‘Never boring’: New book recounts life and legacy of composer Malcolm Forsyth

Celebrated classical composer and U of A music professor remembered by family, friends, colleagues and students.


Musician, professor and award-winning classical composer Malcolm Forsyth, who died in 2011, is remembered in a new book of personal essays on his remarkable life and career. (Photo: Ron Checora)

Malcolm Forsyth was on death's door when he attended the premiere of his choral composition, "A Ballad of Canada," at Ottawa's National Arts Centre in June 2011.

"He had been hospitalized with pancreatic cancer and knew he did not have long to live," writes University of Toronto music professor Robin Elliot in a new book on the popular Canadian composer's life and career, Reflections on Malcolm Forsyth.

"He was released from hospital on oxygen tanks, a flight to Ottawa was arranged, and he was in the National Arts Centre to receive a standing ovation after the first performance of the work."

Forsyth died just a month after that premiere at the age of 74, and almost a decade after retiring from the University of Alberta as a professor of theory, composition and conducting.

The "Ballad," now regarded as one of his finest works, helped secure his legacy in the pantheon of Canadian composers and reaffirmed that his music is "never boring," said Elliot. "At its best, it is on a par with the finest music of its day and age."

Just released by U of A Press, Reflections includes essays by leading scholars, composers, musicians, family, friends, students and colleagues.

"In essence … it models Forsyth's deeply held personal belief in accessibility of expression as well as the spread of his influence across general and academic audiences," writes co-editor Mary Ingraham, former director of the U of A's Sound Studies Institute (now dean of fine arts at the University of Lethbridge) in the book's introduction.

One notable contributor to Reflections is Forsyth's daughter Amanda, a celebrated musician in her own right and former principal cellist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Forsyth wrote one of his most powerful works for Amanda, the cello concerto "Electra Rising," which won a Juno Award for best classical composition in 1998.

Amanda Forsyth performs "Electra Rising," the Juno-winning cello concerto her father wrote for her.

"He said that the greatest compliment he ever got from a musician came from me," recalled Amanda. "While playing the last movement of his cello concerto, I told him I felt as if I was flying, that my feet had actually left the ground. It is true, and I will continue to fly every time I perform it."

After immigrating to Edmonton from South Africa in 1968, Forsyth played bass trombone with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for three years, then was principal trombonist for eight while also joining the Department of Music at the U of A.

Although he had a deep theoretical understanding of music and composition, his work had a popular touch, often filled with the rhythms of his homeland and motifs drawn from Canadian Indigenous traditions.

"I always have had a sense of responsibility to the audience," Forsyth once said. "I am myself a dedicated audience member, dedicated to the idea of concert music that does sweep people away.

"Everything I've done is with that experience in mind: changing the space the audience sits in for those brief moments."

His compositions have been performed and broadcast around the world. Four received Juno Awards for best classical composition, more than any other Canadian composer. He worked with singers Maureen Forrester and Judith Forst; the Canadian Brass; Helmut Brass; Bläserensemble Mainz; the Montreal, Edmonton and Cape Town symphony orchestras; and the Natal Philharmonic.

"At the height of his career in the 1980s, his music was receiving over 100 live public performances each year," said Elliot.

"Bursting with energy, brilliantly scored and orchestrated, full of lively rhythms and memorable lyrical melodies … his music can be thoughtful and introspective at times, but at its most characteristic the music evokes a mood of celebration and outgoing enthusiasm."

But on a personal level, Forsyth could at times be difficult, admits his wife Valerie in the book's prologue.

"He could be impossibly maddening and irritating. A paradoxical personality, he was a walking 'contradiction in terms.' Pompous at times, he could put people off, but Malcolm also had great insecurities and vulnerabilities. Hesitant to show his softer side, he carefully cultivated an aloof, sometimes harsh exterior."

At the same time Forsyth was a man of considerable humour and wit, she said.

"I miss everything about him, but most especially his laugh and how he made me laugh every day."

In his contribution to the book, former Canadian senator and Edmonton musician Tommy Banks describes Forsyth as a "terrific orchestrator" whose writing for brass was "extraordinarily good."

According to Elliot, Forsyth wrote some 135 original compositions, 57 of them recorded.

"To put it another way, he wrote about 28 hours of music in total, just over 13 hours of which have been recorded."

"He brought great pride to our city and our country with his music," added Banks. "His compositions marked, in my mind, the point at which audiences who, like me, didn't want to work too hard, began to look forward to new music that was immediately, upon first hearing, enjoyable."