Composer Malcolm Forsyth dies at 74

Celebrated Canadian composer Malcolm Forsyth, whose orchestral, choral and chamber music creations have been performed around the globe, has died at the age of 74.
Malcolm Forsyth received the Order of Canada from former governor general Adrienne Clarkson in 2003. The South African-born, Canadian composer died on Tuesday at the age of 74. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Celebrated Canadian composer Malcolm Forsyth, whose orchestral, choral and chamber music creations have been performed around the globe, has died at the age of 74.

The award-winning, Edmonton-based musician died Tuesday morning. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October.

A prolific, popular composer, Forsyth's music has been widely performed nationally and internationally, having received commissions from the CBC, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Brass, the Natal Philharmonic, artists such as Maureen Forrester and Judith Forst and the symphony orchestras of Montreal, Cape Town and Edmonton — where he spent 11 years playing trombone. 

For Forsyth, creating accessible work was of utmost importance.

"I always have had a sense of responsibility to the audience, coming from a deep sense of belief. I am myself a dedicated audience member, dedicated to the idea of concert music that does sweep people away," he said in a statement posted on his website.

"I'm never more happy than when I can be transported by a performer or performance. Everything I've done is with that experience in mind: Changing the space that the audience sits in for those brief few moments."

A new life in Canada

Born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Forsyth studied trombone, conducting and composition at the University of Cape Town. After graduating, he played trombone with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, taught music and wrote orchestrations for the South African Broadcasting Corporation while pursuing masters and doctorate degrees.

In 1968, he emigrated to Canada, stopping in Toronto before moving into a job teaching trombone, theory and composition at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He would remain on its faculty until his retirement in 2002.

Malcolm Forsyth was a popular, prolific composer of orchestral, choral and chamber music. (Courtesy National Arts Centre)

Through his role as an educator, a conductor, as a member of different ensembles and as a classical music commentator for radio, Forsyth influenced a younger generation of musicians, including composer John Estacio and his daughter, noted cellist Amanda Forsyth.

Indeed, one of his best-known works was written for his daughter: the award-winning Electra Rising: Concerto for Violoncello and Chamber Orchestra. She debuted the work with the Calgary Philharmonic and its subsequent recording by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra led to a Juno Award win in 1998.

The accolade marked Forsyth's third Juno for classical composition. His first — incidentally the inaugural award presented in the classical composition category — came in 1987 for Atayoskewin (Suite for Orchestra). Forsyth's sophomore Juno arrived in 1995 for his Sketches from Natal, commissioned and broadcast by the CBC.

His oeuvre spanned an array of themes, from the tribal rhythms of his native South Africa to Canada's stories — including the country's vast North in Atayoskewin and the expulsion of the Acadians in Evangeline.

In 1988, the Canadian Music Council named him composer of the year and, in 2003, Forsyth received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal and was invested as a member of the Order of Canada.

Final masterpiece

When he was diagnosed with cancer last fall, doctors initially gave Forsyth just a few months to live. Still, he managed to complete his final opus — titled A Ballad of Canada — and attend its mid-June premiere in Ottawa, where it was performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra accompanied by a 160-voice choir.

It was a meaningful commission, as Forsyth's daughter is principal cellist with the NAC Orchestra and married to its musical director, Pinchas Zukerman.

"Welcoming him back to the NAC last month for the world premiere of what Malcolm fondly referred to as his 'epic, iconically Canadian work' was a fitting tribute to a great talent and a great Canadian," NAC president Peter Herrndorf said Tuesday.

He added that flags around the Ottawa building have been lowered to mark Forsyth's passing.

A Ballad of Canada — which draws on poetry by Canadians Ralph Gustafson, John McCrae, E.J. Pratt and Carl Hare — is also slated to be performed by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work, at the Winspear Centre in November.