Canadian music lost one of its great champions with the passing of John Beckwith. CBC Music posted an announcement of his death on Monday, December 6, and CBC Radio’s Metro Morning in Toronto featured a conversation between Ismaila Alfa and Larry Beckwith, son of the composer and currently the Artistic Producer of Confluence Concerts, about John’s advocacy and contribution to Canadian culture and music. Additionally, Larry wrote an article for Opera Canada published on December 17, 2022 that expands on the the composer’s compositions for voice, including operatic and more intimate works.
I got to know John about 20 years ago as a student while pursuing my MMus at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. He wasn’t a teacher of mine, but was a respected presence around the U of T Faculty of Music and the Toronto concert-going community. As I moved on to the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio and then later turned my interest toward Canadian song, I became increasingly aware of his impact as one of the pillars of Canadian vocal composition, whose creative endeavours encompassed every corner of the repertoire.
When his partner Kathleen McMorrow, who headed the Music Library at U of T, retired in 2013, Steven and I were asked to perform something for the party given in her honour. Even though we offered a piece by Derek Holman that day (which I belatedly realized might be considered poor programming), John was wonderfully supportive and keenly interested in what we were doing in our advocacy of Canadian art song. Both his and Kathleen’s support of CASP has been incredibly generous over the years.
In 2014 John reached out to me to tell me that he had just composed a new set of songs for “medium voice” that he was interested in having performed. This work, entitled Four Short Songs, sets poems by Wassily Kandinsky as translated to English by Elizabeth R. Napier. I remember when he mentioned the songs to me in the email, that my response was that CASP would absolutely find an opportunity to program them. But I also mentioned that the title he had given to the set was very reminiscent of the many other collections of songs one might find in the stacks of the Canadian Music Centre library. Indeed, Beckwith himself has a couple other collections that include “Four Songs” in the title. When I asked if he might want to use a different title to make the set stand out a bit, he wrote: “I don’t think there is a need to change the neutral title; plenty of other composers have used it.” It’s true that sometimes clear and simple is best.
Canadian Art Song Project ran a podcast series in 2018 and 2019 called Conversations with CASP where we talked with composers and performers of Canadian song repertoire. Our first episode in February 2018, was an interview with John Beckwith.
In preparation for the interview I read as much of John’s writing on Canadian music that I could. John wrote a lot about Canadian music, arts and culture. He was a fierce advocate for Canadian music and music education and believed that musicians and performing artists needed more champions in our country. Reading his essays and articles inspired me a great deal and helped me, an American by birth, to understand the cultural environment in which Canadian composers began to find a collective voice. I would urge those interested in Canadian music and art song to read John’s writings. I think it is especially helpful as we consider the ways in which we are now actively challenging what it means to be Canadian and whose voices are shaping this in a manner that is more diverse and socially equitable today.
In 2018 we featured the Four Short Songs on a program with Steven Philcox and Krisztina Szabó that also included Jeffrey Ryan’s Miss Carr in Seven Scenes, another Canadian work setting the words of a painter. Last year we released a video performance of Beckwith’s Four Short Songs in honour of his 95th birthday. More about this short film can be found here.
With regard to art song, John Beckwith wrote a great deal of repertoire that deserves continued study and performance. His works have been written for and performed by some of Canada’s finest musicians, many of which are available on streaming platforms such as Apple Music and YouTube.
AVowels: works for solo voice by John Beckwith
Canadian Composer Portraits: John Beckwith
Vickers: Canadian Art Songs
5 Lyrics of the T’ang Dynasty
Finally, a wonderful resource and tribute to much of John’s song repertoire is the event that Larry Beckwith produced with Confluence Concerts for his father’s 94th birthday in 2021. Robin Elliott wrote a summary of the event for the Institute for Music in Canada that gives a sense of the scope that John Beckwith’s composition for voice encompassed over the course of his long career.
I feel lucky to have known John and to have felt his support for the work that Steven and I have committed to over the years through Canadian Art Song Project. What I think I learned the most from his work is that Canadians should take pride in our music and not allow our artistry to be thought of as “lesser than” that of the US and Europe simply due to population size and geography. We are responsible for demonstrating that Canadian works—both historical examples and new commissions—belong in dialogue with the global canon of repertoire. If we don’t believe this within our own music community, we will not convince the wider public to support us. John’s passing is a reminder that our music education, performing arts, and cultural sectors continue to need champions and advocates. I hope we can all embrace and continue to uphold this part of John Beckwith’s legacy.