John Beckwith, prominent Canadian composer, dead at 95
He wrote more than 160 works, including 4 operas and a dozen orchestral compositions, during his long career
John Beckwith, the prominent Canadian composer with a career spanning seven decades, died in Toronto on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. He succumbed to complications following a recent fall, according to his son, Larry Beckwith.
Over his long career, John Beckwith composed more than 160 works, including four operas, a dozen orchestral compositions, and numerous chamber, choral and vocal pieces.
Beckwith was equally illustrious as an educator, with a 38-year teaching career at the University of Toronto, including a stint as dean of the faculty of music from 1970-77. He was also the first director of U of T's Institute for Canadian Music. His former students comprise a who's who of current Canadian composers: Alice Ping-Yee Ho, John Burge, James Rolfe, Omar Daniel and Bruce Mather, to name only a few.
Tenor Jon Vickers and pianist Richard Woitach recorded Beckwith's most popular work, a song cycle called Five Lyrics of the T'ang Dynasty.
Early in his career, the quest for a Canadian identity in new music was a preoccupation, as Beckwith's theatrical song cycle The Great Lakes Suite illustrates. His choral work Harp of David, dating from the mid-1980s, is a virtuoso setting of Psalm texts that was championed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir.
More recent compositions include Stacey (1997), for voice and piano, based on texts by Margaret Laurence; Workout (2001) for percussion ensemble, and Wendake/Huronia (2015) for alto, narrator, chorus and early music ensemble.
Beckwith's relevance well into the 21st century is illustrated by a recent recording of his composition Meanwhile by Ottawa's SHHH!! Ensemble, an emerging percussion and piano duo.
Beckwith was born in Victoria on March 9, 1927. He studied piano with Alberto Guerrero (Glenn Gould's teacher) at the University of Toronto, graduating with a bachelor of music in 1947. He furthered his education in Paris in the early 1950s.
In the late 1950s, he was a founding member of the Canadian Music Centre.
He edited or co-edited 10 books, and worked for a time as a writer and associate producer at CBC Music.
According to a 2010 profile in SOCAN's music magazine Words and Music, Beckwith was an avid cyclist well into his 80s and could often be seen darting through the streets of his beloved Annex neighbourhood in Toronto.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press published Beckwith's memoir, Unheard Of, in 2012.
In March 2021, Confluence Concerts, whose artistic director is Larry Beckwith, organized a 94th birthday tribute to John in the form of a two-hour virtual concert bringing together 36 singers, including soprano Barbara Hannigan, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone Russell Braun.
Beckwith was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1987, received the Toronto Arts Award for Music in 1995, and was awarded the Diplôme d'Honneur of the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1996.
You can hear a tribute to Beckwith on CBC Music's About Time with host Tom Allen on Wednesday, Dec. 7.