Music in Canada, Past and Present

This guest blog post was written by John Beckwith. 

The definitions for “Music” and “Canada” have changed many times over the years. The late U. S. musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock liked to refer to past music in two broad categories – “cultivated” and “vernacular.”  Today we have become accustomed to using the terms “classical” and “popular,” though musicians are sometimes uncomfortable with them.  How useful are they?  And when we speak of “Canada,” do we intend the political entity formed in 1867, or the geographical area now known as Canada, first given that name by Europeans or, again, the territory before it received that name? 

I have composed music regularly for roughly sixty years.  However, my professional musical experience also includes teaching and research in music history, often specifically that of our own country.  A major breakthrough in this area of study, the publication in 1960 of A History of Music in Canada, 1534 to 1914 by Helmut Kallmann in 1960.  Is it clear why Kallmann, a naturalized Canadian of German origin, chose those dates to indicate the scope of his book?  Still widely quoted, when it was published it was the most comprehensive study in terms of both its time span and its geographical inclusions. However, subsequent historians have extended its coverage by delving into the musical life of different (especially earlier) eras and different cultures (especially those of the First Nations).  During my talk on Friday, October 21st, I want to discuss some of the advances in Canadian music history that have occurred in my lifetime.   Topics include:


Are there distinguishing traits by which the creative music and the musical involvements of Canadians can be identified?  If so, how do they come about? 


 My talk is punctuated with several recorded-music examples of significant music, both “cultivated” and “vernacular” from various periods, including our own.  Two examples will provide a sharp contrast for discussion: one is an excerpt from a work of musical theatre from roughly 1808, and the other, a composition for symphony orchestra dated 1973.  The first is by an immigrant composer from France, Joseph Quesnel, and the second by a prominent native-born composer, R. Murray Schafer.

If you are interested in learning more about Music in Canada, join John at on Friday, October 21st from 12pm -1pm at the ALC to hear his talk on Music in Canada, Past, and Present. Please reserve your spot by calling 416 733.4111. 


JOHN BECKWITH was born in Victoria and received his musical education in Toronto and Paris.  He has composed over 160 works, among them four operas, a dozen orchestral works, choral and chamber pieces, songs, and solo pieces.  He is the author, editor, or co-editor of ten books, a former programmer and script writer for CBC Radio, and a former music columnist and reviewer for the Toronto Star.  He was associated for about forty years with the University of Toronto music faculty, including seven as its dean and five as founding director of its Institute for Canadian Music.