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Biography & Autobiography Composers & Musicians

Unheard Of

Memoirs of a Canadian Composer

edited by John Beckwith

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2012
Composers & Musicians, Individual Composer & Musician, Classical
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The memoir of renowned Canadian composer John Beckwith recounts his more than sixty years in creative output and music education. His life story is a slice of Canadian cultural history.
Canadian composer John Beckwith recounts his early days in Victoria, his studies in Toronto with Alberto Guerrero, his first compositions, and his later studies in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger, of whom he offers a comprehensive personal view. In the memoir’s central chapters Beckwith describes his activities as a writer, university teacher, scholar, and administrator. Then, turning to his creative output, he considers his compositions for instrumental music, his four operas, choral music, and music for voice. A final chapter touches on his personal and family life and his travel adventures.
For over sixty years John Beckwith has participated in national musical initiatives in music education, promotion, and publishing. He has worked closely with performing groups such as the Orford Quartet and the Canadian Brass and conductors such as Elmer Iseler and Georg Tintner. A former reviewer for the Toronto Star and a CBC script writer and programmer in the 1950s and ’60s, he later produced many articles and books on musical topics. Acting under Robert Gill and Dora Mavor Moore in student days and married for twenty years to actor/director Pamela Terry, he witnessed first-hand the growth of Toronto theatre. He has collaborated with the writers Jay Macpherson, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and bpNichol, and teamed repeatedly with James Reaney, a close friend. His life story is a slice of Canadian cultural history.

About the author

John Beckwith’s thirty-eight years with the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, included seven as its dean and five as founding director of its Institute for Canadian Music. Among his compositions are four operas and many orchestral, choral, chamber, and solo works. A frequent contributor to Canadian and foreign music journals, he is the author of Music Papers (1997) and In Search of Alberto Guerrero (WLU Press, 2006).

Since 1972 Brian Cherney has been on the staff of the Faculty of Music (now the Schulich School of Music) at McGill University, where he teaches composition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. His extensive compositional output includes orchestral, choral, and instrumental music. His monograph on the Canadian composer Harry Somers was published in 1975.

John Beckwith's profile page

Excerpt: Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer (edited by John Beckwith)

Excerpt from Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer by John Beckwith

From the section entitled Compositions, chapter 13 Choirs, pages 282 to 285

I had greeted Elmer Iseler’s 1964 appointment as conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as a case of “the right person at the right time. “5 When that historic large choir pondered what to do with a commission for the Canadian Centennial in 1967, he suggested my name. This was a major challenge. Where to find a suitable text? As usual, my thoughts ran to a newly written libretto. The choir agreed to let me share my commission with a librettist. When I consulted with some of my writer friends, the name of Dennis Lee came up. Like Margaret Atwood, he had been part of Pamela’s Victoria College cast for Epicoene and was becoming known as a poet: his Civil Elegies, then about to be published, had pertinence to the modern city, and Toronto in particular; the children’s collection Alligator Pie, for which he was later renowned, was still several years in the future. Lee and I discussed some ideas about living in contemporary Canada and specifically in Toronto, and he developed a text calling for chorus and three soloists (speaker, Heldentenor, and blues singer). His first idea for a title was Civitas, but I thought that was too high-toned, so we settled on Place of Meeting, which some historians claim is the meaning of the Aboriginal word “Toronto” (“the [Toronto] meeting-place” and “the carrying-place” are terms found in historical accounts). The text depicts the commercial sleaze of the modern city (“this shambles”) and wonders how human dignity can survive in such surroundings. The blues singer laments,”This country ain’t my country, and this city ain’t my home. “ When the speaker climaxes a diatribe by shouting,”There is no Canada; there is NO Canada! “ the chorus overlaps his sustained “NO” with the beginning of “O Canada. “ The tenor part represents a more optimistic and hopeful view, overriding the critical/editorial elements with penetrating high Bs and Cs. We took our commission seriously and ambitiously. Northrop Frye said of the Centennial that what we were all celebrating was the Canada we had yet to create; 6 that was, I thought in retrospect, what Lee and I had tried to convey in Place of Meeting.

Place of Meeting was my largest composition project to date. Starting to work on it amid other commitments in the summer of 1966, I planned to produce it in stages, the score for chorus and soloists (with rehearsal cues) first, reserving completion of the orchestra’s score and the instrumental parts for later (I was promised the full Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the largest instrumental group I had yet worked with—six horns! ). Elements in the work would, I figured, coexist on different planes of dynamics and speed, as in my radio collages—and with these multiple forces it would be necessary to have two conductors. When I checked out these ideas with Iseler he was supportive, indeed gung-ho. The vocal score was ready for the choir in the spring of 1967; it had timings (twenty seconds here, forty-five seconds there) for the orchestral passages I had yet to write. The soloists were booked: the speaker would be the musically sensitive actor Colin Fox; the tenor would be Jacob Barkin, one of the musical Barkins of Toronto, then a cantor in a synagogue in the US, and a singer with a powerful, ringing high register; Al Harris, well known from many CBC broadcasts, would play the guitar accompaniment for the blues singer Phil Maude.

The second conductor position was as yet unfilled. This was still the situation at the start of choral rehearsals in the early fall. With some hesitation, I said to Iseler that if necessary, since I knew the score, I could be the second conductor. He found this an acceptable solution and even asked me to take one or two of the rehearsals, which I did. This experience revealed to me a mood of unrest among the choir members: some were tremendously keyed up about the project, while others were doubtful or even hostile. The piece was turning out to be not just new but controversial. At that point in its history, the Mendelssohn Choir had, I think, never attempted any more advanced contemporary repertoire than Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, so Place of Meeting seemed to many of the singers further off the choral-music norm than it actually was. Moreover, if the musical content was unfamiliar, Lee’s text was, to some, pretty strong stuff. In one passage the choir shouts a miscellany of advertising slogans then seen on billboards or heard in radio jingles, among them a particularly blatant one from a subway placard,”Shrink Hemorrhoids Now! “ For some of the more squeamish sopranos, that exceeded the bounds of good taste. It certainly wasn’t the B Minor Mass.

Iseler and I divided the conducting chores; for sections in simultaneous but conflicting metres (a large portion of the work), the choir was directed to watch him and the orchestra was directed to watch me. I was nervous for my rehearsals with the orchestra but felt I had good support from the players, some of whom I knew well. Audiences gave Massey Hall a superior rating for acoustics, but those who performed there regularly had a different opinion of the acoustics onstage. I understood this when I corrected the tuba on a wrong entry, only to be told that what I was hearing was the bassoon from the other side of the stage; the echoes played tricks. The speaker and the blues combo were positioned in a balcony overlooking the choir, and we asked for them to be miked. It turned out that the hall had no regular sound system in place (its transformation into a rock concert palace was still some years off). A part-time technician would come in when required and set up what amounted to a public address system intended for travel lectures or political meetings. There was delay and distress before this was prepared more or less adequately (it proved inadequate in the performance). Our dress rehearsal made everyone nervous, especially Elmer Iseler. He told me when it was over that he thought the performance would have to be cancelled. He was a veteran professional performer and I was making my first appearance leading a professional orchestra, but I found I was the one who had to rally his spirits. Somehow I must have managed to, because we went ahead with the show.

The night of the concert, the work came off more smoothly than in the dress rehearsal. As so often happens, the performers rose to the occasion and gave it their best. There were moments of audience reaction where it seemed our intentions got across. Fox’s voice commanded attention despite the erratic miking, and in the ironic final fade-out Harris’s blues guitar created a hush. I was told by two orchestra players afterwards (Gene Rittich and Bob Aitken) that my beat was clear; they had advised me as a novice that what most players want from a conductor is a strong upbeat, and I tried to remember that. There were however some bad, uncertain moments. The passage where the choir suddenly launches into “O Canada” was to be capped by the tenor soloist’s most exultant phrases, but Iseler hit “O Canada” at a faster tempo than he ever had in rehearsal—so much faster that Barkin found it impossible to sing his lines, so the effect was ruined. Dennis Lee and I were called to the stage for several bows with the conductor and soloists. It seemed something of the work had connected with our audience, but there were to be no more performances.

5 “Music in Toronto 64—65,” Canadian Forum 45, no. 534 (July 1965): 83—85.

6 Northrop Frye, The Modern Century: The Whidden Lectures, 1967 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967), 122—23.

Editorial Reviews

In this fascinating personal and professional odyssey, John Beckwith delivers rich cultural history, opening a wide window on Canadian musical and educational institutions of the mid-to-late twentieth century. The book's wryly modest title reflects its author's gentle wit, but don't be misled: Unheard Of chronicles a life of high professional visibility and intellectual engagement.

CAML Review/Revue de l'ACBM, 40, 3, November 2012

What may surprise you about this memoir by John Beckwith, one of Canada's preeminent composers, is that it will make you laugh. The cheeky title hints at the man's sense of humour and reflects the fact that many, especially those outside the academic and classical music circles in Canada, may not know his name. But within these circles Beckwith is a towering figure. His notoriety and influence arise from his involvement in the world of classical music in Canada for over six decades in several capacities: as piano performer, journalist, teacher, administrator, scholar, and composer. However significant his career in arts and letters was, one might not expect that an account of it would be terribly exciting. But Beckwith is a gifted storyteller, and throughout the book he generously peppers his narrative with charming and sometimes hilarious anecdotes.... For those for whom Beckwith may seem more of an institution than a man, these frequent humourous moments reveal something of the personality behind the legend, while the chronicle of his boundless activities and accomplishments validate his iconic status.... The picture that emerges from this memoir is of a man of great intelligence, energy, wit, and generosity of spirit who enjoyed a career of uncommonly wide breadth and scope. It will certainly appeal to those with an interest in Canadian classical music and twentieth-century music more broadly. Although it makes numerous references to music and music personalities, it is well-written enough to warrant a readership among those who enjoy Canadian history and biography as well.

ARC News (U of T), Volume 4, issue 4, June 2013

The focus of Unheard Of is clearly Beckwith's own life and career. He documents both with a keen eye for detail and strong sense of wit. What makes the book truly fascinating is the rich insight Beckwith provides into the musical culture of his time. Beckwith was part of the generation that saw the establishmnet of composition in Canada as a legitimate professional endeavour and the widespread acceptance and appreciation of the arts in Canada. By writing of his own expereinces, Beckwith reveals much about a crucial time in which Canadian music achieved maturity and recognition.... Beckwith is an engaging writer with a gift for narrative. His memoirs are informative and entertaining while also addressing one of the main preoccupations throughout his career, namely, the relative obscurity of Canadian music and the difficulties in bringing it to a wider audience both within Canada and abroad. In summarizing the honours that have been bestowed upon him in recent years, Beckwith allows that the book's title, ‘unheard of,’ may be an exaggeration. Still, while it is true that Beckwith has achieved a level of recognition and respect that very few other Canadian composers can claim, the issue of the music remains. As Beckwith notes, ‘from being heard, the pieces, with only a few exceptions, become soon unheard of, and unheard’ (p. 303). Beckwith, in his memoirs, asks to be heard. He gives us good reason to listen.

Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 20, no. 6, July/August 2012

From his youth onwards Beckwith's life has been an intensely musical one: in due course he came east as a young music student, became a performer, a musical administrator, a teacher, a writer on music, the Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, and a distinguished composer of choral and chamber music and opera. Now he has written his memoirs of that long life in Canadian music and it's a great read.... In nearly 400 pages (with lots of illustrations and music examples, and superb index) he pulls together a family history with all its ups and downs, and a professional biography that chronicles step by step and in rich detail the musical life, personalities, and performances in Toronto and Canada from the mid-1940s to the present day.... One of the pleasures of Unheard Of is that Beckwith has organized it so that readers with different interests—musical or academic history, life writing, or the rigorously compositional—can take the book up and read it for their own purposes.... John Beckwith's splendid memoir is an important contribution to the chronicle of a period that was vigorous, productive, and fascinating, and to our understanding of what it was like to be a serious composer in Canada in the twentieth-century.

Fontes Artis Musicae, 61/1

Revealed in John Beckwith's engaging memoir, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, is...[a] determined and vigorous temperament. By turns modest and assertive, Beckwith recounts life as a prolific composer, writer, academic, administrator, concert promoter, publisher, journalist and family man. The sense of Canada evolving in the mid 20th century, its musical and social life seeking an identity distinct from Europe, is described through anecdote and detail—often from memory since he admits to not always having kept daily notes. Early in the memoir Beckwith confesses to ‘longing for fame’ from his youngest days, and sustains this candour throughout.... Both books [Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music and Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer] incorporate photographs, music examples, detailed notes and indexes. In addition to their narrative strengths, the books also include comprehensive and credible technical discussions and anlysis of the subjects' music by practising composers, musicians, and authors. Should they delve into these chapters, general readers will learn a great deal about mid-20th-century compositional and performance practice too.

John Brotman, Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 20, no. 6, July/August 2012, 2012 July 1

With clarity, grace, and wit, Beckwith chronicles the astounding breadth and passion of his life as a composer, performer, writer, historian, journalist, teacher, and administrator. His collaborations, friendships, and tiffs with colleagues; his private life in both sweetness and sorrow; the genesis of his unique musical language: all are recounted with unaffected candour. What remains is his enthusiasm and sense of adventure as one of Canada's musical pioneers.

MLA (Music Library Association) Notes, March 2013

Canadian composer John Beckwith is also well-known in various circles as a teacher, administrator, pianist and writer. Given this multi-faceted life and his many accomplishments in each of those areas, this monograph provides readers with extensive and interesting insight into the influences and experiences not only of his own career, but also the plethora of Canadian artists and cultural professionals whom he has known and worked with.... Thanks to Beckwith's remarkable attention to detail, this autobiography proves to be a useful research tool that chronicles much of the burgeoning activity in the Canadian musical scene during Beckwith's lifetime.... Beckwith's extensive description of how each of his own works came into being is illuminating. In describing the circumstances of when and where each composition was born, he also outlines his perspectives as to what influences he was experiencing and what goals he sought to achieve. This portrait of his compositional evolution will facilitate analysis by future scholars.... These Memoirs are well-written in fluid and readable prose. Beckwith's tone is largely matter-of-fact; he does not employ what he describes as ‘my habitual critical bitchiness’ associated with his earlier concert reviews. It is hard to imagine that a biographer of Beckwith could do better, because there is an authoritativeness that springs from his closeness to the events combined with what is largely a dispassionate telling.... If this volume is any indication, the publisher's Life Writing Series is commendable and is an important tool that provides keen insights into Canada's cultural and intellectual heritage.

Jon Gonder, State University of New York at Genesco, CAML Review/Revue de l'ACBM, 40, 3, November 2012, 2012 December 1

''Throughout his career, Beckwith's writings have been marked by his outspokenness—what he himself calls his ‘habitual critical bitchiness.’ But here, though he is uncommonly candid about his own shortcomings and outright failures, he is surprisingly tolerant of the shortcomings of others.... The extensive endnotes, index, and score excerpts all contribute to the considerable pleasure of reading this beautifully-written memoir. The collection of photos includes a terrific ad from 1968 for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It features a photo of a Volkswagon Beetle, and reads, ‘The bug and John Beckwith.’ By the end of this memoir Beckwith is ready to admit that he does, perhaps, exaggerate his obscurity. ‘Unheard Of’?—hardly. ‘Unheard’—undoubtedly; though what Canadian composer feels otherwise? ‘Essential’ would be more like it.''

The WholeNote, April 1 - May 7, 2012

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