Prodigy's Progress

ANGUS McSTAY October 1 1940

Prodigy's Progress

ANGUS McSTAY October 1 1940

Prodigy's Progress

The story of Sir Ernest MacMillan is an ascending musical scale


SIR ERNEST MACMILLAN is the only symphonic conductor in the world who has been fingerprinted by the police, photographed full-face and profile, and then hurled into prison to serve four years amid uncomfortable surroundings ! He is also theonly symphonic conductor in the world whose face was once stepped on by a horse !

Supplementing these startling if dubious distinctions, he is the first and only Canadian to be knighted for services to music; the first and only citizen of this fair Dominion to be granted a Doctorate of Music by Oxford University; the first and only Canadian to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal College of Music, an august body of restricted membership.

In addition, he is the permanent conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; dean of the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto; and permanent conductor of the mighty 200-voice Toronto Conservatory Choir. In his spare time he is a composer, organist, adjudicator.

In the last few years, in addition to directing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he has been guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the National Symphony of Washington, the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the famed Hollywood Bowl, Les Concerts Symphoniques at Montreal, the Vancouver Symphony, and the Detroit Symphony on the Ford Sunday Evening Hour. For four successive years he has conducted choral and orchestral programs in London and Edinburgh for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

He is the first Canadian-born conductor to be taken seriously abroad, and is respectfully regarded by rival wielders of the baton on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the darling of the dowagers and the adored mentor of young Canadians from coast to coast who send him something like fifty fan letters a week.

Sir Ernest is an outstanding example of that rare phenomenon, a prodigy who was not later lost in the shufile of obscurity. A number of good burghers of Toronto can still recall that evening some thirty-seven years ago when they, albeit slightly cynical, attended the professional debut of yet another infant prodigy. The scene was Massey Hall, that staid citadel of taste, which then seated four thousand persons on a good night. At the console of the organ was a plump, unsmiling child of ten, with soulful eyes and an unruly shock of hair. He wore a white sailor suit.

In vaudeville vernacular, the stripling had the carriage trade in the aisles at the conclusion of his recital; Master MacMillan was a hit ! The jam-packed audience applauded with ardent abandon, several lorgnettes were lost in the confusion, and the dazed newspaper critics rushed to their offices to write about this rising young artist whose capabilities warranted great expectations for the future.

Now that sort of thing is always happening during concert seasons, and moppets from five to twelve skyrocket into the musical firmament, fizzle out, and are never heard of again—but not young MacMillan, who was later to be honored by his King!

The legend has it that, in these formative years, the piano-playing of Master MacMillan and his father could not be told apart by the listener in an adjoining room. Sir Ernest brands this as a vile canard, and vehemently insists that such acceptance of the story would cast serious aspersions on the pianistic abilities of his parent.

It is a fact, how'ever, that Sir Ernest was playing the piano at three, that he was reading music before he learned to decipher the tales in his nursery books, that he could translate staff notations into music long before he learned the alphabet. He doesn’t remember when he learned to read music !

Inexhaustible Energy

T-JIS CAREER falls into two classifications—his association with the creation and interpretation of music; his administrative and academic duties which range from principalship of the Conservatory to boarding a plane to adjudicate some music festival in the Maritimes, the Prairie Provinces, or on the West Coast. He is the first and only Canadian to adjudicate at the Royal National Eisteddfod in Wales.

His energy is inexhaustib. \ but he will not wralk to the letterbox which is a block and a half from his home; grimly he drives his car that distance if there is no one to do the errand. He has breakfast in bed five mornings a week; works about sixteen hours a day. He damns the man who

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invented the clock, but is always punctual for all apixnntments arranged by his secretary and never keeps a scheduled caller waiting.

His musical career, to date, has been singularly free of bumps and bruises. His father is the Rev. Dr. Alexander MacMillan, now retired but still a staunch pillar of the United Church, an authority on hymnology, and permanent secretary of the committee responsible for the present hymnbook used in that denomination’s sacred services. His mother, Wilhelmina Ross, was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, of old I Iighland stock whose forebears came to Canada in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. She. too, played the piano.

For a youngster who uras to come to public attention first as an organist, Ernest Campbell MacMillan was therefore fortunate in his background. I lis father was incumbent of St. Enoch’s Church, Toronto, when Master MacMillan started probing the intricacies of the organ at a time when he was tlt;x) young to be allowed to tamper with an open electric switch and had to ask someone to perform this task for him.

It was about this time that the horse stepped on his face, and a gory young Master MacMillan was carried kicking and screaming into the house.

By the time he was seven, he had mastered the ludáis and would have perhaps achieved this earlier had his legs been longer. The youngster was encountering few difficulties, but began to take lessons from Arthur Blakeley, organist and choirmaster of Sherbourne Street Methodist Church. Blakeley, who died a year ago in California, was in the audience when his one-time pupil conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Hollywood Bowl before some seven thousand enthusiastic music-lovers.

When young MacMillan was nine, he got his first fee for playing, and hurried home with a five-dollar bill. He had never had so much money in his life, but his dreams of an orgy of spending were shattered when he was ordered to open a bank account.

At this time, the Sherbourne Boys’ Trio, with MacMillan at the organ, began to attract considerable attention, and went on an occasional barnstorming tour of centres adjacent to Toronto. TIis companions were Jack Gooch, killed in the last war; Clarence Glass, who still is singing tenor in church choirs; and a young cut-up named Beverley Baxter, who sang alto.

Edinburgh and Oxford

LEAVING Rosedale School, young J MacMillan had finished his first year at Jarvis Street Collegiate at eleven when his father got an Edinburgh call. The family remained in Scotland’s capital for three years. There Sir Ernest studied under famed Frederick Niecks, professor of music at the University of Edinburgh and world-renowned authority on Chopin; and Alfred Hollins, the brilliant but blind organist of Free St. George’s Church, for whom young Ernest often substituted at the console.

At thirteen, he sat for the exacting theoretical and practical examinations of the Royal College of Organists. Coming first in counterpoint, and taking honors in the history of music, he was the only juvenile among the 219 candidates—-of whom only eighteen per cent passed. For relaxation, he was now playing the extremely difficult G Minor Fugue of Bach.

The following year, after matriculating at Oxford and passing the first examination for the degree of Bachelor of Music,

the fourteen-year-old, now in his first long trousers, returned to Toronto and became choirmaster and organist of Knox Church. The elders were somewhat disconcerted at the start by the youthfulness of their new colleague, but there was no discounting the fact that he was an Associate of the Royal College of Music, could certainly play an organ and handle a church choir. The one at Knox Church numbered some forty voices. This first regular appointment of Sir Ernest’s lasted two years. When he left to resume his musical studies in Edinburgh, he was presented with a gold watch which he still carries, and which regulates all his appointments.

He was still maintaining the prodigy’s pace. At seventeen, he graduated as Bachelor of Music at Oxford and, in the same year, became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, heading the list of the nineteen successful candidates in a field of 113. Followed another transatlantic shuttle to enter the University of Toronto for his Bachelor of Arts degree.

There, with that amazing energy which has always been part of his make-up, he established the Musical Association of the University of Toronto, its purpose to promote an appreciation of musical art. He took time out to compile the University hymnbook which is still used in services at Convocation Hall. In his sophomore year he was elected president of the Class of ’15.

MacMillan was studying in Paris in the summer of 1914 when he decided he owed himself a holiday and went to Bayreuth to attend the Wagner Festival. War thunderclapped across a continent and he found himself unable to leave Germany. For a couple of weeks he wandered about Nuremberg, bewildered at the swift turn of events and knowing very little of the German language. The British consulate had, of course, been closed upon the declaration of war.

Sir Ernest does not know to this day why he was not picked up, but there are two possible explanations. When questioned as to where he was from, it was his wont to answer “Toronto.” There is the possibility that this was taken to be Taranto, a seaport in the heel of Italy, which country at that time was neutral. There is the other explanation that he wras under German surveillance as a suspected spy who might unwittingly lead the secret police to more important quarry.

On the advice of the American consul, MacMillan voluntarily reported himself to the German authorities, was soundly berated for his procrastination, crossexamined, photographed for the rogues’ gallery, fingerprinted, and taken for a ride in the German equivalent of the Black Maria to the Nuremberg jail where he spent nine weeks in solitary. He was then shuffled off under guard to Ruhleben Prison Camp near Berlin, where he remained until November. 1918.

The thing that annoyed MacMillan most was the interruption of his musical studies. In order to relieve the monotony of prison camp life, he began to compose an eight-part choral work, with full orchestral accompaniment, based on Swinburne’s ode—“England.” When it was completed after some months, he decided to send it to the Oxford authorities. There was some delay, as the perturbed camp censors scanned the bulky manuscript in their suspicious search for code messages. It was finally passed and allowed to be dispatched to England.

Doctor of Music

OXFORD found the work of such a high order that the degree of Doctor of Music was excitedly conferred on the composer, this making him the first person who ever got a degree from Oxford by

mail ! It was also the first time Oxford had ever admitted anyone to this degree at so i early an age. He found himself the youngj est Doctor of Music in the world !

The great cantata, which Sir Ernest now modestly admits shows signs of immaturity, became an instant favorite with conductors on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon his return to Canada, he was to hear his composition performed by the united forces of the Mendelssohn Choir of two hundred mixed voices and the famed Philadelphia Orchestra of ninety men.

MacMillan quietly slipped into a seat in the gallery to hear the performance. The great tonal picture, turgidly scored and stirringly dramatic in its majestic climaxes, created a furore of enthusiasm. Once again, as had happened when he made his debut at ten, MacMillan received a great MaSsey Hall ovation. He had to acknowledge the persistent applause; he humbly took one bow. The composition, most pretentious ever written by a Canadian, holds an unassailable position in the Dominion's musical history.

That scene in Massey Hall, however, was yet to be enacted. Two weeks after the Armistice, MacMillan and his fellow prisoners were released from Ruhlcben. More than four years had gone by since he had left Paris. He returned to Toronto more mature at twenty-five than most men. Most important now was the securing of a job at a time when jobs were few. For bread-and-butter purposes, he made arrangements for a combination lecture and recital tour in which audiences got two-for-one for their money. MacMillan would play the organ for part of the evening, and then it would be the turn of those in the audience who were not particularly interested in music but had come to hear the lecture—“My Four Years in a German Prison Camp.” MacMillan still winces at the recollection, hut he did see a lot of Canada for the first time, the tour taking him out to Vancouver.

He came back to Toronto, and things began to happen fast. He became organist at the newly completed Eaton Memorial Church; he secured a position on the staff of the Canadian Academy of Music, later amalgamated with the Toronto Conservatory of Music under the principalship of Dr. A. S. Vogt. When Dr. Vogt died in 1926, MacMillan was appointed his successor. A year later, MacMillan was made Dean of the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto. In 1931, he became conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. As chief executive and policymaker, he applied hard work, concentration, efficiency and imaginative enterprise to his several tasks; he still does.

The Toronto Conservatory in recent years has developed along musical lines in a striking manner, particularly in the increase of such group activities as the senior and junior orchestras and the many chamber music ensembles. With more than four thousand students, the Conservatory has functioned progressively and is now the largest and most influential school of music in Canada. His founding of the Conservatory Choir of two hundred voices was another stroke of MacMillan genius. Their presentations of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” have now become an annual event which continues to see some hundreds of disappointed musiclovers unable to gain admittance to a packed Convocation Hall.

It is as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, however, that Sir Ernestis perhaps more spectacularly known. Unlike such present-day conductors as Toscanini, Barbirolli, Ormandy, et ah, he was not handed an established group of musicians on a par with those of the great American orchestras; he had to create one! He went about this task with all the assiduity of a Conny Smythe building up a hockey team !

It is perhaps not generally known or remembered now that the nucleus of the Toronto Symphony was a group of theatre musicians who voluntarily got together in

their spare time to perform the classic compositions as some measure of relief from the monotony of playing the musical accompaniments to vaudeville acts and the then silent motion pictures.

They found a courageous champion in MacMillan. With his inordinate capacity for hard work, he began to shape and mold the orchestra. He added twenty men during his first season as conductor. In addition to performing the well-known masterpieces, he pioneered new and unfamiliar music. An orchestra is not made in a day, even if it has an assembly of obedient musicians but, each season, the Toronto Symphony was playing better than before; today the pundits will match the string section with any on the continent. Great guest-conductors and guest-artists have been warm in their praise; and the orchestra now enjoys an enviable international reputation.

Recent indications of this lie in the fact that, for two seasons, Sir Ernest has had to turn down invitations to present the Toronto Symphony in recital at Carnegie Hall, New York. Similarly, Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor-in-chief of the famed London Philharmonic, will take the podium for one of the concerts in the 1940-41 series.

In 1935, due to his accomplishments in the world of music. Dr. MacMillan was created Knight Bachelor.

Phenomenal Memory

SIR ERNEST has a phenomenal memory for orchestral detail that is photographic in its retentiveness and is now a legend in musical circles. Most of his evenings during the season are spent in studying and marking symphonic and choral scores. His own arrangements are prepared with passionate insistence for perfection of detail. He knows practically the whole symphonic repertoire by heart, even to the misprints of accents and forte signs that often occur in the various editions of standard works. On the night of a concert, he may occasionally have a score in front of him, but he rarely looks at it as he conducts. If a cantata is being performed, he knows the -words of all the vocal parts, a phenomenal feat, for instance, in the three hours performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” or Bax’s “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

He edits his own scores and often the orchestral parts as well, marking every technical direction for every instrument and preferring to spend long hours on this himself rather than hand the instructions verbally to a librarian or copyist. His desk is a welter of scores, parts, scissors, paste, erasers and ink pots. To the right stands a wastebasket whose proportions are more readily recognized in those huge receptacles which flank the desks in the city-room of a metropolitan daily.

Prior to rehearsals, for which he is never late, he changes in his Massey Hall dressing room from street clothes to an old pair of trousers and a sweatshirt and, for the time being, looks more like a husky football coach than an eminent conductor. On stage, he gives the opening instructions, the baton comes down with guillotinelike precision, and no player under his direction is free from continuous scrutiny. He is acutely conscious of the work of the individual instrumentalist, an attribute with which each member of the personnel has now become familiar through experience.

Recriminations are rare and the rehearsals are, on the whole, as mannerly as the evening’s performance when the conductor mounts the dais in impeccable white tie and tails. It is no doubt this quality of musicianly breeding, combined with magic beat and rhythm, that prompted the Chicago American to report that Sir Ernest “is a showman without ostentation but possessed of a temperament buoyant and fiery;” that had the critic of the Washington Post expressing the opinion that the Canadian conductor “is a musician whose assurance is finely tempered with modesty, whose ability is

not vainglorious, and whose taste prefers the noble and beautiful in music.”

Now there is a small school of thought which contemptuously insists that it is not the conductor who gives the performance, but the perspiring virtuosi of the orchestra; that these knights of music in evening clothes, who stand on the podium and wield the baton, simply convey the beat in the form of humanized metronomes. Your great conductor, however, and there are few of these, takes an intricate orchestral score, places the orchestrated parts before eighty or a hundred men of varied musicianship, experience and temperament; then he proceeds to create his intellectual interpretation, what he thinks and feels must be made musically concrete. By the control of his men, your top-ranking conductor achieves the propulsive effect. To use a modern dance-band idiom, leader and men are “in the groove;” and the audience stands up and cheers.

Favorite Composer—Bach

SIR ERNEST is also recognized as a master program-builder and his concerts arc a skilful blending of established masterpieces and contemporary compositions. He has given new vitality and imaginative beauty to well-known works, and he has pioneered unfamiliar music that was later to be popular. He was playing Sibelius long before the Finnish composer attained his current vogue. His choice of favorite composer varies with his mood, but if, by some apocryphal circumstance, he was allowed to hear the works of one composer only, he would choose Bach. His chief aim in life is music, and he works with intense concentration twelve to sixteen hours a day, usually knocking off at two or three in the morning.

He has no time for sports or physical exercise. He used to do a bit of horseback riding, but has given that up now that his’ work absorbs most of his waking hours. He likes fishing for its possibilities of meditation, is a powerful swimmer who prefers high seas and, in the summer, is continually scaring the daylights out of his fishing companions by slipping over the side of the boat and swimming into the distance.

His favorite reading is history and biography; in the field of fiction, he prefers the better-class detective story, scorns the thriller for the more deductive form of exposition. Fie does not wear glasses. His hobbies are bookbinding and the collecting of humorous phonograph records.

He is tired after a concert and likes to relax, preferring to go on to a small party. He eats lightly before a performance and wants a hefty meal when the last encore has ended. Outwardly, he has become resigned to big receptions where one dines two hours later on microscopic sandwiches. After such affairs, he hurries home as soon as is politely possible and raids the icebox.

Fie prefers, however, to have in a small group of intimates. Outstanding host at a small party, he is a marvellous raconteur, has an inexhaustible fund of stories, but excels at Scottish-dialect ones. He has a genius for mimicking voices and mannerisms, but is devoid of malice. He can imitate every instrument in a symphonic orchestra. He can play all the music and sing all the roles of most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. He sings bass, alto and a falsetto soprano—all badly—but, with a unique tenor voice, he can uncannily imitate a John McCormick record.

Fie rarely goes to the movies but likes a good play. Shakespeare is his favorite dramatist, but he likes a good musical show, laughs uproariously at the comedians, and offers discriminating comment on the physical charms with which nature has endowed the chorus girls. He is an excellent and informative companion on any art gallery excursion.

HE IS married to Laura Elsie Keith whom he met over thirty years ago when both were in their early teens. When

he left for Europe at eighteen, the two were engaged. During his four years internment in Germany, he was allowed to write one letter every fortnight. He alternated these with his mother and his fiancée. FI is wife still has all his letters.

There are two sons; Keith, nineteen, who is studying at the University of Toronto and who plays the piano very well; Ross, sixteen, who is attending Upper Canada College and plays the trumpet in the school’s swing band.

Lady MacMillan studied the violin before her marriage, but for years has not played in public, and smilingly refuses to surrender to the blandishments of family or friends. She bears her share of the duties of hospitality on her slim shoulders and i^ a charming and vibrant hostess.

The present MacMillan home was built nine years ago and was planned by Sir Ernest himself. In order to provide a high ceiling for his study, the house was built on a ravine. The study is detached, has a double wall between it and the spacious house proper, and is acoustically treated. When the maestro is at work, the study is closed off from the step-down living room by a wide sliding door of thick dimensions. One side of the study is lined with books and Sir Ernest’s personal files of scores. In one corner is a grand piano, the room centred by a workmanlike desk of ample proportions which he bought in St. Malo during a summer spent in Brittany. It is made from old church-stall panels that are intricately carved.

Around the study walls are framed autographed portraits of Kirsten Flagstad, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Dr. Vogt, Percy Grainger, and others. There is a clever pen-and-ink caricature of Sir Ernest, done by Charles Comfort, on which all the members of the Arts and Letters Club have signed their names. Near by is Arthur Lismer’s conception of Sir Ernest as Cupid, complete with pipe.

In this livable room, the owner has done some exquisite orchestral arrangements and the transcriptions of many old works; he has edited and compiled certain material, particularly in the field of folklore, that might otherwise have perished with the years.

Sir Ernest, for instance, is enormously popular with the French-Canadians because of the charm and facility he has brought to his sketches for string quartet based on early Canadian chansons. Another notable contribution is his compilation of songs sung by the Indians of the Northwest Coast and Alaska. With Marius Barbeau of the National Museum of Canada at Ottawa, he has collected in permanent form some three hundred Indian love songs, lullabies, dirges and melodic narratives.

Armed with a portable recording machine, the two spent some weeks at the mouth of the Naas River where the Northwest Indians converge at the height of the salmon run. They found these early Canadians amiably willing to sing their folk songs, complete with skin-drum accompaniment, into the machine. Later, in the play-back, MacMillan transcribed the melodies and the rhythms.

As the musical picture emerged, the two whites found themselves strangely excited. Among some of the songs they were securing were those dealing with the migrations of tribes who, centuries before, had crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and worked their way down the Pacific Coast. Unconventional in sound and rhythm, many of these melodies would doubtless make a fortune for a Tin Pan Alley song-writer.

Now Sir Ernest wants to get the songs of the Eskimos down in similar form. Every time he lands at the Edmonton airport and sees the big freighter planes taking off for their Arctic-rim destinations, he wishes he were aboard. He’ll get up there with a recording machine some day, he vows—if he ever can find the time.