Celebrating Thirty Years of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada

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.

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.
Helmut Kallmann, music educator and librarian

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 in our discussion we identified 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.

He had just moved to Ottawa as head of the new music division at the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada). Despite this, he 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. 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. In meetings with granting agencies in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa he 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. 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. 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, as well as the tricky task of checking the translations.

The longer-than-expected preparation time meant constant increases in 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. He constantly urged us to completion but refrained from making editorial suggestions.

Encyclopedias date rapidly. Preoccupying us in the 1980s and 1990s 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. The second edition was inevitably larger. The French edition emerged in a boxed set of three volumes instead of a single nine-pounder. Ken Winters had left his former post; 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; he had to be persuaded that, due to 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 had, since Kallmann's day, been a close partner in EMC research. It became a centre for updating entries. In the early 2000s, the board turned the work over to the Historica Foundation of Canada (now Historica Canada). The EMC thus became a sister publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia under the editorship of James H. Marsh. In 2002, the EMC was absorbed into the online version of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

After 30 years, the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada remains a frequently cited reference work. It has undergone revision and change, mirroring the period's sharp changes in the very meaning of music. But 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."