To celebrate John Beckwith’s 94th birthday last year, Confluence Concerts gave a series of three online recitals featuring over 60 of the composer’s songs, written between 1947 and 2014. Curated by the composer’s son, Larry Beckwith, the recitals featured dozens of musicians, from the young schoolchildren of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company to seasoned professionals. Attracting viewers from around the world on YouTube, the recitals offered a fine retrospective of Mr. Beckwith’s 70-year career and a superb introduction to his wide-ranging compositional idioms. It was a moving tribute from son to father, and from the performers to the composer.
One of the singers was the baritone Bradley Christensen, who is currently completing a doctoral degree at the University of Toronto with a thesis on Mr. Beckwith’s songs. “John and I met numerous times, and I cherish the memory of those interviews. I asked him, ‘In your opinion, what constitutes a good singing melody?’ His response echoed what Puccini said: ‘one note.’ To provide examples, he sang the one-note openings of four of Puccini’s most memorable arias.”
An immensely productive scholar-composer, Mr. Beckwith had a comprehensive knowledge not just of Puccini, but of the entire heritage of Western art music, and much else besides. He was especially well versed in the international contemporary music scene but made it his life’s work to explore the particular qualities of music in Canada, past and present, as both a scholar and a composer. He remained deeply engaged in both creative and academic activities up to the end of his life. New compositions appeared regularly up until 2018, and his 17th book, Music Annals, was published just three months ago.
In late November, however, Mr. Beckwith had a fall at home and was taken to Toronto Western Hospital, where it was discovered that he also had pneumonia. He died peacefully at age 95 on Dec. 5.
Mr. Beckwith once remarked in a CBC interview that he could not recall any time since he was 12 that he did not have at least three full-time jobs. Indeed his many achievements represent several lifetimes of labour. During his multi-faceted professional career he contributed to Canada’s musical life as a composer, writer, educator, scholar, editor, pianist, administrator, music critic, broadcaster, adjudicator, board member, and public intellectual. He wrote over 160 compositions and a similar number of articles, as well as many folksong arrangements.
On the scholarly side, Mr. Beckwith contributed to many major Canadian music reference works as an editor or writer, or both. Most of these projects were bilingual and benefitted from Mr. Beckwith’s excellent French-language skills and keen interest in the music of Quebec. Among his own major publications were a biography of one of his teachers, the Chilean-born pianist Alberto Guerrero (2006, Spanish translation 2021), and a co-edited collection of essays about another of his teachers, John Weinzweig (with Brian Cherney, 2012).
While Mr. Beckwith had begun composing as a child, it was not until he was in his 20s that setting notes to paper became a compelling ambition. His compositions reflect many of his scholarly interests: Canadian literature and history; the country’s composed and traditional musical heritage; contemporary poetry, both Canadian and international; and the shifting currents of contemporary music. He wrote for a wide range of instrumental and vocal/choral genres, as well as opera. It is a rich tapestry, woven from varied strands of the Canadian experience, and stamped throughout with his personal style, which is by turns lively and introspective, serious and witty, demanding and accessible. John Burge, a professor of composition at Queen’s University, notes that “Beckwith has left Canada an incredibly varied body of compositions, especially keyboard and vocal music. There really isn’t another Canadian composer who has attained the same level of achievement in English art song.”
John Beckwith was born on March 9, 1927 in Victoria, B.C., to the lawyer Harold Arthur Beckwith and the teacher Margaret Alice Dunn. He was the middle child, with an older sister, Jean, and a younger one, Sheila.
In his beautifully written memoir, Unheard of (2012), Mr. Beckwith traces his lineage back to a certain Samuel Beckwith, who emigrated from Yorkshire to Connecticut in 1638. He was proud of the longstanding presence on this continent of his paternal ancestors, which gave him a deep sense of rootedness.
Showing an early gift for music, Mr. Beckwith began piano lessons at age six in Victoria. From age eight onwards he appeared in public recitals and played in music competitions, often winning top prize, and sang in local choirs. He also attended live concerts regularly (a lifelong habit) and heard a wide range of music on the radio, including the standard symphonic and operatic repertoire and a healthy dose of modern music, which was to become his main interest. Mr. Beckwith thrived as a student at Victoria’s Oak Bay High School during the war years, earning a special citation for his involvement in journalism, drama and music.
In 1945 Mr. Beckwith did his piano exam for the Associate diploma from the Toronto (soon to become Royal) Conservatory of Music. His examiner was Mr. Guerrero, who recommended the young pianist for a scholarship to study in Toronto. Mr. Guerrero was to be a formative influence; the young Glenn Gould was a fellow student at the time. Other fellow music students included the singers Lois Marshall and Mary Morrison, the composers Harry Freedman, Oskar Morawetz, Godfrey Ridout and Harry Somers, and the music librarian and historian Helmut Kallmann. Through his involvement with drama productions, Mr. Beckwith also met the writer James Reaney, who became a close friend and the librettist for Mr. Beckwith’s four operas.
After completing his BMus degree in 1947, Mr. Beckwith went to Paris to study composition with the eminent teacher Nadia Boulanger, and then returned to Toronto in 1952. He taught on contract at the University of Toronto for three years and became a full-time faculty member in 1955. After completing his MMus degree in composition in 1961 under John Weinzweig, he was promoted from lecturer to assistant professor. During the 1960s he rose through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor in 1970 and serving as the dean of the Faculty of Music from 1970 to 1977 and the inaugural director of the Institute for Canadian Music from 1985 to 1991. His many pupils over the years include a who’s who of those active in the fields of composition and Canadian music studies.
Brian Cherney, a professor in the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, recalls, “I particularly appreciated the courses I took with him when I was an undergraduate in the BMus program at U of T in the early 1960s. These included harmony, history, Baroque counterpoint, and fugue. He was nearly the only one in those years who actually knew how to teach, no matter what the subject was – his classes were well-organized, informative, and always connected with the music itself, not just abstract rules or facts. Often things were demonstrated at the piano; he was, of course, a remarkably fine pianist.”
Mr. Burge adds that “Beckwith was the quintessential professor who inspired his students with his well-designed courses, devotion to academic excellence and his own creativity. When I got to study composition and Canadian music with him, I appreciated how he pulled together so many threads, all the while recognizing, enriching, and expanding our understanding of the music of Canada. I count his teaching and guidance amongst the most important lessons I received.”
As a critic and commentator on radio and in the local newspapers, Mr. Beckwith liked to play the role of provocateur. His views could be forceful and sharp, but they were always insightful and well-informed, and inevitably were offered with a view to setting the record straight. You always knew where he stood on matters, and why, and the strength of his opinions reflected the importance with which he viewed the issue at hand. The subject matter of his occasional pieces ranged widely, from Broadway to Boulez and beyond. He was an inveterate reader of The Globe and Mail and often penned letters to the editor if a review or article incensed him.
“He approached every project with commitment and concentration, always intent on making something new and useful, from a concerto for a virtuoso soloist to a cherry pie,” notes Kathleen McMorrow, former head of the University of Toronto Music Library and Mr. Beckwith’s life partner for the past 45 years. Mr. Beckwith and Ms. McMorrow shared a passion for epic bicycle trips across Canada and in many other parts of the world, for Scottish country dancing, for attending concerts several times a week, and for entertaining in their lovely home in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood.
Mr. Beckwith married the actor and director Pamela Terry in 1950. The couple had four children together; they separated in 1975 and divorced in 1980. Ms. Terry died at age 80 in 2006.
Mr. Beckwith was predeceased by his sister Sheila and his son Symon Francis. He leaves Ms. McMorrow; his sister, Jean; daughter, Robin; sons Jonathan and Lawrence (Larry); daughter-in-law, Teri Dunn; granddaughters, Fawn, Alison and Juliet; great-grandchildren, Tristan and Elliott; and many nieces and nephews.