John Bergsagel | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Bergsagel

John Dagfinn Bergsagel, musicologist, professor (born 19 April 1928 in Outlook, SK). John Bergsagel is a widely published musicologist and a noted scholar of medieval and renaissance music. (See Early Music.) He was a professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1970 until 1998 and was made a Ridder (Knight) of Denmark’s Order of Dannebrog in 1993. He is a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters and the Academia Europaea.

Early Years in Winnipeg

John Bergsagel was born in Outlook, Saskatchewan, the second son of the Rev. Dr. Knut Bergsagel and Alma Josephine Bergsagel (née Anderson). He began music lessons at an early age. When his family moved to Winnipeg in 1942, he became a pupil of John Melnyk. Bergsagel’s progress as a pianist led to opportunities to accompany, among others, pupils of John Waterhouse. This included Richard Grymonpré and Walter Mony, as well as the contralto Myfanwy Evans, winner of the 1945 Rose Bowl in the Winnipeg Music Festival.

At the University of Manitoba, Bergsagel with his brother, Daniel, and others founded the University Choral Society in 1946, which he accompanied until his graduation with a BA in 1949. He also composed music for student productions and an “alma mater” song to words by John MacKay. For a time, it had a place alongside and complementary to the University’s spirited Brown and Gold song. 

Education and Career in Academia

After graduating from the University of Manitoba, John Bergsagel continued his musical studies (including conducting) at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he earned a B Mus in 1950. He followed this with graduate study in musicology with Donald J. Grout and composition with Hunter Johnson at Cornell University, where Bergsagel also studied singing with Sir Keith Falkner. In 1953, he went to England to do research for his doctoral thesis. Though living and researching in Oxford, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London to study composition with Howard Ferguson and singing with Henry Cummings, earning an LRAM in 1954.

Bergsagel returned to the USA in 1954 and taught at Concordia College in Minnesota from 1954 to 1955. He also taught at Ohio University from 1955 to 1959, where he conducted the University Chorus and was director of the Opera Workshop. He earned his PhD from Cornell in 1957. In 1959, he returned to Oxford University, Magdalen College as a Senior Arts Fellow of the Canada Council to work on the little-known repertory of masses of the Tudor period with Sir Jack Westrup, Frank Llewellyn Harrison and Egon Wellesz. While teaching in the Faculty of Music, in 1961 he founded, with Frank Harrison, the British Academy series of editions, Early English Church Music, which he edited until 1976.

In 1966, he was appointed lecturer in music at New College (Oxford). But in 1967 he went to join Hans Ferdinand Redlich at the University of Manchester, where he was made senior lecturer. In 1970, he was invited to the University of Copenhagen, where he was professor of musicology until his retirement in 1998.

During his tenure in Copenhagen, Bergsagel returned to the University of Saskatchewan as a visiting professor for the 1974 summer semester. In 1981, at the request of the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies, he conducted an assessment of the musicology program and facilities for granting the PhD degree at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University).


John Bergsagel’s teachings and research reflect a wide range of interests, especially in English and Scandinavian music in the medieval and renaissance periods. (See Early Music.) He has studied and edited mass cycles by English and continental renaissance composers, the liturgical music of English and Scandinavian saints, and the earliest examples of polyphonic music in Scandinavian sources. He has also investigated aspects of early musical notation and cultivated an interest in music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular that of Vaughan Williams and Delius.

In addition to his own writing and editing, Bergsagel has served on numerous advisory and editorial boards, such as the International Musicological Society, the Danish Musicological society, the Plainsong and Mediæval Music Society, Music in the Time of Christian IV, and the Foundation for the Publication of the Works of Niels W. Gade. From 1996 to 2017, he was director of the series Monumenta Musicae Byzantinae.

Recognition and Professional Affiliations

John Bergsagel is a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters and of the Academia Europaea. He was made Ridder (Knight) of the Order of Dannebrog in 1993. In 2008, the book A due: Musical Essays in Honour of John D. Bergsagel and Heinrich W. Schwab was published in his honour.