Surveying a year of losses

A list of some of who will be long remembered for their contributions to music

By Peter Alexander

Compiling the annual list of musicians we lost in this past year reminded me of a headline from a book of “Flubs from the Nation’s Press”: “Lucky Man Sees Pals Die.”

All of life is kind of like that: if you survive, you have the dubious privilege of watching others die. But 2016 raised that to a higher level, as we lost many great musicians, actors, and other public figures, including literal as well as the figurative nobility of the music world. Most of us didn’t know them personally, and yet we felt personally touched by their work.

Here is my annual list of classical musicians who have passed, and some great popular figures as well. As always, it is a list that reflects my personal interests; you are more than welcome to remember in the comments any others whose loss you will feel.

Dec. 31, 2015: Natalie Cole, the daughter of Nat King Cole and a great singer in her own right, who died at the very end of 2015, after last year’s survey was published, 65


David Bowie, in one of his many incarnations

Jan. 5, 2016: Pierre Boulez, one-time enfant terrible of the musical avant-garde who called for the destruction of all art from the past, but later became one of the most distinguished conductors of the time, 90

Jan. 10: David Bowie (aka “Ziggy Stardust”), the chameleon man of popular music, a songwriter, singer and actor who released his last album two days before his death, 69

February 4: Leslie Bassett, American composer and distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, 93

February 14: Steven Stucky, Pulitzer-Prize winning composer and composition teacher at the Aspen Music Festival, Cornell University, and the Juilliard School, 66

March 5: Nikolaus Harnoncourt (born Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt), founder of the period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien and highly respected conductor, 5 March, 86


Sir George Martin

March 8: Sir George Martin, the record producer who recognized the potential of the Beatles when others had turned them down, sometimes called “The Fifth Beatle,” 90

March 14: Peter Maxwell Davies, English modernist composer, openly gay and an avowed environmentalist who lived for many years in the remote Orkney Islands, 81

March 20: Keith Emerson, English keyboardist known for his rock arrangements of classical music, one third of the progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 71

April 6: Merle Haggard, one of the mainstays of an entire generation of country singers, known for “Okie from Muskogee” (among other songs), who once sang “If God doesn’t live in Colorado/I’ll bet that’s where He spends most of His time,” 79

April 21: Prince Rogers Nelson, flamboyant American singer/songwriter who was one of the most eclectic and prolific musicians of his lifetime, 57


Jane Little

May 15: Jane Little, diminutive (4’ 11’’) bass player with the Atlanta Symphony for an amazing 71 years, who collapsed onstage during a performance, 87

June 4: Phyllis Curtin, American soprano long associated with the New York City Opera, who also sang at the Chicago Lyric, the Metropolitan, and major houses world wide, 94

July 12: Gregg Smith, choral conductor who championed the work of American composers and director of the Gregg Smith Singers, 84

July 27: Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finnish composer of works in most classical genres, including operas, symphonies, choral works, and chamber music, 87


Patrice Munsel on the cover of Life, 1944

August 4: Patrice Munsel, coloratura soprano who was the youngest singer ever to appear in a leading role at the Metropolitan, at the age of 17, 91

August 22: Toots Thielemans (born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans), Belgian-American jazz musician, known for playing harmonica and guitar, and whistling, 94

October 2: Sir Neville Marriner, famed conductor and founder of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra, 92

October 8: Peter Allen, for 19 years the voice of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, 96

November 6: Zoltán Kocsis, Hungarian virtuoso pianist and conductor, 64

November 7: Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and novelist, later a singer and songwriter as well as painter, composer of the iconic and often covered song “Hallelujah,” 82


Pauline Oliveros

November 24: Pauline Oliveros, American composer and accordionist, an influential figure on the West-coast experimental and electronic music scene, 84

November 26: Russell Oberlin, American countertenor and founding member of the pioneering early-music group New York Pro Musica Antiqua, 88

December 15: Karel Husa, Czech composer who lived and taught in the U.S. for many years, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award, among other honors, 95

December 21: Weston Noble, renowned music educator, conductor of the Luther College Nordic Choir for 57 years and the Luther College Band for 25 years, 94

December 23: Heinrich Schiff, a highly distinguished Austrian cellist and conductor, 65


The Alexandrov Ensemble

December 24: Valery Khalilov and 63 other members of the Alexandrov Ensemble Russian Army Chorus, killed in a crash of a Tu-154 jet off the coast of the Black Sea

December 25: George Michael (born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), English popular singer, songwriter and record producer, 53

NOTE: Edited to correct typos, 1 Jan. 2017.

2 thoughts on “Surveying a year of losses

  1. I wish I could see your Flora. One of my favorite operas, and not as easy a part as it might look. But then, few are! Good luck with the Northern Vowels (whatever they are—Manchester?). Thank you for dropping by!

  2. Lovely to hear from you Peter. Quite a list, some with good long lives lived to the full, to die whilst performing in concert she was quite a lady.
    This is the second time I’ve heard of Einjuvanni the Finnish composer in two days my blog friend Gerard did a post with a link to one of his compositions, must be a sign.
    Also to be signed at 17 has quite a big impression on me, I’m still being told I’m too young.
    I’m getting the opportunity to sing Flora from The Turn of the Screw in an Opera Scene at the RCM this month, I’ve had to drop my northern vowels 😊.
    The people may be gone but at least their music lives on.
    Wishing you a happy new year 😊

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s