Sir Ernest MacMillan

A prodigy, MacMillan had composed several songs and played the organ publicly by age 10. During his teens he audited music classes at Edinburgh University and attained both an organ diploma and an Oxford baccalaureate in music. He held a professional position as an organist in Toronto at age 15.


MacMillan, Sir Ernest Alexander Campbell

 Sir Ernest Alexander Campbell MacMillan (b at Mimico [Etobicoke], Ont 18 Aug 1893; d at Toronto 6 May 1973). Internationally known as a conductor of symphonic and choral music, he was also an organist and pianist, a composer, an educator, a spokesman for music, and a leading figure in Canadian musical organizations. He left about 20 compositions and many arrangements; his extensive writings and talks cover many subjects, from folk song to musical pedagogy. By his cultivation, skill, energy and travels, he became the most influential Canadian musician of the middle to late 20th century.

Internment in Germany

A prodigy, MacMillan had composed several songs and played the organ publicly by age 10. During his teens he audited music classes at Edinburgh University and attained both an organ diploma and an Oxford baccalaureate in music. He held a professional position as an organist in Toronto at age 15. Interned in Germany as an enemy alien from 1914 to 1918, he developed his talents through prison-camp shows and concerts. In the early 1920s in Toronto he performed as church organist and choir director, wrote for journals and taught music. Most of his original works belong to this phase of his career.

In 1923 MacMillan directed the first of 30 annual presentations of Bach's St Matthew Passion. He was active in the annual CPR folk festivals (1927-31), and edited A Book of Songs (1929; reissued as A Canadian Song Book, 1937), widely used as a school text, and an anthology of essays, Music in Canada (1955). He was principal of the Toronto (later Royal) Conservatory of Music 1926-42; dean of the Faculty of Music, U of T, 1927-52; and toured all regions of the country as festival adjudicator and as Conservatory examiner.

Greatness Rises

MacMillan's fame as a conductor grew rapidly after 1931, when he became conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He led the TSO until 1956, and for the last 14 of those years was also conductor of the TORONTO MENDELSSOHN CHOIR. He was guest conductor with major orchestras in the US, Australia and Brazil, and conducted the first commercial recordings of his home organizations. Bach was his specialty, but he exposed audiences to a gamut of music and championed numerous works by Canadian composers.

MacMillan was knighted in 1935 and received the Canada Council Medal (1964), the Order of Canada (Companion, 1970), the Canadian Music Council Medal (1973, awarded posthumously), the Richard Strauss Medal (GEMA, W Germany), honorary diplomas from the 2 royal music schools (London, England), and honorary doctorates from 8 universities. Named after him were the MacMillan Theatre and the annual MacMillan/CAPAC Lectures (Toronto, 1963-77, revived as the SOCAN/MacMillan Lectures), and the Sir Ernest MacMillan Fine Arts Clubs (Vancouver, 1936 through 1970). In 1984 his papers were acquired by the National Library of Canada; the collection includes 14 chapters of an incomplete memoir, written in 1955-56, which remains unpublished. The Sir Ernest MacMillan Memorial Foundation, established by his family in 1985, aims to assist gifted young professional musicians.

The centenary of his birth in 1993 was an occasion for release or reissue of recordings of MacMillan's performances or compositions, for concerts, broadcasts and symposia devoted to appreciation of his many-faceted legacy, and eventually for a major exhibition (Toronto, Ottawa) of memorabilia from the NLC's MacMillan Collection, and the appearance of the long-awaited first full-length biography.


Further Reading

  • Carl Morey, ed., MacMillan on Music: Essays on Music by Sir Ernest MacMillan (1997); Ezra Schabas, Sir Ernest MacMillan: the Importance of Being Canadian (1994).

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