In Memoriam: James Nicolson

by EMA Staff
Published June 8, 2024

James S. Nicolson, a beloved harpsichordist and virginalist in Boston and beyond, passed away Tuesday, June 4. He was 91. His death was announced by Kathleen Fay, executive director of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF).

James Nicolson plays the double virginal made for him by Lynette Tsiang (Photo by Christina Nicolson)

By his own admission a late bloomer, he discovered the harpsichord in his 20s, studied at New England Conservatory, and performed on the virginal over a 25-year career in Europe and across the United States. Back home in New England, he taught at the Longy School of Music, among others, maintained a private studio of students, and held a prized collection of keyboard instruments. He cut several recordings, with the music of William Byrd one of his specialties. For more than three decades, he served as president of the Cambridge Society of Early Music.   

“Jim was among the founding members of BEMF,” Fay wrote, and “he served on the Board of Directors for many years and remained an Overseer since his retirement from the Board in 2009. Beyond his remarkable service, generosity, and dedication to BEMF, Jim was a gifted artist, a consummate gentleman, and a very dear friend. He will be sorely missed.”

On social media, the Boston Camerata wrote: “We mourn the passing of Jim Nicolson, one of Boston’s early music pioneers: musician, impresario, and one of the first participants in Camerata concerts. His benevolent, welcoming presence in our community was a constant boon to the music we love, and to its practitioners. We say goodbye, sadly, even as we salute a life well lived.”

Harpsichordist Mark Kroll wrote about a friendship with Nicolson that lasted a half century.

Nicolson was the 2013 recipient of Early Music America’s Howard Mayer Brown Award for lifetime achievement in the field of early music. EMA published an affectionate interview with Nicolson in 2022. Titled “Chatting with a Keyboard Master,” he and author Leslie Kwan covered the trajectory of his life. Read more here.


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