical association, he was a dear friend and mentor. He was a man of sincerity and deep empathy. He will be missed. My heart goes out to Ulla and Neal.

    • Ulla Colgrass says:

      Hi Bob, Thanks for your thoughts about Michael. We celebrate him Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10 in Walter Hall, U of T in Toronto. Lots of music and tall tales expected from near and far! You are welcome.
      Best, Ulla

  • NYMike says:

    From March ’55 to June ’56, Colgrass was a tympanist in the U.S. 7th Army Symphony playing concerts in Western Europe as part of a U.S. State Dept. propaganda protocol showing Europeans that we could play Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, etc. while also playing Copland, Creston, Gershwin, Barber, etc.

  • Larry says:

    He was a virtuoso percussionist, very active in the NY City free-lance scene in the ’50s and ’60s, before taking up composition on a full-time basis. I attended the world premiere of “Deja Vu” in 1977.

    A somewhat little known fact is that Colgrass was of Italian heritage. As he once told me, the family name was Colgrassi. His father was an amateur boxer and thought the Colgrass sounded more Anglo-Saxon, which is what many fighters were back in the day.

    One could do an interesting concert of “Italian American Composers Active in New York City in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” ie., Michael Colgrass, Peter Mennin, Paul Creston, Nicholas Flagello, Norman Dello Joio, Gian Carlo Menotti, Vittoria Giannini.

    • Hmus says:

      A slight correction- that’s Vittorio Giannini, teaching at Curtis in Philadelphia until he left to found the North Carolina School of the Arts…

  • msc says:

    Colgrass was very talented and an important addition to Canada’s musical world. I see he died on the day after Canada Day.

  • Larry W says:

    In tribute to Mr. Colgrass, I share Variation I of his creative and challenging Variations for Four Drums and Viola. (Please excuse the blurry video.)

    • Larry says:

      My former teacher, Vic Firth, recorded this many years ago with violist Burton Fine. (Boston Symphony Chamber Players.)

      Colgrass wrote many percussion pieces — including the “Rhapsodic Fantasy” for 15 drums and orchestra (1 soloist.) His early work (1951) for percussion ensemble, “Three Brothers,” is a classic. The title was a humorous tribute to the Woody Herman jazz band classic, “Four Brothers.”

      • Greg Bottini says:

        I love “Three Brothers” – I played it back in my college days.
        Drum on, Mr. Colgrass (or Signore Colgrassi)!