Review: Toronto composer John Beckwith’s memoir ‘Unheard Of’ more organized than reflective


“This is the record of John…” the opening words of a famous Tudor church anthem by Orlando Gibbons ran through my head as I put down Toronto composer John Beckwith’s autobiography, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer.

Published this spring by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Unheard Of is not a tell-all, a settling of accounts, or even an attempt to place an artist or a human being’s life and work into a larger social or historical context. Rather, it is a straightforward telling of a still-very-much-happening life’s journey that someone else, perhaps in a different era, will have to put into a larger context.

One could debate whether anyone can ever have the figurative distance necessary to put their life into any sort of perspective, so Beckwith has decided to clearly map out his own footsteps on the sandy beach of human existence before times and tides come by to wash them away.

For someone not connected in some way to musical Toronto, or Beckwith and his family, the result is a fascinating walk through a narrow slice of 20th century Canada, beginning with the author’s roots in the British Isles. Think of this autobiography as a metaphorical closet organizer, where the reader can easily connect with those chapters, topics or individuals that are of greatest interest.

Anyone looking for traces of the truculent streak that Beckwith’s colleagues and decades’ worth of students invariably mention might be disappointed. This is a carefully written, gentlemanly book where self-censorship has left behind only the occasional flash of anger or disdain.

Beckwith meticulously avoids commenting on the majority of his peers, including Glenn Gould, who was a student at the Toronto Conservatory of Music at the same time. Gould, who is anything but unheard of, is dismissed in one sentence. The vast majority of Beckwith’s colleagues at University of Toronto, where he taught from 1952 until his retirement in 1990, get barely more mention.

Even his best friend, the late James Reaney, who would be the textual muse for Beckwith’s operas, gets described as interesting and eccentric, but we never really get to meet him.

And it is as if the City of Toronto, this Victoria native’s adopted home, is barely there.

So what is here?

Remember, this is the Record of John.

Beckwith’s reminiscences of life as a chorister and piano student colour in some historical background, such as discovering how the Royal Schools in London and the Toronto Conservatory sent high-profile examiners across the country every spring.

The composer tells of his stint of writing reviews for the Toronto Star in the early 1960s (immediately preceding William Littler, who was hired in 1964 and would stay on as music critic until 2005) while mentioning his disdain for critics, of scriptwriting for CBC Radio while detailing how he would sneak out of the Jarvis St. studio to work on other things, and of his truly important work on the infrastructure of Canadian musical culture, from researching the country’s musical heritage, to working with organizations like the League of Canadian Composers.

Beckwith talks about the genesis of the most significant of his 150 or so compositions, but doesn’t delve much into the nature of his aesthetic choices.

Occasionally, the details are so prosaic, that one can understand why the composer doesn’t go into greater detail. In describing his choice of title for 1996 serial composition, Beckwith writes:

I titled the work Eureka — not in the sense of a surprising discovery but first simply because I liked the word and second because I had just read a strange, long poem by Edgar Allan Poe with that title, a futurist vision.

I turned the corner on each page where I found something interesting. In the end, there were enough dog-ears to suggest that anyone with an interest in =contemporary Canadian art music =will find this a decent read.

It is also a bit of a depressing experience, as Beckwith chronicles the number of shaky premieres of his works, and those that have never received any further performances. Many of his premieres were not recorded.

The final chapter, a bookend to the opening section on his ancestors, compartmentalizes in neat little drawers what clearly was a less than idyllic personal life for several decades. This comes across as awkward in the context of the rest of this memoir.

Summing up his legacy in one chapter, Beckwith writes:

Working with choirs now and then has been a deeply rewarding part of my professional life for over forty years. However, from being heard, the pieces, with only a few exceptions, become soon unheard of, and then unheard. Why are my ideas so often so “difficult”?

The reader might be left with many similar questions.

For more details about the book, click here.

John Terauds

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