John Beckwith (composer)

John Beckwith
Born (1927-03-09) March 9, 1927
Victoria, British Columbia
Occupation composer, writer, pianist, teacher, and administrator
Awards Order of Canada

John Beckwith, CM (born March 9, 1927) is a Canadian composer, writer, pianist, teacher, and administrator.

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero at the Toronto Conservatory of Music in 1945. He received a Mus.B. in 1947 and a Mus.M. in 1961 from the University of Toronto. From 1950 to 1951, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

He started teaching in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in 1952. From 1970 to 1977, he was the dean of the faculty. He was founding director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto. He retired in 1990.

He has written over 130 compositions covering stage, orchestral, chamber, solo and choral genres.

In 1987, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.


In 1945, after several years of studying piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), Beckwith received a Royal Conservatory scholarship, which allowed him to study piano with Alberto Guerrero at the University of Toronto. His other professors included Leo Smith and John Weinzweig and it was here that he obtained his B.Mus.

In 1950 he was awarded a second scholarship, this time from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. This scholarship allowed him to travel to Paris, where he studied composition under Nadia Boulanger.

He has received five honorary doctorates from Canadian universities; McGill University (Quebec), Mount Allison University (New Brunswick), Queen's University (Ontario), University of Victoria (British Columbia) and the University of Guelph (Ontario).


After studying in Paris, Beckwith returned to Toronto to pursue further studies and became active as a performing musician, actor, critic, radio commentator, writer, lecturer and broadcaster. In 1952, he returned to the University of Toronto, but this time as a part-time lecturer at the Faculty of Music. He was then appointed full-time lecturer in 1955. He remained in this position for several years, and even served a term as the Dean of the faculty from 1970 to 1977. John Beckwith was appointed the first Jean A. Chalmers Professor of Canadian Music and the first director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the UofT. He retired in 1990 with plans to devote more time to composing. Some of his notable pupils include Brian Cherney, Gustav Ciamaga, Omar Daniel, John Fodi, Clifford Ford, Ben McPeek, James Rolfe, Clark Ross, Matthew Davidson, and Timothy Sullivan.

While teaching, Beckwith remained active in several areas of the musical community. He wrote for the Toronto Star from 1959 to 1965 as an arts critic and columnist and planned a number of documentaries and music series for CBC radio. Beginning in 1981, he worked as a director for the Canadian Musical Heritage Society, which he had co-founded that same year. He prepared two of the Society's 25-volume series of pre-1950 Canadian-composed music. In 1986, the Anthology of Canadian music included a five-record set of his music. A collection of 25 of his music articles and talks was published by Golden Dog Press in 1997 under the title Music Papers

The Canadian Conference of the Arts awarded Beckwith with its Diplôme d'honneur in 1996 and he was made an honorary member of the Canadian University Music Society in 1999.


To this day, John Beckwith has composed over 130 large works. While the majority of his important works are settings of Canadian texts for voice, he also has many compositions for orchestral and chamber groups, as well as solo instrumental pieces and choral music.

While some of his music explores 20th Century techniques, most of his compositions have themes that connect in some way to historical or regional Canada. He spent much of his time creating arrangements of Canadian folk songs, and has set around 200 of these songs, including Four Love Songs (1969) and Five Songs (1969–70). Most of these were set between the years 1981 and 1991 during his involvement with Music at Sharon (a summer concert series in Ontario) As well as Canadian folk song, many of Beckwith's works are inspired by his experiences with the Canadian environment.

Beckwith collaborated with many Canadian writers when setting tect for voice, including James Reaney, Jay Macpherson, Margaret Atwood, and Dennis Lee. The longest of these collaborations was with James Reaney, which resulted in many of his most admired works, such as Night Blooming Cereus (1953–58), The Shivaree (1965–78), Crazy to Kill (1988–89) and Taptoo! (1994).

Selected works

Sharon Fragments (1966)

Sharon Fragments is a piece for unaccompanied choir and is one of the most frequently performed works based on historical themes. It commemorates a religious sect from Ontario in the 19th century.The sect was called Children of Peace and is known for its love of music.

The Hector (1990)

This work is a documentary in the form of a cantata. The documentary is meant to depict the movement of over 200 immigrants to Pictou, Nova Scotia in the year 1773.

Lucas et Cécile

While involved with the Canadian musical heritage concerts at Sharon, Beckwith reconstructed the opera by Joseph Quesnel of the same name. This led to several successful performances, including performances by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in 1994, and the Acadian Ensemble in 2001.

String Quartet (1977)

In this quartet the sounds of the mandolin, banjo and fiddle in 19th century Canada are reproduced by traditional orchestral string instruments.

The Trumpets of Summer (1964)

For the quatercentenary of the birth of William Shakespeare, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) commission Beckwith to write a piece to represent this event. Instead of doing the obvious and using text from Shakespeare's works as a libretto, he composed this work with the intention of conveying the experiences one may have with Shakespeare in Canada and his effect on Canadian culture. Some of these aspects include “rather seedy touring company performances”, “a Stratford opening night,” and exploring the use of Shakespeare more recently in television and even comic books.

He collaborated on the text with a young Margaret Atwood, who was only a doctoral student at the time. The prologue proceeds to ask the audience why they came ("Was it to see / An unreal man, saying / words / words words words / that we can't understand / Or was it to see / A real man dying / slowly behind this mask of speech?"), followed by trumpets meant to imitate the traditional call to the audience indicating the start of a play.

Upper Canadian Hymn Preludes (1977)

This piece is one of his more avant garde works, composed for organ and prepared tape. While the organ part blends aspects of early Canadian music with techniques inspired by Charles Ives, the electronic element of the tape brings those aspects into the 1970s.

List of works

As recorded in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada at


Orchestra and Band








Beckwith, John (1997). Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer. Ottawa, Ontario: The Golden Dog Press.

Proctor, George A. (1951). Canadian Music of the Twentieth Century. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

Steenhuisen, Paul. "Interview with John Beckwith". In Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-88864-474-9

Encyclopedia of Music in Canada Canadian Shakespeare Canadian Music Centre


External links

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