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Howard Cable: Composer was the ‘Mozart’ of Canadian music

Howard Cable is seen in 1956, during his time as musical director and arranger for CBC Television’s Showtime. He also composed film scores for the National Film Board during this period.

Herb Nott/CBC Still Photo Collection

During Howard Cable's remarkable career, spanning more than seven decades, his name became synonymous with Canadian music. Mr. Cable, who died recently at the age of 95, was revered for his skills as a conductor, composer, arranger, orchestrator and musician, but what made him an icon were his long-time associations with institutions such as the CBC, the Canadian Brass and the National Hockey League. For 16 years, from 1952 to 1968, NHL fans who tuned in to watch the game would hear the theme song he wrote, a piece called The Saturday Game.

Over the decades, he produced a staggering amount of work, including music for concert band, military band and big band; music for radio, television and film; music for the CNE Grandstand, Expo 67 and the Charlottetown Festival. While Mr. Cable was a prolific composer and arranger, he was also active as a conductor. Orchestra members and audiences loved him – not only for his quick wit and razor-sharp sense of humour, but also for his seemingly endless supply of anecdotes.

On a blog he started in 2013, at the age of 92, he wrote about the time he returned to Toronto, penniless, after the Chateau Gai pavilion, near Midland, burned to the ground along with his band's music and instruments; he told tales about backing up Ella Fitzgerald, his favourite performer, at the Royal York's Imperial Room, where he worked as music director from 1974 to 1986; and he wrote another entry with the intriguing title, How A Corned-Beef Sandwich Got Me To Broadway.

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Over the years, Mr. Cable's son, Greg, recorded his father recounting stories from his long life, in the hope that the recordings would provide material for a memoir, a project that was never completed.

"Howard's enthusiasm was infectious," says choral conductor Jean Ashworth Bartle, former director of the Toronto Children's Chorus. "But the thing that I liked and admired the most was that he was always the same person, whether he was talking to Queen Elizabeth or to the guy at the garage. It didn't matter who you were. He treated everyone with the same respect. He didn't cater to people in high places."

The sentiment is echoed by Larry Larson, principal trumpeter of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. "You could be in a crowded, noisy room with Howard and he was still able to focus completely upon you and the moment," Mr. Larson says. "He was amazing."

Born in Toronto on Dec. 15, 1920, to Mary MacIntyre (née Deverall) and Geoge William Cable, Howard Reid Cable went on to study with several prominent music educators, including Sir Ernest MacMillan, Healey Willan, Ettore Mazzoleni and John Weinzweig. During his early years, he studied piano, clarinet and oboe at the Royal Conservatory of Music, all while leading a dance band in the evening. In 1939, he received his ARCT diploma, specializing in conducting, and graduated from Parkdale Collegiate. After graduation, Mr. Cable married his sweetheart, Dawn Darroch, who had lived across the street from him while they were growing up. The couple had four children and the marriage ended in divorce.

Mr. Cable began working for CBC in 1941, composing, arranging and conducting for various radio programs. This led to a job on CBC Television's Showtime, where he served as musical director and arranger from 1952 to 1959. Meanwhile, during this period he was also composing film scores for the National Film Board.

Given the breadth and scope of his talents, Mr. Cable could have immigrated to the United States in the pursuit of a highly lucrative career. Instead, after moving to New York for a brief stint in the mid-1960s, he returned to Canada, eventually working with musicians in every part of this country. The ensembles he collaborated with were diverse, including Symphony Nova Scotia, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hamilton Philharmonic and Empire Brass, as well as the True North Brass, Hannaford Street Silver Band, the Toronto Children's Chorus, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Charlottetown Festival, Sharon, Lois and Bram, and CBC Radio.

"Howard loved choirs and orchestras and bands," says Lydia Adams, director of both the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. It didn't matter whether the musicians were professional or amateur. He listened. Everybody loved working with him.

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In the late 1980s, Mr. Cable was approached by the recently formed Canadian Brass to help create a repertoire for the young quintet. Tuba player Chuck Daellenbach, who co-founded the ensemble, says Mr. Cable was the spark they needed. As a composer/arranger he was skilled at writing for brass instruments and he was quick. Over the years, he composed or arranged more than 80 works for the highly successful ensemble. He was described by the Canadian Brass as the "Mozart of Canada" for his ability to compose something in his head and then write it from memory. He was able to create a new musical work as fast as he could write it down.

Mr. Cable was also tireless, often working well into the night, when he could finally have quiet. According to Ms. Bartle, he was delightful to work with and he loved music, whether he was writing it, conducting it or listening to it. It was in his DNA. In the days leading up to his death, he was still hard at work, recording a piece that he had just orchestrated in commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge: celebrating one of Canada's greatest victories during the First World War.

"He had a powerful, powerful love of this country," Ms. Bartle says. "He was a very proud Canadian. And we were very lucky to have had him in our midst."

Mr. Cable was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1999, and his citation noted: "His creativity and imagination have greatly enriched Canada's musical heritage and culture." In 2002, he received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Lethbridge.

Howard Cable died on March 30 at Toronto Western Hospital. He leaves his partner, Lori Fox Rossi; his children Linda, Judy, and Greg; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son Richard.

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