66_beckwith-unheard-finalfront-colourUnheard of: Memoirs of
a Canadian Composer
by John Beckwith
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
408 pages, photos, musical examples; $29.95 paper

At 85 years of age, Canadian composer John Beckwith can look back from a singular vantage point. Because his life is so intertwined with the development of modern music in Canada, and since he has been so productive in many aspects of it, his memoir has a particularly wide range of material to cover. He describes his early childhood years in Victoria, his complicated first marriage and family life, his experiences as a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, his years working at the CBC during its heyday, his extensive writings as a music critic, most recently reviewing CDs for this magazine, and, above all, his achievements as the composer of over 150 works.

In describing his most significant works, he offers a revealing glimpse into how he created them. Taking a Stand, which he wrote for the then newly-formed Canadian Brass, shows the spirit of adventure that he brought to a great deal of his music. It’s interesting to see how operas like Crazy to Kill, Night Blooming Cereus and Taptoo! were born out of a deep friendship. Beckwith wrote them with poet James Reaney, whom he describes as “a writer who understood music.” In the case of his Quartet, written for the Orford Quartet, “Ideas came rapidly, as if I had a quartet inside me waiting to be written down.”

Throughout his career, Beckwith’s writings have been marked by his outspokenness — what he himself calls his “habitual critical bitchiness.” But here, though he is uncommonly candid about his own shortcomings and outright failures, he is surprisingly tolerant of the shortcomings of others.

Since Beckwith has already written extensively about figures in Canadian music he knew best, it’s understandable that he is reluctant to cover the same territory again here. He recently contributed a delightful portrait of his teacher John Weinzweig to the collection of essays about Weinzweig he edited with fellow Weinzweig student Brian Cherney. And he has explored his relationship with Glenn Gould extensively, especially in his biography of Alberto Guerrero, who taught both of them piano.

Yet the experiences with friends and colleagues he does recall here — such as the time fellow Canadian composer Barbara Pentland demanded that Beckwith be given a free ticket for a concert which featured one of his compositions — tell so much about the characters and issues involved. These are stories that would otherwise never be heard, and I’d love to hear more.

The extensive endnotes, index, and score excerpts all contribute to the considerable pleasure of reading this beautifully-written memoir. The collection of photos includes a terrific ad from 1968 for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It features a photo of a Volkswagon Beetle, and reads, “The bug and John Beckwith.” By the end of this memoir Beckwith is ready to admit that he does, perhaps, exaggerate his obscurity. “Unheard Of”? — hardly. “Unheard” — undoubtedly; though what Canadian composer feels otherwise? “Essential” would be more like it.

66_beautyofbelaieffcoverpageThe Beauty of Belaieff
by Richard Beattie Davis
Clef Publishing
384 pages, colour plates; $125.00
available at www.beautyofbelaieff.com

While researching late 19th century Russian music, musicologist Richard Beattie Davis was struck by the elaborate title pages that adorned many of the original scores. He soon recognized how the chromo-lithographed title pages published by Mitofan Petrovich Belaieff stood out for their exquisite artistry. It wasn’t just that they were so beautiful. As Davis points out in this definitive study of Belaieff’s title pages, they were clearly intended to be more than decorative, since they revealed important information about the music itself. At their best, he writes, they can “illuminate one’s comprehension, even intensify one’s appreciation” of the music.

Belaieff was a wealthy timber merchant, music lover and amateur violinist living in St. Petersburg. By the time he started publishing music in 1885, he had already been supporting composers like Glazunov and Scriabin, organizing concerts, and hosting his legendary Musical Fridays — get-togethers where a string quartet, usually with Belaieff playing viola, would try out new compositions by composers like Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

During a period of 16 years Belaieff published some of the most important orchestral, chamber, operatic, vocal and instrumental works of this immensely rich period in Russian music, including 80 full scores of orchestral works alone. Combining the expertise of a scholar with the obsessiveness of a collector, Davis managed to track down most of the original scores Belaieff published. Of the almost 200 title pages that Belaieff is estimated to have produced, over 150 are reproduced here.

Balakirev’s influential collection of folksongs, which introduced the Volga Boat Song, bears a surprisingly simple title page. But the intricate title page for Borodin’s Prince Igor manages to encapsulate the story of the opera. The unusual title page for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol features a dedication to the orchestra which performed at the premiere under the composer’s direction. Underneath, the names of all 67 orchestra members are engraved. Davis notes that for the second performance Tchaikovsky played the castanets (so his name is not on the list).

The detailed essays that Davis pairs with each artwork add up to a veritable history of late-19th-century Russian music. But some details do nonetheless get left unexplained because of the format. He mentions that Belaieff published many operas, including seven by Rimsky-Korsakov alone. And according to Davis, Belaieff considered his edition of Prince Igor to be the jewel among his publications. Yet elsewhere Davis writes — with no further explanation — that Belaieff had an aversion to opera.

An epilogue to this beautifully-produced volume points out how Belaieff’s publishing venture, which had ceased by the time of his death in 1904, once again thrives in Germany today as M.P. Belaieff Musikverlag, publisher of Blacher and Pärt — though they no longer produce such magnificent title pages.

Pamela Margles is a Toronto-based journalist and frequent contributor to The WholeNote. She can be contacted at bookshelf@thewholenote.com.

69_Cage_-_Silence_for_catalog_C-300-X_1Silence: Lectures and Writings – 50th Anniversary Edition
by John Cage
Wesleyan University Press
310 pages; $30.00 US

This special edition of American composer John Cage’s Silence celebrates two milestones in 20th century music — the 50th anniversary of Cage’s first and still most influential book, and the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Throughout the writings and lectures gathered here, Cage is looking for various ways to say that all sounds are material for music. “Silence, like music, is non-existent,” he writes. “There always are sounds. That is to say, if one is alive to hear them.” When Silence was first published, the impact was explosive. Today, many of Cage’s most controversial ideas have become commonplace. But his probing questions about sound, silence and life in general resonate just as intensely, and his answers still open doors. Reading him today we realize that the opportunities for musical experiment he offers have yet to be fullyexplored.

Cage is an irrepressible storyteller, and he embellishes these writings with stories. In fact, one of the most well-known pieces here, Indeterminacy, is nothing but a series of stories. Many of his stories are exceptionally funny, some are delightfully absurd, a number are poignant, and a few are simply baffling. But they all hit home. In Edgard Varèse he describes a visit to his Aunt Marge. “She was doing her laundry. She turned to me and said, ‘You know? I love this machine more than I do your Uncle Walter.’” Then later, in Indeterminacy, he reveals that there is something more going on here when he writes, “Uncle Walter insisted, when he married her, that Aunt Marge, who was a contralto, should give up her career.”

In Composition as Process Cage takes inquisitiveness to new extremes by asking an extended sequence of questions such as, “Why do I have to go on asking questions? Is it the same reason I have to go on writing music?”. Like everything else here, these questions add up to something powerful.

For me, the actual beginningof this book is at the very end, when, in Music Lovers’ Field Companion, he describes his joy in performing 4’33” (which he refers to here as “my silent piece”) all alone in a field where he has been gathering mushrooms. “The second movement,” he writes, “was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium.”

This edition has been reprinted with care, using the original typeface and layout. The only difference from the original, apart from the cover design, is the addition of a perceptive and appropriately provocative introduction by composer, critic and Cage expert Kyle Gann, who writes, “He thought his way out of the twentieth century’s artistic neuroses and discovered a more vibrant, less uptight world that we didn’t realize was there. Silence is the traveler’s guide to that world.”

Concert Note: Soundstreams presents “So Percussion: Cage @ 100” on Friday March 2, 8pm at Koerner Hall, with a pre-concert chat at 7pm. The programme includes 4’33”.

A conference on John Cage, “The Future of Cage: Credo,” will be held at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto from October 25 until October 28, 2012. Further information is available at www.humanities.utoronto.ca/event details.

69_Illuminated-Man_00333166Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man
by Helena Jobim
translated by Dàrio Borim Jr.
Hal Leonard Books
314 pages, photos; $27.99 US

Like John Cage, Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim was as much an inventor as a composer. But what Jobim invented was a new style, rather than new sounds. By infusing traditional Brazilian samba with jazz rhythms, he came up with what became known as bossa nova.

Jobim’s sophisticated melodies, complex rhythms, and unusual harmonies proved irresistible, and his popularity soon reached far outside of Brazil, with songs like Girl from Ipanema, Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) and Desifinado becoming huge international hits.

Poet and novelist Helena Jobim has written a tender portrait of her older brother, who died 18 years ago. She is able to offer insights into the anguish and self-destructive insecurities that drove him. With her special access to his spiritual life she is equally able to reveal the deep sensitivities of a man who thrived on a tight-knit family atmosphere, and who, even after the break-up of his first marriage and subsequent marriage to a woman younger than his daughter, managed to maintain professional as well as emotional ties with his adult children.

Helena Jobim sets the stage for Jobim’s disarmingly elegant and cool music of the 1950s and 60s by introducing the circle of gifted poets, musicians and intellectuals who contributed to his songs, like João Gilberto, whose 1958 recording of Vinícius de Moraes’ and Jobim’s Chega de Saudade marked the first time bossa nova was put on disc. It was Gilberto’s wife at the time, Astrud Gilberto, who created a sensation with her singing on the legendary 1964 recording of the English versions of The Girl From Ipanema and Corcovado, with Stan Getz joining Gilberto and Jobim.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography is the way Helena Jobim shows the direct influence of Jobim’s physical surroundings on his music, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where he spent most of his life. She describes his overwhelming need to be able to see Corcovado mountain from his window wherever he lived in Rio, and she evokes the atmosphere of the neighbourhood of Ipanema, where the family lived when Helena and Carlos were growing up.

Though Helena Jobim doesn’t overplay her own role in Jobim’s life story, she does have an essential part in it. So I was confused by the way she sometimes refers to herself as “I,” and at other times as “Helena.” Her focus is clearly on her brother, which leaves little room for a broader perspective on the development of bossa nova, the volatile political and intellectual currents it reflected, and its eventual decline. Yet Helena Jobim’s writing, here sensitively translated by Dàrio Borim Jr., resonates with the power and sweep of a great romantic family saga centred around an altogether extraordinary musician.


Concert Note: The Art of Time Ensemble, with singers Guinga, Monica Whicher and Luanda Jones, presents “Brasil,” a programme of Brazilian music featuring songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, on March 3, 8pm at Koerner Hall.

58_sallis-frontcover-colourCentre and Periphery, Roots and Exile: Interpreting the Music of István Anhalt, György Kurtág, and Sándor Veress
edited by Friedemann Sallis, Robin Elliott, and Kenneth DeLong
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
480 pages, score examples; $85.00

In 2005, István Anhalt’s The Tents of Abraham won the JUNO Award for best Canadian classical composition of the year. It was remarkable for such a provocative, uncompromising and politically ambitious piece. But it seemed even more remarkable, because for the 54 years Anhalt had lived in Canada, as William Benjamin points out in this collection of essays, his music had been almost totally neglected by performers and audiences in his adopted homeland.

Anhalt is one of the three composers, along with Sándor Veress and György Kurtág, whose relationship to the place of his roots, and the process of displacement that took him away, is looked at. But the ideas of place and displacement are treated not just as physical states. As Gordon Smith writes, “They also embody metaphorical ideas of being and dwelling, and ideas pertaining to danger, persecution, exile, adaption, and the resultant imperative discovery of others and the emergent self.”

Anhalt, Veress, and Kurtág were all born in Hungary and all studied in Budapest at the Franz Liszt Academy — Anhalt and Veress with Zoltán Kodály, and Kurtág with Veress. All left Hungary, having survived the war and the subsequent Soviet occupation of their homeland. Anhalt and Veress left soon after the war ended, but Kurtág, who is younger, didn’t leave until 1993. Anhalt and Kurtág are Jewish, and all three are haunted by a past which is memorialized in their music.

These 20 papers by various academics, composers and performers were first presented at a symposium at the University of Calgary in 2008. To set the scene, there’s a lovely musical tribute to Veress, who died in Switzerland in 1992, by his son, Claudio Veress. Kurtág, who has the greatest international reputation of the three, is recalled in an insightful reminiscence by his godson, Hungarian-born Canadian pianist Gergely Szokolay. Anhalt, now 93 years old and living in Kingston, Ontario, where he spent many years teaching at Queen’s University, contributes a brief personal memoir to complement John Beckwith’s astute portrait, and emerges as a thoroughly fascinating figure.

The strength of this probing collection lies in the way the various approaches to place and displacement offer insights into interpreting key works by these three composers. But the connection between Anhalt, Veress and Kurtág is left unexplored — only Friedemann Sallis’s introduction links them together. Otherwise, each paper deals with an individual composer and his own milieu. So in the end I was left wanting to know more about how the shared roots and experiences of these three composers influenced the development of their individual styles.

Concert Note: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform Kurtág’s Messages on Thursday March 1 in Roy Thomson Hall, as part of their New Creations Festival, curated by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös.

Back to top