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Sir Ernest MacMillan: Biography

Sir Ernest MacMillan
1893 - 1973
Region: Ontario

Sir Ernest MacMillan

During a remarkable life, Sir Ernest MacMillan acted as a catalyst to musical creativity in this country, as conductor of the Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, president of Jeunesses musicales of Canada, president of the Canadian Music Council, and for 22 years president of the music licensing agency CAPAC. He was also a charter member of the Canada Council for the Arts and served two terms on its board. The Canadian Music Centre became an important focus for MacMillan in his later years, and he was its co-founder and first president. When he was knighted in 1935 by George V, he became the first person in the Commonwealth outside Great Britain to be so honoured for services to music.

Born August 18, 1893 in Mimico, Ontario, Ernest Campbell MacMillan grew up in a musical family (his father was editor of the Presbyterian Book of Praise). The young Ernest soon displayed astonishing virtuosity as an organist, achieving the post of organist and choirmaster at Knox Church, Toronto, at age 14. He went on to further musical instruction in Edinburgh and Paris, and was forced to remain in Europe throughout the duration of the First World War. On his return to Canada, he resumed his performing activities, and in the 1920s embarked on a new career direction as a senior music education administrator.

In 1931 he succeeded Luigi von kunits as conductor of the Toronto Symphony, a position he was to keep for twenty-five years. Sir Ernest’s fame as a conductor grew and he was invited to guest conduct such American symphonies as Philadelphia, NBC, Chicago and Washington, as well as leading orchestras in Canada, Australia, England and Brazil. In 1942 he assumed the directorship of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. During the 1950s and ‘60s, MacMillan remained active on behalf of music in Canada as a principal spokesman for the establishment of important cultural organizations and agencies. He died in 1973.

MacMillan’s multi-faceted career and astounding catalogue of activities in the areas of performing, conducting, ethnomusicology, writing, teaching, advocacy and music administration have meant that his more modest achievements as a composer have been largely neglected.

The late Godfrey Ridout, one of MacMillan’s many successful composition students, once mentioned his teacher’s contribution in this area: “The first major impact that Sir Ernest made on Canada was as a composer. This side of his activities had been almost crowded out by the others. It seems now that, regardless of his skill and talent for composition, he apparently lacked the real drive and urge to continue in this direction.”

The composer’s son, Keith MacMillan, explained on one occasion that his father “found it difficult to compose with so much of other people’s music in his head. Godfrey Ridout, however put it down to a matter of priorities – he liked conducting more.” Certainly, the majority of Sir Ernest’s compositions date from the early part of the 20th century, and as he became more and more involved in other pursuits, time for composing must have been at a premium.

Clifford Ford, executive director of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society, is proud of the many works by Sir Ernest MacMillan that have been published in their collection to date, including Overture for orchestra, several hymn tunes and a number of songs. The most recent volume in this ongoing series devoted to Canadian music of the pre-World War Two era features two pieces by MacMillan – String Quartet in c minor and Two Sketches Based on French Canadian Airs.

“With MacMillan you can sense the conductor in him, an ability to take control and be aggressive – it’s ‘gutsy’ music,” says Ford. “For someone who didn’t compose that much, he had a tremendous gift for developing the material at hand, and for writing in a variety of genres. Generally, the calibre of the music is higher than that of most composers active at that time in Canada.

“There is evident a strong influence from the English school – Vaughan Williams and Delius – more so than either German or French. In this respect, MacMillan’s works differ from the early music of Healey Willan, which is more chromatic and Wagnerian. I sense a ‘Celtic’ quality. This is perhaps not surprising, since MacMillan incorporated the folk music of Canada into his work rather in the manner of theEnglish composers. Unfortunately, MacMillan’s influence as a composer has been small, perhaps because his music has not been well displayed.”

Likewise, composer John Beckwith has gained an increased respect for Sir Ernest MacMillan’s compositional output through recent examination of his music. “MacMillan wasn’t primarily a composer but he possessed a strong gift,” says Beckwith. “By their striking themes, harmonic boldness, and fluency of part writing, (MacMillan’s scores) outshine most other productions by Canadian composers of their era.”

- David Parsons 1993

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