The first thing you see when you visit composer John Beckwith’s home is his bicycle, standing in the hallway. At 83, he’s an avid cyclist, and can be often seen on the streets of Toronto. He lives in the Annex, a neighbourhood of fine old houses, about a 10-minute pedal from the University of Toronto, where he taught for almost four decades. Fittingly, it was at the U of T’s Walter Hall that a full program of his music was presented by Toronto’s New Music Concerts in September.
As a composition teacher, he gave instruction to over 100 students, up to his retirement in 1990. It’s an impressive list, containing some of the country’s leading figures in new music: Robert Aitken, Bruce Mather, Henry Kucharzyk, Peter Hatch, Kristi Allik, Alice Ping-Yee Ho, John Burge, Omar Daniel, Clark Ross and James Rolfe, among others.
He’s also maintained a parallel career as a writer, penning reviews and essays on a variety of musical subjects as well as a series of books. In Search of Alberto Guerrero (about his piano teacher) appeared in 2006, and a new book about composer John Weinzweig (co-edited by Beckwith and composer Brian Cherney and published by Wilfred Laurier University Press) will be launched this month, funded in part by the SOCAN Foundation.
But most of all, Beckwith is a composer, with a substantial number of works in his catalogue. “The number is probably close to 150 nowadays,” he says. “And some of them are fairly big pieces. My opera Taptoo! takes two and a half hours.”
Some of his pieces have received numerous performances — and he has mixed feelings about a few. “My most performed pieces, Five Lyrics of the Tang Dynasty (1947), are very slight. But they were published and they’ve been done over and over. Since then, I’ve written songs that are much more substantial.” On the other hand, he quite likes his String Quartet (1977), and is happy to see that his Sharon Fragments (1966) have found a place in the choral repertoire. “They’ve been done a great deal,” he says, “which surprises me, because they’re rather difficult.”
And he admits to a few personal favourites in his catalogue. “I’m very pleased with the flute concerto I did for Bob Aitken. He’s played it with two different orchestras, but it’s never been played in Toronto, even though it was commissioned by the Toronto Arts Council.”
Of course, when Beckwith was born, in Victoria, B.C., in 1927, there was virtually no such thing as an arts council or a commission for a composer. Throughout his career, he’s seen the gradual professionalization of composition in Canada. Indeed, he’s been actively involved in many of the institutions that have aided composers: the CBC, the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre.
“Today there are about 700 associate composers of the Canadian Music Centre,” he says with a pride that’s tempered by a concern that this number might be too high. “How many of them are really serious composers, writing pieces of serious length and serious demand?” he asks. “To become an associate of the CMC you don’t have to do much. It sounds snobbish and elitist to say it, but you can’t get into the College of Surgeons and Physicians without proving you know what you’re doing.”