Michael Colgrass | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Michael Colgrass

Michael Colgrass, composer, percussionist (born 22 April 1932 in Brookfield, Illinois; died 2 July 2019 in Toronto, ON). Michael Colgrass played with the New York Philharmonic and Stravinsky’s Columbia Recording Orchestra in New York before moving to Toronto in 1974. He is perhaps best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1978 for Déjà Vu (1977), a concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra. Colgrass also won first prizes from the Louis B. Sudler International Wind Band Competition and the US National Band Association for his wind ensemble composition Winds of Nagual (1985). His Strangers: Irreconcilable Variations for Clarinet, Viola and Piano won the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music in 1988.


Colgrass’s teachers at the University of Illinois, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1956, included Paul Price (percussion) and Eugene Weigel (composition). After graduation, Colgrass served in the US 7th Army Band as a percussionist. He also studied composition with Darius Milhaud in Aspen, Colorado (1953); with Lukas Foss at Tanglewood (1954); and with Wallingford Riegger and Ben Weber in New York (1958–62).

Career in United States

Colgrass supported his composing activities by working in New York as a freelance percussionist (1956–66). He played with the New York Philharmonic; Stravinsky’s Columbia Recording Orchestra; various ballet, film, musical theatre and opera orchestras; modern dance groups; and new music ensembles. He began to compose on a full-time basis in 1967 and moved to Toronto in 1974.

Career in Canada

Among Michael Colgrass’s compositions — more than 30 of which were published by C. Fischer, MCA, Plymouth Music, and G. Schirmer — are works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments, and voice. Much of his work reflects a life-long interest in jazz. He received commissions from the Boston and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Musica Aeterna Orchestra of New York, the New World Festival, the New York Philharmonic, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation in the USA; the Brighton Festival in England; and the CBC, the Toronto Symphony Orhcestra, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada.

Colgrass wrote Déja vu for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and received the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in music. In March 1978, CBC Radio presented a concert of Colgrass’s compositions at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Toronto. A documentary film called Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass won an Emmy Award in 1982. Colgrass won first prizes from the Louis B. Sudler International Wind Band Competition and the National Band Association (both in the USA) for his wind ensemble composition Winds of Nagual (1985). His Strangers: Irreconcilable Variations for Clarinet, Viola and Piano won the 1988 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. His Snow Walker was premiered at the 1990 Calgary International Organ Festival.

New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg wrote that, “Mr. Colgrass is something of a maverick. He will use serial textures, but will mix them with jazz, or outright romanticism, or dissonance à la Ives. He also has evolved a distinct sort of miniature style that is extremely personal and poetic.”

Colgrass gave lecture-demonstrations on a variety of performance techniques, some based on classes with the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and with Jerzy Grotowski of the Polish Theatre Laboratory. He also contributed “Speaking of Music,” a column for  Music Magazine, a periodical co-founded and edited 1978–87 by his wife Ulla Colgrass. She is also the author of For the Love of Music (Toronto 1988). In 1991, she became the editor of Orchestra Canada. Michael Colgrass was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

A version of this article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Selected Compositions


  • Virgil's Dream, chamber musical. 1967. Mezzo, 2 tenor, bass, clarinet, elec piano, double-bass, percussion. Fischer 1976
  • Nightingale, Inc. 1971. 6 soli, SATB, 4 instr. Fischer
  • Something's Gonna Happen, children's musical (on Jack and the Beanstalk). 1978. 18-20 children, voices, piano, fl. Fischer 1982


  • Letter, New York Times, 18 Nov 1974
  • 'Solitary labor gives birth to a winning score,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 18 Nov 1988


  • Seventeen. 1960. Fischer 1969
  • As Quiet As. 1966. MCA Music 1969. RCA LSC-3001 (Boston SO)
  • Sea Shadow. 1966. Fischer
  • Letter From Mozart. 1976. Fischer 1985
  • The Schubert Birds. 1990. Colgrass Music
  • Also Winds of Nagual (1985) for concert band
  • Soloist(s) or Choir with Orchestra
  • The Earth's a Baked Apple (Colgrass). 1969. Children's chorus, orch. MCA Music 1970. Orion 7268/Orion OC-686 (cass) (New Orleans Phil SO)
  • Auras. 1973. Hp, orch. Fischer
  • Image of Man. 1974. Soli, chorus, orch. Fischer 1975
  • Concertmasters. 1975. 3 vns, orch. Fischer. 1977. Turnabout TV-34704 (American SO)
  • Theatre of the Universe (rev New People). 1975. Sop, mezzo, tenor, bar, bass, chorus, orch. Fischer
  • Best Wishes U.S.A. 1976. Soli, 2 chorus, jazz band, orch. Fischer 1977
  • Déjà vu. 1977. Perc quartet, orch. Fischer 1979. New World NW-318 (St. Louis SO,)
  • Delta. 1979. Vn, clarinet, percussion, orch. Fischer
  • Memento. 1982. 2 piano, orch. Ms
  • Demon. 1983. Amplified piano, tape, orch. Ms
  • Chaconne. 1984. Va, orch. Ms. CBC SM-7087 (Golani)
  • Snow Walker. 1990. Org, orch. Fischer 1990


  • Three Brothers. 1951. Perc ensemble. Music for Percussion 1954. Audicom USR-8707 (Morehead State U Percussion Ens)/Urania US-5106 (Manhattan Perc Ens)/U of Illinois CRS-3 (U of Illinois Perc Ens)/Golden Crest CR-4004 (P. Kraus)
  • Percussion Music. 1953. Perc ensemble. Music for Percussion 1954. Period SPL-743/Orion ORS-7276/Orion OC-642 (cass) (Price conductor)
  • Chamber Piece for Percussion Quintet. 1954. Music for Percussion 1962. U of Illinois CRS-6 (U of Illinois Perc Ens)
  • Six Unaccompanied Solos for Snare Drum. 1957? Lawson-Gould 1957. (No. 2, 5) Mark MRS-37070 (Frazeur)
  • Variations for Four Drums and Viola. 1959. Music for Percussion 1959. Crystal S-133 (Schotten viola, Epstein percussion)/MGM E-3714 (Vardi viola, Colgrass percussion)/3-RCA LSC-6184 (Boston SO Chamb Players)
  • Fantasy-Variations. 1961. Perc ensemble. Music for Percussion 1973. (1974). Nonesuch H-71291/Nonesuch 9-79150-2 (CD) (New Jersey Perc Ens)
  • Light Spirit. 1962. Fl, viola, guitar, 2 percussion. MCA Music 1973. New World NW-318
  • Wolf. 1975. Vc. Fischer 1978
  • Flashbacks: A Musical Play for Five Brass. 1978. Hn, 2 trumpet, trombone, tuba. Fischer 1978
  • Strangers: Irreconcilable Variations for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano. 1986. Ms
  • Folklines: A Counterpoint of Musics for String Quartet. 1987. Ms


  • Tales of Power. 1980. Ms
  • Metamusic. 1981. Ms
  • Memento. 1982. 2 piano. Fischer

Choir or Voice

  • New People (Colgrass). 1969. Mezzo, viola, piano. Fischer 1970. 1978. Grenadilla GS-1010
  • Beautiful People (from Best Wishes U.S.A.). 1976. SATB, piano. Fischer 1977
  • Mystery Flowers of Spring. 1978. Sop, piano. Ms
  • Night of the Raccoon (Takashima). 1979. Sop, alto fl, percussion, harp, piano (elec piano and celesta). Fischer. 1982. New Music Circle NMC-1985 (Coombs-Stacy soprano, New Music Circle of St. Louis)

Further Reading

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