John Beckwith

John Beckwith, composer, educator (b at Victoria 9 Mar 1927).
John Beckwith, composer, educator (b at Victoria 9 Mar 1927).
John Beckwith, musician
Beckwith has created a wealth of music rooted in his experience of the Canadian environment (photo by Walter Curtin/courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

John Beckwith, composer, educator (b at Victoria 9 Mar 1927). In 1945 he went to Toronto to study and obtained a B Mus degree. A Canadian Amateur Hockey Association award enabled him to travel to Paris in 1950, where he received his first compositional guidance from Nadia Boulanger. He subsequently returned to Toronto for more studies and was active as a performing musician, actor, critic, radio commentator and writer. Beginning in 1955 he taught full-time at the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO and was dean of music 1970-77.

One of the most distinctively English-Canadian voices among Canada's composers, Beckwith has created a wealth of music rooted in his sensitive experience of the Canadian environment. Although he has composed much instrumental music, the majority of his important works are for voices, and are often settings of texts by Canadian writers. Several of Beckwith's most eloquent works have emerged from his long collaboration with poet-playwright James REANEY, among them the operas Night Blooming Cereus (1953-58), The Shivaree (1965-78), Crazy to Kill (1988-89) and Taptoo! (1994). This last music drama is inspired by the final signal of the day, later known as tattoo, given by fifes and drums in the 18th century. His Sharon Fragments (1966) for unaccompanied choir, commemorating the Children of Peace (a music-loving 19th-century Ontario religious sect), is one of the most frequently performed of his works based on historical themes. In 1990 he completed the documentary cantata The Hector, which gives a 20th century view of the adventure that brought 200 immigrants to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773.

A committed champion of Canadian music, Beckwith, through 5 decades, has been one of the most important influences on Canada's musical life. Widely read and highly articulate in both official languages, Beckwith is well known as a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He has written music criticism for Toronto newpapers and has contributed articles on various aspects of Canadian musical life to periodicals and reference books. He also planned and wrote several music series and documentaries for CBC Radio.

A director of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society (1981 - 2002), Beckwith prepared 2 thoroughly researched volumes in its 25-volume series of pre-1950 Canadian-composed music. The research for and contents of his volumes of Hymn Tunes (1986) and Oratorio and Cantata Excerpts (1995) have subsequently been the inspiration for more of his own compositions. Involved with concerts at Sharon and other venues for the performance of the Canadian musical heritage, Beckwith reconstructed Joseph QUESNEL's opera Lucas et Cécile (ca. 1808) for successful performances with Toronto's TAFELMUSIK BAROQUE ORCHESTRA in 1994 and by the Acadian Ensemble in 2001. In 1996 he incorporated portions of C.F. Thiele's 1934 overture The Veteran into his Echoes of Thiele, a homage to Thiele, founder of the Waterloo Musical Society Band and Waterloo Music Company. As he has said himself, Beckwith writes music as if making a quilt. A fascinating example of this approach is his String Quartet (1977), in which he has the string instruments imitate and produce sounds of the banjo, mandolin and of course folk fiddling as heard in 19th century Canada.

Due to his wide knowledge of Canadian music of all kinds, Beckwith was appointed the first Jean A. Chalmers Professor of Canadian Music and first director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto. After his retirement as professor emeritus from the University of Toronto he has continued to fulfill many commissions and explore new possibilities. In April 2007 he composed Fractions for a 16th tone piano and string quartet that received glowing praise at its premiere. Always an excellent researcher and articulate in his reasoned considerations, he has continued to add to his publications with his book, In Search of Alberto Guerrero (2006). For his 80th birthday celebrations in 2007, special all-Beckwith concerts took place and the Institute for Canadian Music organized a symposium "Four Perspectives on John Beckwith" to consider his many contributions to Canadian musical life.

Appointed a Member of the ORDER OF CANADA in 1987, he has received honorary doctorates from the universities of McGill, Mount Allison, Queen's, Victoria and Guelph. In 1996 the Canadian Conference of the Arts awarded Beckwith its Diplôme d'honneur. In 1999 the Canadian University Music Society made him an honorary member. A five-record set of his music appeared in the Anthology of Canadian Music (1986) while the two-CD set from Centrediscs' Canadian Composers Portraits appeared in 1997. A Centrediscs CD Avowals of solo vocal works was released in 2007.

Further Reading

  • J. McGee, ed., Essays in Honour of John Beckwith (1995); J. Beckwith, Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer 1961-1994 (1997).