Michael Colgrass

Michael Colgrass. Composer, percussionist, b Chicago 22 Apr 1932; B MUS (Illinois) 1956. His teachers at the University of Illinois included Paul Price (percussion) and Eugene Weigel (composition). After graduation he served in the US 7th Army Band as a percussionist.

Colgrass, Michael

Michael Colgrass. Composer, percussionist, b Chicago 22 Apr 1932; B MUS (Illinois) 1956. His teachers at the University of Illinois included Paul Price (percussion) and Eugene Weigel (composition). After graduation he served in the US 7th Army Band as a percussionist. He also studied composition in 1953 with Darius Milhaud in Aspen, in 1954 with Lukas Foss at Tanglewood, and 1958-62 with Wallingford Riegger and Ben Weber in New York. He supported his composing activities by working 1956-66 in New York as a freelance percussionist, playing 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.

Among Colgrass' compositions, over 30 of which have been 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 has received commissions from the Boston and Detroit SOs, 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 TS, and the NACO in Canada.

Déja vu was written for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and received the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in music. In March 1978 CBC radio presented a concert of Colgrass' compositions at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Toronto. A documentary film called Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass won an Emmy Award in 1982 from the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences. 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 has written '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' (as quoted in CMCentre Directory of Associate Composers, Toronto 1989).

Colgrass has given 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, who is also the author of For the Love of Music (Toronto 1988) and in 1991 became the editor of Orchestra Canada. Michael Colgrass is a member of ASCAP.

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

  • Littler, William. 'Meet Michael Colgrass, you should know him,' Toronto Star, 11 Mar 1978

    Curtin, John. 'Composer casts a hypnotist's spell,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 20 Jun 1981

    Dawson, Eric. 'Aiming for the top,' Calgary Herald, 13 Oct 1990