MALCOLM FORSYTH, honoured as Canadian Composer of the Year in 1989, has earned international recognition as one of Canada’s leading composers.
Born in 1936 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Forsyth majored in trombone, conducting and composition at the University of Cape Town and played trombone for eight years with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. His career as a composer was launched in 1962, when the orchestra played his first orchestral composition, the overture Erewhon.
In 1968, Forsyth emigrated to Canada and settled in Edmonton, where he joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, playing first bass trombone and then, for the next eight years, playing as principal. He also joined the faculty at the University of Alberta, teaching theory, composition and conducting. Forsyth retired from the faculty in 2002, after serving as the University’s composer-in-residence.
Orchestral music and works for brass head the list of Forsyth's music, which also includes works for strings, woodwinds, chorus, voice, and piano. There are three symphonies in which the most serious expression appears, at times passionate and sweeping, using the resources of a large orchestra to its utmost, and at others restrained, lush and smiling. His Piano Concerto shows the darker side at its strongest, with influences from Africa in evidence. Other concerti include one for solo trumpet (1987), two for brass quintet, and one for string quartet, The Salpinx. In all of these, the free integration of tonality with atonality is present, while the effective use of the orchestra is an ever-present trait. The style is unfailingly and unashamedly expressive.
Sketches from Natal, commissioned and broadcast by the CBC in 1970, was Forsyth’s first major work composed entirely in Canada. This vibrant work for chamber orchestra is the first of many compositions that result from the composer’s awakening in Canada as an African composer and his powerful recollections of the music of the Zulus heard as a child.
Forsyth’s 1984 orchestral suite, Atayoskewin, a powerful portrayal of Canada’s North, won the first JUNO Award for Best Classical Composition.
The past decade has brought such acclaimed works as Electra Rising: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, written for his daughter Amanda, and Evangeline, based on the poem by Longfellow. Forsyth has gone on to win two more JUNO Awards for Best Classical Composition, in 1995 for Sketches from Natal and in 1998 for Electra Rising.
Of his own music, Forsyth says, "I always have had a deep 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. 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."
Malcolm Forsyth passed away July 5, 2011
CAPAC, Canadian League of Composers
Link to University of Calgary Special Collections