John Beckwith (composer)

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John Beckwith
Born(1927-03-09)March 9, 1927
DiedDecember 5, 2022(2022-12-05) (aged 95)
Occupation(s)Composer, writer, pianist, teacher, and administrator

John Beckwith CM (March 9, 1927 – December 5, 2022) was a Canadian composer, writer, pianist, teacher, and university administrator.[1][2]

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero at the Toronto Conservatory of Music in 1945. Beckwith received a Bachelor of Music (Mus.B.) in 1947 and a Master of Music (Mus.M.) in 1961 from the University of Toronto. In 1950-51, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He began teaching at University of Toronto's Faculty of Music in 1952. From 1970-77, he was the dean of the faculty. He was founding director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto. In 1987, he was made a member of the Order of Canada.[3] He retired in 1990.

Beckwith wrote over 160 compositions covering stage, orchestral, chamber, solo and choral genres. He also wrote 17 books, the last of which - Music Annals: Research and Critical Writings by a Canadian Composer - was published shortly before his death in 2022.[3]


In 1945, after several years of studying piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Beckwith received a Conservatory scholarship that allowed him to study piano with Alberto Guerrero at the University of Toronto where he obtained his Mus.B. His other teachers included Leo Smith and John Weinzweig. In 1950 he was awarded a second scholarship, this time from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. The scholarship allowed him to travel to Paris, where he studied composition under Nadia Boulanger. Under Weinzweig's supervision, Beckwith earned his Mus.M. from the University of Toronto in 1961.

Over the course of his life, Beckwith also received honorary doctorates from McGill University, Mount Allison University, Queen's University, University of Victoria, and University of Guelph.


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 appointed full-time lecturer in 1955. He remained in this position for several years, and eventually became dean of the faculty from 1970-77. Beckwith was the first Jean A. Chalmers Professor of Canadian Music and the first director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto. He retired in 1990 with plans to devote more time to composing. Among his notable pupils were 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 1959-65 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, a five-record set of his music was included in the Anthology of Canadian Music series. A collection of 25 of his music articles and talks was published by Golden Dog Press in 1997 under the title Music Papers.[4] The Canadian Conference of the Arts awarded Beckwith its Diplôme d'honneur in 1996 and he was made an honorary member of the Canadian University Music Society in 1999. In 2006, his biography In Search of Alberto Guerrero was published by Wilfrid Laurier Press (issued in Spanish translation in 2021). With Brian Cherney, he co-edited Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music in 2011. Beckwith's autobiography, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, was published by Wilfrid Laurier Press in 2012. With Robin Elliott, he co-edited Mapping Canada's Music: Selected Writings of Helmut Kallmann in 2013.

The festschrift, Taking a Stand: Essays in Honour of John Beckwith, edited by Timothy McGee, was published in 1995.[5]

Compositional style[edit]

Beckwith composed over 160 large works. While the majority of his works are settings of Canadian texts for voice, he also wrote for orchestral and chamber groups as well as solo instrumental pieces and choral music.

Beckwith was a modernist who employed 20th-century compositional techniques.[6] Most of his works have themes that connect to historical or regional Canada.[7] Beckwith was deeply interested in Canadian folk song and set around 200 of these songs, including Four Love Songs (1969) and Five Songs (1969–70). Most of the arrangements were written in 1981-91 during his involvement with Music at Sharon, a summer concert series. He often collaborated with Canadian writers when setting text for voice including James Reaney, Jay Macpherson, Margaret Atwood,[8] bpNichol, Georges Sioui, and Dennis Lee; his most extensive collaboration was with Reaney. Beckwith also set texts of e.e. cummings, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, and poems of the Tang dynasty translated by Witter Bynner.[9]

List of works[edit]

As recorded in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada at [1]


  • The Killdeer, incidental (Reaney). 1960, rescored 1961. Prepared piano (5 instr). Ms
  • The Hector, documentary cantata (various). 1990 (Tor 1990). Soprano, early-instr ens. Ms
  • See also Crazy to Kill, Night Blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, Taptoo![10]

Orchestra and band[edit]

  • Music for Dancing (orch from piano, 4 hands). 1948 (piano), orch 1959 (Ott 1959). BMI Canada 1961. CBC SM-47/5-ACM 26 (*CBC Van orch)
  • Montage. 1953, rescored 1955 (Tor 1953). Med orch. Ms
  • Fall Scene and Fair Dance. 1956 (Tor 1956). Violin, clarinet, strings. BMI Canada 1957. 1977. Lethbridge Symphony Assn LSA-101 (Lethbridge SO)
  • Concerto Fantasy. 1959 (Mtl 1962). Piano, orch. Berandol (rental)
  • Flower Variations and Wheels. 1962 (Victoria 1963). Med orch. Berandol (rental)
  • Concertino. 1963 (Tor 1964). Horn, orch. Berandol (rental)
  • Jonah, cantata (various). 1963 (Tor 1963). BMI Canada 1969
  • Place of Meeting (Dennis Lee). 1967 (Tor 1967). Speaker, tenor, blues singer, SATB, orch. Ms
  • Elastic Band Studies. 1969, rev 1975 (Tor 1976). Concert band. Ms
  • All the Bees and All the Keys (Reaney). 1973 (Tor 1973). Narrator, orch. (Orch) Berandol (rental), (piano score) Press Porcépic 1976
  • A Concert of Myths. 1983 (Calgary 1984). Flute, orch. Ms
  • Peregrine. 1989 (Tor 1990). Viola, percussion, sm orch. Ms
  • Fifteen Figural Chorales from J.S. Bach's Das Orgelbüchlein (transcription), 1991. (Orch). Ms
  • Fourteen Figural Chorales from J.S. Bach's Das Orgelbüchlein (transcription), 1993. (Orch). Ms
  • Sixteen Figural Chorales from J.S. Bach's Das Orgelbüchlein (transcription), 1997. (Orch). Ms


  • The Great Lakes Suite (Reaney). 1949. Soprano, baritone, clarinet, cello, piano. Msuhhjhgjvgugjyufuy
  • Five Pieces for Flute Duet. 1951. BMI Canada 1962
  • Four Pieces for Bassoon Duet. 1951. Ms
  • Quartet for Woodwind Instruments. 1951. Ms
  • Three Studies for String Trio. 1956. Ms
  • Circle, with Tangents. 1967. Harpsichord, 13 strings. BMI Canada 1968
  • Taking a Stand. 1972. 8 brass, 14 music stands, 5 players. Berandol 1975
  • Musical Chairs. 1973. String quintet. Berandol 1980
  • Quartet. 1977. String quartet. Ms. Melbourne SMLP-4038/5-ACM 26 (*Orford String Quartet)
  • Case Study: a multi-purpose quintet. 1980. 5 bowed string or woodwind or brass instr. Ms
  • Eight Miniatures: arr from the Alan Ash Ms. 1981. Violin, piano. Ms
  • Sonatina. 1981. Trumpet, piano. Ms
  • Tunes of the Sharon Band (arr). 1982. Brass quintet. Sonante 1984
  • Arctic Dances. 1984. Oboe, piano. Ms. McGill U Records 85026 (L. *Cherney)
  • For Starters. 1984. 11 brass instr. Ms
  • College Airs. 1990. String quartet. Ms
  • Echoes of Thiele. 1995. Chamber orchestra. Ms
  • Back to Bolivia. 2006. Clarinet quartet. Ms
  • Follow me. 2013. Clarinet, piano. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1774 (*Stoll/Zukiewicz)
  • Quintet. 2015. Flute, Trumpet, Bassoon, Viola, Double Bass. Ms
  • Calling. 2016. Flugelhorn, Euphonium, 2 Tenor Trombones, Bass Trombone, Double Bass. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1774 (*New Music Concerts Ensemble)
  • Meanwhile. 2018. Marimba, piano. Ms. Analekta 29129 (*Shhh Ensemble)


  • Four Conceits 1945–48. 1945–1948. Ms. RCI 228/RCA CCS-1022 (*Troup)
  • Music for Dancing. 1948. Piano: 4 hands. Ms. RCI 113 (P. *Beaudet, G. *Bourassa)
  • The Music Room. 1951. Frederick Harris 1955. RCI 134 (*Newmark)
  • Novelette. 1951. BMI Canada 1954. Centrediscs CMC-1684/5-ACM 26 (*Foreman)
  • Six Mobiles. 1959. BMI Canada 1960. CCM-2 (*Cavalho)
  • Interval Studies. 1962. BMI Canada 1962
  • Suite on Old Tunes (arr). 1966. BMI Canada 1967. CCM-2 (*Cavalho)
  • Variation Piquant sur la `Toronto Opera House Waltz' 1967. 2 piano. Ms
  • New Mobiles. 1971. Waterloo 1972[11]
  • Keyboard Practice. 1979. 4 players, 10 keyboard. (1986). 5-ACM 24 (*Aide)
  • Etudes. 1983. Counterpoint. 5-ACM 26 (*Coop)
  • Also a work for organ and prepared tape, Upper Canadian Hymn Preludes (1977). Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1784/5-ACM 26 (*Wedd)
  • March, march! Four short pieces for piano, 2001. Ms


  • The Trumpets of Summer (Atwood). 1964. Soloists, SATB, narrator, chamb ens. Berandol (rental). CBC SM 81/RCI 340/ Cap ST-6323/5-ACM 26 (*Festival Singers)
  • Sharon Fragments (Willson). 1966. SATB. Waterloo1966. Capitol ST-6258/Seraphim S-60085 (*Festival Singers)
  • The Sun Dance (various). 1968. SATB, speaker, organ, percussion. Priv publ 1968
  • Three Blessings (Fisher, Burns, Wesley). 1968. SATB, instr (optional in No. 2). BMI Canada 1968. CBC SM-81/RCI 340/Capitol ST-6323 (*Festival Singers)
  • Gas! (Beckwith). 1969. 20 speakers. Berandol 1978
  • 1838 (Lee). 1970. SATB. Novello 1970
  • Papineau (2 Lower Canada folk songs). 1977. 2 equal voices. Gordon V. Thompson 1978. Centrediscs CMC-2285 (*Toronto Children's Chor)
  • Three Motets on Swan's 'China' (various).'1981. SATB. Waterloo1983. Melbourne SMLP-4041/5-ACM 26 (*Elmer Iseler Singers)
  • A Little Organ Concert (vocables). 1982. SATB, organ, brass quintet. Ms
  • A Canadian Christmas Carol (J. P. Clarke)(arr). 1984. SATB, harmonium (piano or organ). Gordon V. Thompson 1989. CBC SM-5055 (*Elmer Iseler Singers)
  • Mating Time (bp Nichol). 1982. SATB (20 solo voices), percussion, elec keyboard. Ms
  • Harp of David (Book of Common Prayer). 1985. SATB. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-CD-3790 (Van Chamb Choir)
  • The Banks of Newfoundland (arr).1985. Baritone, SATB (oboe, string quartet) Gordon V. Thompson 1987
  • Three Burns Songs (R. Burns)(arr).1986. SATB. Gordon V. Thompson 1987
  • Farewell To Nova Scotia (arr).1985. Baritone, SATB, piano, percussion 2 trumpet, viola, cello, double bass. Gordon V. Thompson 1987
  • The Gowans Are Gay (arr). 1986. SATB, percussion. Gordon V. Thompson 1987 69
  • Basic Music. 1998. Children's Choir (SA), Youth Choir (SSA) and orchestra. Ms
  • Derailed: a sound-documentary for SSAATTBB and percussion. 2007


  • Five Lyrics of the T'ang Dynasty (various). 1947. High voice, piano. BMI Canada 1949. RCI 148/5-ACM 26 (*Alarie)/Centrediscs CMC-2185 (*Vickers)/(No. 3,4,5) 1988. Phillips 6514-157 (B. Fei soprano, N. Loo piano)
  • 'Serenade' (Thibaudeau). 1949. Med voice, piano. Ms. RCI 36 (C. *Jordan)
  • 'The Formal Garden of the Heart' (Thibaudeau). 1950. Med voice, piano. Ms
  • Four Songs to Poems by e.e. cummings. 1950. Soprano, piano. Waterloo1975
  • Four Songs from Ben Jonson's 'Volpone'. 1961. Baritone, guitar. BMI Canada 1967
  • A Chaucer Suite. 1962. Alto, tenor, baritone. Ms
  • Ten English Rhymes (anon). 1964. Young voices, piano. BMI Canada 1964
  • Four Love Songs (Canadian folk songs). 1969. Baritone, piano. Berandol 1970. (No. 1, 3, 4) CBC SM-111 (*Bell)/(1986). 5-ACM 26 (Pepper, Beckwith)
  • Five Songs (arr). 1970. Alto, piano. Waterloo 19701. CBC SM-77/Select CC-15073/5-ACM 26 (*Forrester)
  • Six Songs to Poems by e.e. cummings. 1980–1982. Baritone, piano. Ms
  • Earlier Voices (arr). 1984. Soprano, baritone, SATB, piano. Ms
  • Avowals (bp Nichol). 1985. Tenor, 1 player on piano, celesta, harpsichord. Ms
  • Les Premiers hivernements (S. Champlain, M. Lescarbot). 1986. Soprano, tenor, 2 recorder, lute, viol, percussion. Ms
  • Synthetic Trios (vocables). 1987. Soprano, clarinet, piano. Ms
  • The Harp that Once thro' Tara's Halls (T. Moore) (arr). 1986. Mezzo, piano. Gordon V. Thompson 1987
  • beep (bp Nichol). 1990. Soprano, baritone, SATB, percussion. Ms
  • Stacey (Margaret Laurence), 1997. Soprano, piano. CMC
  • A Man and His Flute (Miriam Waddington), 1999. Soprano, piano.
  • Wendake/Huronia, 2015. Alto, Narrator, Chamber Choir, Instruments and Drums. Ms


  • A Message to Winnipeg (Reaney). 1960 (Tor 1960). 4 speakers, violin, clarinet, piano, percussion. Ms
  • Twelve Letters to a Small Town (Reaney). 1961 (Tor 1961). 4 speakers, flute, oboe, guitar, piano-harmonium. Ms
  • Wednesday's Child (Reaney). 1962 (Tor 1962). 3 speakers, soprano, tenor, flute, viola, piano, percussion. Ms
  • Canada Dash – Canada Dot (Reaney). 1965-67 (Tor 1967). 5 voices, 4 speakers, chamb ens. Ms
  • The Journals of Susanna Moodie, incidental (Atwood). 1972, rev 1990 (Tor 1973). 2 kybd players, percussion. Ms


  • 'Composers in Toronto and Montreal,' U of Toronto Quarterly, vol 26, Oct 1956
  • 'Music,' The Culture of Contemporary Canada, ed J. Park (Cornell 1957)
  • 'Music,' The Arts in Canada, ed M. Ross (Toronto 1958)
  • 'Music Education,' ibid
  • 'Young composers' performances in Toronto,' CMJ, vol 2, Summer 1958
  • 'Jean Papineau-Couture,' CMJ, vol 3, Winter 1959
  • 'Recent orchestral works by Champagne, Morel and Anhalt,' CMJ, vol 4, Summer 1960
  • - and Kasemets, Udo, eds. The Modern Composer and His World (Toronto 1961)
  • 'Notes on a recording career, (the work of Glenn Gould),' Canadian Forum, vol 40, Jan 1961
  • Review of A History of Music in Canada 1534–1914 by Helmut Kallmann, U of Toronto Quarterly, vol 30, Jul 1961
  • 'Schoenberg ten years after,' Canadian Forum, vol 41, Nov 1961
  • 'Stravinsky triptych,' CMJ, vol 6, Summer 1962
  • 'The Bernstein experiment,' Canadian Forum, vol 43, Apr 1964
  • 'Notes on Jonah,' Alphabet, 8 Jun 1964
  • Review of British Composers in Interview, ed R. Murray Schafer, U of Toronto Quarterly, vol 33, Jul 1964
  • 'A "Complete" Schoenberg,' Canadian Forum, vol 46, Jan 1967
  • 'About Canadian music: The P.R. failure,' Mcan, 21, Jul-Aug 1969; reprinted with postscript, AGO/RCCO Music, vol 5, Mar 1971
  • 'What every U.S. musician should know about contemporary Canadian music,' Mcan, 29, final issue 1970
  • 'Music in Canada,' MT, vol 111, Dec 1970
  • 'Trying to define music,' ConsB, Christmas 1970
  • 'Aims and methods for a music-theory program,' CAUSM J, vol 1, Spring 1971
  • 'Healey Willan,' Canadian Forum, vol 52, Dec 1972
  • 'Teaching new music: What? How? Why?' MSc, 270, Mar-Apr 1973
  • 'Canadian music,' 'Harry Somers,' Dictionary of Contemporary Music (New York 1974)
  • - and MacMillan, K., eds. Contemporary Canadian Composers (Toronto 1975)
  • 'István Anhalt,' MSc, 281, Jan-Feb 1975
  • 'A big song-and-dance,' CME, vol 18, Spring 1977
  • 'Reflections on Ives,' An Ives Celebration, ed H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perlis (Urbana, Illinois 1977)
  • 'A festival of Canadian music,' Musicanada: A Presentation of Canadian Contemporary Music (Ottawa 1977)
  • Music In Canada (Ottawa 1979)
  • - and Pincoe, Ruth, eds. Canadian Music in the 1960s and 1970s: A Chronicle (Toronto 1979)
  • 'Kolinski: an appreciation and list of works,' Cross-cultural Perspectives on Music, ed R. Falck and T. Rice (Toronto 1982)
  • - ed. John Weinzweig at Seventy (Toronto 1983)
  • 'Shattering a few myths,' Glenn Gould Variations, ed J. McGreevy (New York 1983)
  • 'Choral confessions,' Anacrusis, vol 6, Fall 1986
  • 'On compiling an anthology of Canadian hymn tunes,' Sing Out the Glad News, ed J. Beckwith, CanMus Documents 1 (Toronto 1987)
  • 'Canadian tunebooks and hymnals, 1801–1939,' American Music, vol 6, Summer 1988
  • 'A "failure" revisited: new Canadian music in recent studies and reference works,' Hello Out There! eds J. Beckwith and D. Cooper, CanMus Documents 2 (Toronto 1988)
  • - et al. 'From composer to audience: the production of serious music in Canada,' CUMR, vol 9, no. 2, 1989
  • Review of The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, America's Music, and Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, CUMR, vol 9, no. 2, 1989
  • 'Canadiana realizations for "Music at Sharon," 1981–90,' News from CMHS, vol 1, Spring 1991
  • 'Letter from Canada,' Sonneck Society Bulletin, vol 17, no. 2, 1991
  • 'Music at Toronto: A Personal Account' (Toronto 1995)
  • - and Kallmann, Helmut. 'Musical instrument building,' Encyclopedia Canadiana
  • - and Hall, Frederick A., eds. Musical Canada
  • 'Recordings,' Music in Canada


  • 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 [2]
  • Canadian Shakespeare [3]
  • Canadian Music Centre [4]
  • Beckwith, John. In Search of Alberto Guerrero. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011.
  • Beckwith, John, and Brian Cherney, eds. Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011.
  • Beckwith, John. Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.
  • Beckwith, John, and Robin Elliott, eds. Mapping Canada's Music: Selected Writings of Helmut Kallmann. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.


  1. ^ Nygaard King, Betty; Anhalt, István; Winters, Kenneth; McIntosh, Andrew (2022-12-07). "John Beckwith". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2023-12-29.
  2. ^ Elliott, Robin (2022-12-16). "Vital and prolific composer John Beckwith was an authority on Canadian music". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2023-01-08.
  3. ^ a b Hisama, Ellie. "John Beckwith (1927–2022)". University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Retrieved 6 December 2022.
  4. ^ Beckwith, John (1997). Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer, 1961-1994. Golden Dog Press. ISBN 978-0-919614-72-7.
  5. ^ McGee, Timothy J., ed. (1995). Taking a Stand: Essays in Honour of John Beckwith. Heritage. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-0583-0. Retrieved 2024-05-21.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  6. ^ Wolters, Benita (1999). The Early Years of the Canadian League of Composers (M.A., Music). University of British Columbia. Retrieved 2024-04-24.
  7. ^ Clark, Katy Aileen (2022). Regionalism in the Operas of John Beckwith and James Reaney (DMA). University of Toronto. Retrieved 2024-04-24.
  8. ^ Elliott, Robin (2006). "Margaret Atwood and Music" (PDF). University of Toronto Quarterly. 75 (3): 826–28.
  9. ^ Christensen, Bradley (2023). The Repertoire of John Beckwith for Solo Voice and Piano: An Interpretive and Pedagogical Guide (DMA). University of Toronto. Retrieved 2023-12-30.
  10. ^ Domville, Eric (2003). A Different Drummer: The Birth of a Province. Taptoo! Conference. University of Toronto. Retrieved 2024-04-24.
  11. ^ Hahn, Christopher Charles (2005). Canadian Pedagogical Piano Repertoire since 1970: A Survey of Contemporary Compositional Styles and Techniques (DMA). University of Oklahoma. Retrieved 2024-05-21.

External links[edit]