Derek Holman | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Derek Holman

Derek Holman, CM, composer, organist, choir conductor, professor (born 16 May 1931 in Illogan, England; died 20 May 2019 in Ottawa, ON). Derek Holman worked at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Croydon Parish Church and the Royal School of Church Music in the United Kingdom before moving to Canada in 1965. He was organist-choirmaster at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill, choirmaster at Bishop Strachan School and a professor at the University of Toronto. He was perhaps best known for his collaborations with Robertson Davies, including on the children’s opera Doctor Canon’s Cure (1982). Holman was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Church Music in 1972 and a Member of the Order of Canada in 2002.

Education and Career in Britain

From 1948 to 1952, Derek Holman studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir William McKie, Eric Thiman and York Bowen. From 1952 to 1954, he was an instructor in the Royal Army Educational Corps with the British Army of the Rhine. He returned to music as master at Westminster Abbey Choir School (1954–56) and went on to become assistant organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral (1956–58). He also served as organist at Croydon Parish Church (1958–65) and founded the Croydon Bach Society in 1960. From 1956 to 1965, he was a tutor, then subwarden and finally warden, of the Royal School of Church Music.

Career in Canada

Holman moved to Canada in 1965. His first positions in Toronto were as organist-choirmaster at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill (1965–79) and choirmaster at Bishop Strachan School. From 1967 to 1996, he taught at the University of Toronto. He directed the Concord Singers of Toronto (1973–75) and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus (1975–85), and was organist-choirmaster at the Church of St. Simon the Apostle from 1981 to 1998.

Compositional Style

Derek Holman’s compositional output was mostly in theatrical and choral music. He generally wrote in a tonal-centred, contrapuntal and angular style with energetic rhythmic gestures, exuberant polyphony, and musical wit. He wrote well for voices. The best of his vocal music is characterized by idiosyncratic selection of texts, ready response to dramatic situations, a quirky, sometimes raffish sense of humour, and an intriguing sense of mysticism. He was less happy with the grandiose, which succeeds best when he does not take it seriously. Several of Holman’s tunes and harmonizations appear in The Hymn Book (1971) of the Anglican and United churches of Canada, for which he was a consultant.


Holman frequently collaborated with writer Robertson Davies, including on the children’s opera Doctor Canon’s Cure (1982). It was commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, which also commissioned and recorded the carol sequence Sir Christëmas. The recording of Sir Christëmas includes two of Homan’s arrangements, which won a 1990 National Choral Award from the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors. Holman’s Variations upon a melody by Doctor Arne for two pianos (1999) explores Davies’s life and work by using Arne’s “Water Parted” theme from Artaxerxes, which appears in Davies’s novel A Mixture of Frailities

Holman won a 1988 National Choral Award for Night Music, written in 1985 for the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir also commissioned Holman’s  Songs of Darkness and Te Deum for Elmer Iseler’s 25th anniversary as conductor of the choir. It is a setting of five poems that illustrate five different aspects of the Canadian heritage.

The Invisible Reality, based on poems by P.K. Page, was commissioned by Music Canada in 2000 for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) choir and children’s chorus plus three soloists. Holman also composed Tapestry on a commission from the TSO. He completed many commissions for the Aldeburgh Connection, including Nicholas Knock, The Heart Mislaid, Airs and Echoes upon a ground and The Death of Orpheus.

Other artists and organizations that commissioned Holman compositions include Mark Pedrotti (The Centered Passion), the Gents (Food for Thought) and the Thirteen Strings of Ottawa (Hommage to HandelSerenade). He wrote Eight Carols for Choir, Soloists, Orchestra and Audience for the National Arts Centgre Orchestra, and  Weatherscapes for the Ontario Choral Federation (it was premiered in Kingston by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and  Canadian Brass).


Holman was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Church Music in 1972 and a Member of the Order of Canada in 2002. He received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Selected Compositions

Music Theatre

  • Doctor Canon's Cure, an opera for young people (R. Davies). 1982. STB, children's chorus, 2 treble, 2 soprano, piano. Ms


  • Homage to Handel. 1985. Str orch. Ms
  • Serenade for Clarinet and String Orchestra. 1989. Ms


  • Four Folk Songs From Canada. 1977. Counter tenor, fl, viola, violoncello. Ms
  • Antiphons of the Venerable Bede. 1979. Counter tenor, organ. Ms
  • In the Bleak Midwinter. 1981. Mezzo, organ. Ms
  • The Centered Passion (Tennyson). 1986. Bar, piano. Ms
  • Nicholas Knock, cantata (D Lee). 1988. Treble (boy soprano), soprano, tenor, 2 piano. Ms


  • Make We Joy Now In This Feast (Selden). 1964. SATB. Novello 1964. Poly 2917-009 (Festival Singers)
  • Mary is a Lady Bright. 1964. SATB. Novello 1964. Poly 2917-009 (Festival Singers)
  • Christ Keep Us All. 1971. Treble, SATB. GVT 1974. 2-Fantasy FS-23315 (Youth Band and Youth Singers of Ontario)
  • Eight Carols. 1972. Vs, choir, orch (piano or brass quintet), audience. Ms
  • Mass of St Thomas (liturgical text). 1973. SATB, organ. Wat 1974.
  • Weatherscapes (A. Bourinot, L. Cox, A Bailey). 1973. SATB, brass quintet. GVT 1973
  • Beatitudes (Bible). 1974. SATB, organ. GVT 1975
  • The Niagara Mass (liturgical). 1975. Vs, SATB, organ (piano). GVT 1975
  • Hommage to John Aubrey (J. Aubrey, R. Davies). 1975. Sop, alto, tenor, bar, bass, SATB, renaissance consort. Ms
  • Songs of Darkness (J. Joyce, A. McLeish, D. Thomas). 1976 (rev 1980). SATB, brass quintet, percussion. Ms
  • The North Wind and. Weathers (T. Hardy). 1978. SS (children), piano. Wat 1978
  • Four Carols. 1980. Choir, audience, orch. Ms
  • Mass of St. Mark. 1981. SATB. Ms
  • Three Canadian Folksongs. 1981. SATB, piano. GVT 1982
  • A Hymn of Celebration. 1981. SATB, organ. Royal School of Church Music
  • Te Deum. 1983. SATB, orch. Ms
  • Trinity Mass. 1983. Choir, organ, congregation. Ms
  • Missa Brevis. 1983-4. Double choir. Ms
  • 'O Come Let Us Sing'. 1984. SATB, brass quintet, organ. Ms
  • Academic Processional. 1984. Choir, brass, organ. Ms
  • Night Music. 1985. Choir, string (piano). GVT 1986
  • Songs of Youth. 1985. SATB, piano. GVT 1990
  • Laudes Creationis, cantata. 1986. Sop, chorus, instr ensemble. Ms
  • Sir Christëmas. 1987. Treble (soprano), children's choir, fl, violoncello, harp, piano, percussion (piano alone). Novello 1990. CCOC 0189-CD (CCOC)
  • Food for Thought. 1989. Men's voices (AATTBB). Ms
  • Tapestry (Medieval lyrics, Waddel transl). 1989. Chor, orch. Ms
  • Also an arr of Bach's 'Sheep May Safely Graze,' recorded by the Festival Singers (CBC SM-5042), and many other choral works and arrs, some published by the RSCM and Schirmer. Some are listed in The Catalogue of Printed Music in the British Library (London 1984). 5 Christmas carols published by GVT 1982

Other works for organ, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (1985, recorded by Ian Sadler on Remote Control WRC1-4478); and chamber works