Witte, Thomas


WITTE, Thomas Alfred

Thomas Alfred Witte, who served as second horn of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) from 1973 to 2015, died peacefully in his sleep on August 23, 2021. He was 73.

Born October 10, 1947 in Augsburg, Germany, to Helga (nee Krebs) and Walter Witte, Tom was raised in Fraser, Michigan. Walter, a German-American Chrysler autoworker, served in the U.S. Army's historic 71st Infantry during World War II. While stationed in Germany, Walter met Helga, the stunning trilingual daughter of a wine-merchant from Alsace-Lorraine.

Tom rose to become a pillar of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, helping to establish the dulcet warmth and muscular style of their virtuoso horn section. In so doing, he became one of America's most accomplished and longest-serving orchestral brass players.

Previously a member of the San Antonio Symphony and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Tom was appointed to Atlanta's then regionally-recognized band by Robert Shaw in 1973. Tom's 42 years with Atlanta place him among the generation of musicians most responsible for lifting the ASO from regional to national and now international acclaim. In recordings with Pro Arte, Telarc, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, and ASO Media, and under the batons of Maestros Shaw, Yoel Levi, Robert Spano, and Donald Runnicles, Tom performed with the ASO on more than 90 albums and compact discs, including all of the 27 Grammy winning recordings requiring two or more horns.

From 1988-2013, Tom and his colleagues formed the longest continuously serving orchestral horn section in America. His colleagues recall that Tom Witte was the glue, binding his fabled section together with an uncanny musical intuition and flexibility. His partners in that era included sterling Principal Emeritus Brice Andrus, Richard Deane (now Associate Principal and Acting Principal Horn of the New York Philharmonic), and current ASO horn members Bruce Kenney and Sue Welty. Their recorded history is a gift now as those who loved Tom grieve and reflect. In the ASO's recordings of Barber, Sibelius, Janacek, Copland, Stravinsky, Strauss, Prokofiev, and Mahler, Tom's family and friends hear him and his colleagues whisper and roar, striving to communicate music's depth, its fire.

Tom Witte's path from Germany to and with the ASO is a story his family and friends treasure.

While serving in WWII, Walter Witte's infantry produced the first historical documentation of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Walter died in 1959 when young Tommy was 12, leaving the youngster to be "the man of the house" for his younger sister Chris (Grant) and for their German immigrant mother. The import of Walter's service in WWII, and his premature death, shaped Tom's views on education, politics, literature (he was always reading), and the ways that music can fully communicate our relationships with each other and with nature. Throughout his days Tom sought to be kind, loving, and truthful, never forgetting that his own German-American father helped end and document crimes of arrogance and hate.

Quiet by nature, young Tommy came alive when making music. He heard his horn as a connection to the most honorable elements of his European lineage, and through music he gave voice to the grief of his father's death.

In one of many extraordinary gifts in his life, Tom's middle and high school band director was Seymour Okun, a Jewish-Canadian music educator almost miraculously dropped into ex-urban Detroit in the 1950s. Mr. Okun had a spine of steel, enormous expectations of himself and his students, and, most importantly, an immense heart.

In Mr. Okun's school bands, young Tommy met twins who both played clarinet: Arlene Gill, whom he would soon marry, and her sister Sandra, who became family. The Gill girls, academically and musically precocious, lost both of their parents while in high school.

Seymour Okun became the father these families needed, helping Tom, Arlene, and Sandra on to college and staying connected with them for the rest of Seymour's life. Tom always remembered that it was Seymour, more than any other teacher, who helped make Tom's musical life a reality.

Enrolled at the University of Michigan, Tom and then wife Arlene learned to play at a professional standard by enduring the refining fire of William D. Revelli in Michigan's famed Symphony Band. Tom's mentor at Michigan, Professor of Horn Louis Stout, a former member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, hammered grace, discipline, and precision into his young Fraser hellion, at least when Tom was on stage. Tom and college buddy, the late Gary Breeding, went on to become concerto competition soloists at Michigan, the first horn duo to win that honor at the then School of Music.

Committed to pay Mr. Okun and Professor Stout's lessons forward, Tom later taught countless students as coach to the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, as a faculty member who helped to establish the ascendant School of Music at Kennesaw State University, and as a respected mentor to aspiring horn players soon taking their own all-state, collegiate, or professional auditions.

A life-long wolf-whisperer (it's hard to explain), avid motorcyclist, erstwhile canoeist (don't ask), and "Jeopardy!" watcher (couch participant?), Tom's rich life included adventure, challenges, and, to be sure, sorrows.

Through it all, Tom counted on the angels who loved him, perhaps more people than he ever fully realized, each of whom his family honors evermore.

Tom revered the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so Tom's family paraphrases her here: what is the difference between a German-American autoworker who helped defeat the Nazis and a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who gave an historic East Berlin performance of Beethoven's Ninth with conductor Robert Shaw?

One generation.

Tom Witte, the love of our lives and his family's hero, is survived by his sister Chris and brother-in-law Ed Grant (Saline, MI); former wife Arlene Witte (Atlanta, GA) and then-sister-in-law and always "Sis", Sandra Gill (Darien, IL); his son Peter Witte and daughter-in-law Robin Johnson Witte (Danville, CA); and his two grandchildren, Isaac (Boston, MA) and Rose Witte (Los Angeles, CA).

We love you, Tom. We love you, Dad. We love you, Grampa.

Abends, will ich schlafen gehn, Vierzehn Engel um mich stehn…

Contributions in Tom Witte's honor may be made to:

The Atlanta Symphony Musicians' Foundation:


and the Yellowstone Wolf Project:


Memorial Services will be announced at a later date.