Beckwith at 94

Canadian composer John Beckwith will be 94 tomorrow.  His son, Larry, under the auspices of Confluence Concerts webcast a trio of concert’s of Beckwith’s extensive song output yesterday on their Youtube channel.  There’s four and a half hours of music and interviews!  It’s extremely varied.  Composition dates range from 1947 to 2014 and the diversity of the music is equally broad though with a distinct personality.  The pieces range from a set of etudes for cello and voice written for his grand-daughter when she was nine years old to the the crazy Avowals which requires a gifted and slightly mad tenor and a keyboardist who can play piano, celeste and harpsichord; sometimes simultaneously!

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It’s very Canadian.  There are a lot of settings of traditional songs and still more setting poetry and prose by various Canadian luminaries.  It’s not just the usual East coast Scots or Irish material either.  Besides, unsurprisingly, traditional Québecois rep there are Dukhobor and Mennonite songs and other surprises.  There’s also a strong internationalism with texts drawn from Chinese, Polish, Welsh and US sources among others.  I think we hear songs in English, French, German, Russian, Lithuanian and Hungarian, maybe more.  What could be more Canadian than a humanistic internationalism firmly rooted in Canada’s various and varying cultures?  Beckwith deserves a blue beret to go with his numerous other honours.

It’s such a distinctive voice too,  A comparison with Britten as a song composer seems not inapposite.  He shares the fondness for setting traditional songs and is distinctly modern without taking on some of the more extreme experiments of the 1950s through 1980s.  Bur there I think the comparison ends.  Britten’s style of piano accompaniment tends to look back to the days when the piano supported the vocal line.  Even Beckwith’s earliest songs seem to lean more to the accompanist as collaborator and commentator on the vocal line.  And if Britten is a bit prone to histrionics (Our Hunting Fathers, Les Illuminations), Beckwith is all ironic humour.  It’s good stuff and I look forward to spending more time with it.  I’ll pass on further musicological ramblings and leave the field clear for Bradley Christensen!

The recordings are (mostly) typical covid era vignettes recorded in peoples’ front rooms and empty university halls.  The quality is good to very good with just a few sound glitches.  There’s even some highly creative videography from Natalya Gennadi.  The whole thing has been very competently stitched together by Ryan Harper.

And what a cast of collaborators Larry Beckwith assembled for this celebration.  They range in age from 8 to 94 and contributions came in from Victoria to Vienna and all parts in between.  There are “big names”; Barbara Hannigan, Russell Braun, Benjamin Butterfield and Krisztina Szabó plus an astonishing array of (mostly) UoT trained professional singers.  What a pleasure to see so many much missed friends.  There are grad students, undergrads and school children too.  There are interviews with many of John’s collaborators including the equally young and lively Mary Morrison.  Larry’s interview with his father displays the latter’s subtle wit and undiminished insight.

Larry Beckwith has conjured up something rather special here and I strongly encourage people to explore the three recordings on Youtube that will be available until March 21st.

And finally, Happy 94th Professor Beckwith!

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