Celebrating Thirty Years of the <i>Encyclopedia of Music in Canada</i>

The following is an abridged excerpt from Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer by John Beckwith. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario.

The following is an abridged excerpt from Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer by John Beckwith. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario. February 2012)

When Helmut Kallmann's A History of Music in Canada 1534-1914 appeared in 1960, nothing half as thorough or as finely documented had ever been produced, either in English or in French, on this topic. When I asked what he planned to do for an encore, he thought his findings suggested two directions - an alphabetically organized dictionary about music and musical life in Canada, or a scholarly edition, probably in several volumes, preserving the most significant published music of the country's past. This prediction amounted to an outline of his work on the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

An article of mine bemoaning the poor showing of Canadian composers in international music dictionaries caught the eye of publisher and cultural philanthropist Floyd Chalmers. In 1971 Keith MacMillan, executive secretary of the Canadian Music Centre, and I met with Chalmers to hear his views on a possible Canadian music reference work. My article concerned resources on composers, but what we identified in our discussion was a broader need for a general encyclopedia covering all phases of the country's music, past and present. The obvious person to develop such an enterprise was Helmut Kallmann.

Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
The cover of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, first edition, third printing, 1982.

He had just moved to Ottawa as head of the new music division at the National Library of Canada, but was eager to take on the encyclopedia task. The NLC agreed to free up part of his time. Over the next several months, Michael Koerner became board chairman and Gilles Potvin and Kenneth Winters were conscripted as co-editors. Chalmers, MacMillan, and I, with half a dozen others from across the country, signed on as board members. Mabel Laine and Claire Versailles joined the team as managing editors respectively for the English and French editions. (We insisted that as a Canadian encyclopedia it should appear simultaneously in both national languages.) Chalmers pledged a large sum of his own money, and in meetings with granting agencies in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa he persuasively made the case for the substantial funding required. Lists of topics and sub-topics were circulated for opinions and suggestions. Offices in Toronto and Montreal recruited researchers and translators, and the editors started holding periodic "triangle" meetings to review progress.

Progress?! It proved slower than anticipated. I kept saying, starting in 1975, that it would be out "next year" or "in a year or two." The English edition, Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, appeared late in 1981; the French edition, Encyclopédie de la musique au Canada, in early 1983. Many of the articles, as Winters liked to point out, were on topics never before researched. Contributors had variable expertise, and some who had reputations as journalist-critics (and so were presumably able writers) were stymied by their assignments, a further indication that the publication was sorely needed. I contributed several entries, and helped with copy-editing and the tricky task of checking the translations.

The longer-than-anticipated preparation time meant constant upward revisions of the budget. When a bank overdraft in six figures threatened to put a halt to everything, Floyd Chalmers told us to relax; he would phone "Bill" or "Frank" or whatever the bank president's name was. He himself ended up contributing nearly half a million dollars, an exceptional donation at the time for such a project. He attended almost every board meeting, constantly urging us on to completion, but refrained from making editorial suggestions.

Encyclopedias date rapidly. Preoccupying us in the 1980s and '90s were a second edition of EMC, and then discussions for a third. The initial EMC had been the largest single publication undertaken up to that time by the University of Toronto Press. EMC2 was inevitably larger, and the French edition emerged in a boxed set of three volumes instead of a single nine-pounder. Ken Winters had relinquished his former post, and Robin Elliott came aboard as an associate to Kallmann and Potvin.

There was considerable dependence on newer technology in the editing process. The first edition was remarkable (and ahead of its time) among musical reference works in its generous treatment of popular and commercial music. Mark Miller's role as "jazz and pop" editor was even more heavily emphasized in the second. A rare aspect of EMC was its national focus; unlike most musical dictionaries, it concentrated on the music and musical life of one country. Maintaining that focus was not always easy. New board members in the 1980s thought the idea of editions in two languages, and the corresponding travails of translation, could be dispensed with. As an alternative, one member, an up-to-date businessman, thought the translation could be handled by a computer program, and had to be persuaded that in view of the special vocabulary of music this would be a disaster. Notably, our drive for funding met a more generous response from the Quebec government (then under the Parti Québécois) than from that of Ontario.

It seemed the third edition, like so many similar enterprises, would abandon print production in favour of an ongoing online reference work. The National Library, which since Kallmann's day had been a close partner in EMC research, became a centre for updating entries, and in the early 2000s the board turned the work over to the Historica Foundation of Canada (now the Historica-Dominion Institute) where it would become a sister publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia under the editorship of James H. Marsh. Helmut Kallmann, who had retired from the Library in 1987, and I, along with Michael Koerner, Joan Chalmers (Floyd's daughter), and Rod Anderson, veterans of the project's early days, gathered in 2002 to see it handed on to the future in electronic form as the online EMC.

After 30 years, the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada remains a frequently-cited reference work. While it has undergone revision and change, mirroring the period's sharp changes in the very meaning of music, its breadth and detail are remarkable. A prominent US authority, the musicologist Robert W. Stevenson, once referred to its "nonpareil two editions," and declared it "superior in every respect to any other national dictionary published in both South America and North America."