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Sir Ernest MacMillan

Canadians love music and Canada has produced several fine composers and performers.

But, the person I wish to write about today is Sr Ernest MacMillan (CC [Canada Council], a companion of the Order of Canada; b. Mimico, Ontario 1893 – d. Toronto, 1973), whose contribution to the establishment of music in Canada is simply unparalleled.

Sir Ernest MacMillan’s Childhood House in Mimico

Sir Ernest was a child prodigy who gave his first organ concert at the age of ten. He then accompanied his father to Edinburgh and, during his three-year stay in Scotland, Ernest studied at the University of Edinburgh under Friedrich Niecks and W. B. Ross, and took private organ lessons from Ross. Consequently, before his eighteenth birthday, he had earned his certificate as a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) and an extramural B Mus (Bachelor of Music) degree from Oxford University (1911). From 1911 to 1914, he studied modern history at the University of Toronto, but was awarded his Bachelor of Arts in absentia. He was detained in Germany.

Ruhleben: an unlikely detainee

Ernest MacMillan was a colourful individual and he led a colourful life. In the spring of 1914, he went to Paris where he began to study piano privately with Thérèse Chaigneau (1876-c. 1935). However, he travelled to the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, but did so at the worst possible moment. While he was in Bayreuth, Canada declared war against Germany and, as a result, young Ernest was detained, first and briefly, at Nuremberg and, later, in a civilian detention camp at Ruhleben, Germany, for the duration of the first World War.

Accomplishments at Ruhleben

Resilient as he was, Ernest MacMillan learned German and got involved in the musical and theatrical life of Ruhleben. He became an active member of both the Ruhleben Musical Society and the Ruhleben Drama Society. He conducted, transcribed the music of Cinderella (Tchaikovsky/ Prokoviev) from memory, with some help. He also honed his skills as an actor. However, his finest achievement as a detainee was his setting of Swinburne‘s ode England, which he submitted as part of the Requirements for his D Mus (Doctorate in Music) from Oxford University.

The Royal Toronto Conservatory

After the war, Ernest MacMillan returned to Toronto and started to teach piano and organ at the Canadian Academy of Music (CAM). On December 31st, 1919, he married Laura Elsie Keith, his fiancée since before the war.  In June 1924, the Canadian Academy of Music (CAM) amalgamated with the Toronto College of Music (TCM) and, in 1947, it became the Royal Toronto Conservatory (RTCM), then located at the corner of College Street and University Avenue. The Royal Toronto Conservatory would move to its present location in 1964.

However, Ernest MacMillan’s position was not affected by these changes. At first, he was a teacher, but would go on to become Canada’s most prominent musician. Allow me simply to list his better-known official functions.  He was:

But Ernest MacMillan, who was knighted in 1935, was also a composer, a performer, a lecturer, a writer, an adjudicator, an administrator, a statesman, the founder of the Royal Toronto Conservatory’s Opera Company and the co-founder of The Canadian Trio (1941-1943), of which he was a member as pianist, with Zara Nelsova (cellist) and Kathleen Parlow (violinist). Moreover, during his tenure as principal of the future Royal Toronto Conservatory, Sir Ernest travelled everywhere in Canada as examiner, spreading enthusiasm for music.

Sir Ernest and French-Canadian Folklore

Having reviewed Marius Barbeau’s and Edward Sapir’s Folksongs of French Canada, Sir Ernest MacMillan joined prominent Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau, (CC [The Canada Council], Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, recipient of the Order of Canada; b. Sainte-Marie, Québec, March 5, 1883 – d. Ottawa, February 27, 1969). Sir Ernest therefore participated in gathering the folk music of French-speaking Canadians. German-born American anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir 1884–1939) and Marius Barbeau were Canada’s first anthropologists and worked together at the National Museum of Canada. For Ernest MacMillan, this collaboration was an important moment. He became a folklorist.

In all, Marius Barbeau collected some 9,000 songs and 5,000 melodies. Dr Barbeau, a Rhodes Scholar, had written his thesis on the “Totemic System of the North Western Indian Tribes of North American.” However, renowned German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, then of the American Folklore Society, convinced Barbeau to specialize in French-Canadian folklore.  Barbeau took Boas’s advice and, in 1918, he had become president of the AFS. For composers, exposure to folklore can prove extremely fruitful. The music of Dvořák attests to the creative influence of folk music.

The Composer

When he met Barbeau, Sir Ernest was already an accomplished composer. While a detainee in Nuremberg, he had composed a String Quart in C MinorIn Ruhleben, he set Swinburne‘s ode England, a choral work which earned him his D Mus (Doctorate in Music) at Oxford University. He had also composed a Te Deum and other pieces.

But his partnership with Barbeau would lead to further compositions. Sir Ernest drew inspiration from the music of French-Canada and composed:

  • “Notre Seigneur en pauvre” and “À Saint-Malo”
  • Six Bergerettes du Bas-Canada; and
  • a choral setting of the Canadian ballad “Blanche comme la neige” or “White as Snow.” 

“Notre Seigneur en pauvre” is rooted in the French-Canadian legend according to which the poor who knocks at one’s door is Jesus himself. As for “À Saint-Malo,” it is a song that could reflect the discovery of Canada. In 1534, Jacques Cartier had sailed from Saint-Malo, Brittany, and had claimed Canada for France. But “À Saint-Malo” is a folksong that had probably belonged to an oral tradition for centuries. Bergerettes are a fifteenth-century bucolic form.

“Notre Seigneur en pauvre” and “À Saint-Malo” were combined to constitute Two Sketches for Strings, performed by the Hart House [University of Toronto] String Quartet at the 1927 Folksong and Handicraft Festival, a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)Festival, which took place in Quebec City. The Six Bergerettes du Bas-Canada were performed the following year, at the 1928 CPR Festival.

Sir Ernest’s partnership with Dr Marius Barbeau was all the more enriching since Dr MacMillan took an interest in the music of French Canada. In French Canada, music had long an establishment, but Sir Ernest brought it under the wider umbrella of Canadian Music.

* * *

Would that Sir Ernest had composed more music, but he was otherwise occupied. The founding of the Canadian Music Council, established c. 1946 was his initiative. He became Chairman in 1947. The CMC received its federal charter in 1949. From 1947 to 1969, Sir Ernest also served CAPAC (Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada Limited/Association des compositeurs, auteurs et éditeurs du Canada Ltée). Moreover, Sir Ernest got involved in the Jeunesses Musicales movement.

Ernest MacMillan was indeed an organizer. In this respect, I will quote a sentence from the Sir Ernest MacMillan entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia:

MacMillan was an educator, an administrator, and a developer of systems and policies rather than a teacher.

To the above, we could perhaps add “rather than a composer,” except that Sir Ernest had demonstrated he was an excellent composer. When I studied Music in Canada, members of the class lamented his not bequeathing more compositions since the music he had composed was delightful. It could be, however, that having been detained for four years, Sir Ernest had to work publicly. And there can be little doubt that Canada needed such a musician. Matters were perhaps just as they should.

* * *

But Sir Ernest did compose music and more of his compositions should be unearthed, including his many arrangements, his compilations, such as his Book of Songs, used in Canadian Schools in the 1930s and 1940s, music written for the teaching of music and the hymns he composed for The University [Toronto] Hymn Book (Toronto 1912). There is more to this story.

Coat of Arms of Canada

© Micheline Walker
9 January 2012