Memoirs of a Canadian Composer
Paper 408 pp.
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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.
In his sixty-year career, John Beckwith has drawn attention with performances, broadcasts, and recordings of his more than 150 compositions and with his critical and research writings on personalities and issues of Canadian music past and present. Associated from 1952 to 1990 with the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, he was a witness of, and often a participant in, “the excitement of new creative directions in theatre, painting, and music” (as he once put it) of late-twentieth-century Canada. John Beckwith is a member of the Order of Canada and holds honorary doctorates from five universities.
“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.”
— Germaine Warkentin, ARC News (U of T)
“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
“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
“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.”
— Benita Wolters-Fredlund, Calvin College, MLA (Music Library Association) Notes
“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.”
— J. Drew Stephen, University of Texas at San Antonio, Fontes Artis Musicae
“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.”
— Carol J. Oja, Department of Music, Harvard University
“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.”
— Pamela Margles, The WholeNote
“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.”
— James Rolfe, composer, past president, Canadian League of Composers
By the same author
In Search of Alberto Guerrero, John Beckwith
Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music, John Beckwith and Brian Cherney, editors
Mapping Canada’s Music: Selected Writings of Helmut Kallmann, Helmut Kallmann; John Beckwith and Robin Elliott, editors
Music Traditions, Cultures, and Contexts, Robin Elliott and Gordon E. Smith, editors
Centre and Periphery, Roots and Exile: Interpreting the Music of István Anhalt, György Kurtág, and Sándor Veress, Friedemann Sallis, Robin Elliott, and Kenneth DeLong, editors