Simcoe Day a fine excuse to celebrate Toronto composer Godfrey Ridout


Godfrey Ridout (1918-1984) was a descendant of Thomas Ridout, the first Surveyor General of Upper Canada during the administration of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate the work of someone who left a mark as a composer, conductor, and teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto.

He even reached the city’s wide classical music audience by writing witty programme notes for Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts during the early years of Sir Andrew Davis’s tenure as music director.

Accounts paint Ridout as a genial, generous man whose warm personality translated directly into his music. Besides concert pieces, he wrote a number of scores for CBC Radio dramas as well as for National Film Board films, the sort of work that relies on flexibility and adaptability.

The Canadian Music Centre has, in its audio archives, a wide sampling of Ridout’s output for symphony, soloists, choirs and organ (you can get started here). The bulk of the music belongs to a style akin to Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton, which would not have afforded Ridout any attention or respect from the new-music community after World War II.

But Toronto composer John Beckwith, an adventurous, independent-minded sort who taught alongside Ridout at University of Toronto, wrote nicely of his colleague at the time of his death from cancer:

Godfrey is properly characterized as a conservative traditionalist. His view of musical literature was, if not narrow, certainly selective, but students can testify that the works he admired he knew thoroughly. He had an unusually well-cultivated sense of English language expression and his manner was a quietly correct one. But counterbalancing his adherence to traditional values were, in his teaching, a liberalist’s tolerance for ideas presented in open discussion, and, in his personality and his creative work, often an irrepressible boyishness and sense of fun. To Godfrey there was room for deep sentiment and mysticism in his music but also for the sheer fun of tootling on four piccolo.

Ridout’s first big sucess was Ballade No.1  for viola, written when he was a 20-year-old student. This unexpected success earned him a teaching post at what was then called the Toronto Conservatory of Music.

“It turned into an open-sesame for me,” said Ridout of the Ballade in a CBC Radio interview three decades later.

I heard it for the first time four seasons ago at a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert, under Peter Oundjian, and found it a warm, engaging piece that any lover of early 20th century English orchestral music would appreciate. Although not actually premiered by him, the Ballade was written for Stanley Solomon, who was a longtime principal viola of the TSO (Solomon, now in his 90s, is still alive and living in downtown Toronto).

Ridout’s music was heard and appreciated well beyond our borders.

Lois Marshall and Leopold Stokowski helped further Ridout’s reputation with a 1953 Carnegie Hall broadcast featuring the first of what was eventually to be a set of three Cantiones Mysticae, based on sacred sonnets by John Donne.

Ridout’s Two Etudes for String Orchestra, written for a CBC string ensemble in 1946, were picked up by TSO music director Sir Ernest MacMillan, who suggested some changes.

“I’ve been convinced by conductors on many things,” said Ridout to a CBC interviewer many years later of constructive criticism that, invariably, improved his compositions. The Two Etudes were performed as far away as New Zealand.

When the Toronto Symphony Toured to Europe in 1974, its first concert, in London, was organized by the Royal Philharmonic Society at Royal Festival Hall. “I find myself in extraordinarily good company,” Ridout said in an intermission interview on CBC Radio about the composers the society had hosted since 1813.

Ridout is a fascinating study in the sort of artist who has no trouble catering to as wide an audience as possible. It hardly fits the explore-and-innovate ethos of so much of late-20th century music.

I frequently wonder whether much conceptual music — one in which the listener has to first understand what the composer is trying to achieve before being able to appreciate the result — will survive its times, since, once the context of its genesis is lost, so is its meaning.

On the other hand, does the fact that music like Ridout’s doesn’t stand out as different work against its survival in a world filled with dusty library shelves stacked with neglected scores?

The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada has all the details on Ridout’s output, including a list of his writings here. The biographical entry includes this assessment:

Essentially an eclectic, Ridout yet did not lack for individuality. His music, though intensely felt, is prevailingly sunny and affirmative; it eschews the ‘doom and gloom’ manner and self-conscious profundity of much 20th-century concert fare. Ridout liked fun in music and could not easily resist concluding a work with a ‘good tune’. He saw no need to strive for ever-new styles, or for a progress through styles, or for the role of musical inventor; style for him was a means of communication, not the ‘message’ itself. In this aloofness from contemporary conformity, Ridout may be perceived to be more original than many innovators and one of the determined communicators of his day.

Ridout’s most popular composition is Fall Fair, written in 1961. His daughter Naomi has used the steady stream of royalties to set up a website honouring her father and his musical legacy. It’s still a work in progress, but well worth checking out here.

She allows that Toronto’s Hannaford Street Silver Band has commissioned a brass-band arrangement of Fall Fair for a future programme.

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Here are three samples of Ridout’s music, starting with Lois Marshall singing Cantiones Mysticae I with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall in 1953:

Conductor Mario Bernardi and the late CBC Vancouver Orchestra recorded George III, His Lament, written in 1975 to help commemorate the bicentennial of the American Revolutionary War:

The Hart House Chorus sings one of Ridout’s many choral arrangements:

And here’s a youthful take on Fall Fair:

John Terauds

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One thought on “Simcoe Day a fine excuse to celebrate Toronto composer Godfrey Ridout

  1. Pingback: Above the clouds | barczablog

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