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Book appreciation: Helmut Kallmann as the invaluable backroom boy of Canadian music

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Helmut Kallmann, seated bottom left, at the 1955 annual general meeting of the then four-year-old Canadian League of Composers. John Beckwith stands at the far right of the second row.
Helmut Kallmann, seated bottom left, at the 1955 annual general meeting of the then four-year-old Canadian League of Composers. John Beckwith stands at the far right of the second row.

Toronto composer John Beckwith and University of Toronto music professor Robin Elliott have edited a book collecting key essays, speeches and reminiscences of an invaluable backroom figure in Canadian music: the late archivist and historian Helmut Kallmann.

mappingMapping Canada’s Music: Selected Writings of Helmut Kallmann published this spring by Wilfrid Laurier University Press and sporting a plain hardcover binding that screams for-academics-only, is much more and much less than a purely academic work.

The book centres around Kallmann’s lifelong efforts to produce a solid chronicle of Canadian art music history — from creating an inventory of Canadian composers for the CBC after World War II to his invaluable contributions to the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada in the 1990s.

As such, Elliott and Beckwith have collected an insightful guidebook, invaluable to anyone with an interest in this country’s art music.

There is a deeply human side to this book as well, one that transcends Kallmann’s specific personal and professional preoccupations and places this quiet, old soul at the centre of the greatest horrors of the 20th century.

Kallmann was born into a secular Jewish family in Berlin in 1922. His parents and sister were killed in Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s. He survived because he had been whisked away in the Kindertransport a couple of months before war broke out in 1939.

The young man ended up in Canada with other refugees, shuffled from one internment camp to another before he was finally able to settle in Toronto and eventually graduate with a teaching degree in music from the University of Toronto in 1949.

There is a great essay by Kallmann, from 1995, where he describes musicmaking in the camps, where he met the future star Canadian collaborative pianist John Newmark and Toronto impresario and symphony manager Walter Homburger. There is a short meditation from 2001 on what constitutes a person’s identity, followed by the most deeply moving chapter, the final one, where Kallmann calmly and affectionately describes life with his extended family and friends in Berlin.

That final chapter ends with short, facts-only snippets — diary entries and fragments of letters — following his family’s final footsteps into oblivion and the subsequent disposal and dispersal of the personal possessions that had survived forced sale, displacement and bombing.

Kallmann’s final sentence reads: “Why? Probably there is no answer to this question. And yet I cannot avoid ending with it. Why?”

His question mark joins those of countless others, voices that continue to remind any reader how if these horrors could happen once, they could happen again.

But Kallmann’s enduring legacy is in helping create the infrastructure we all need to know who Canadian composers are, what they have written, who performed these works, and how all of this fits into a larger performing-arts context.

Beckwith and Elliott have sifted through Kallmann’s essays and papers well and wisely to provide a multi-faceted appreciation of someone almost never seen in a spotlight and easily forgotten.

The book is a beautiful reminder that we need the obsessive nerd as much as the sequined entertainer.

You can find out all the details about the book here.


Because this book is really aimed at the Canadian musician and music scholar, it’s interesting to look at some of the other questions Kallmann raises over the course of his professional life and use them as reality checks for how we’re doing 18 months after his death.

In 1983 — 30 years ago — Kallmann writes (on p. 98):

“… the composers of the 1980s are much better off than were their elders in the 40s and 50s. However it must be recognized that composers today face a different and not altogether advantageous reality, a reality that should be faced by anyone concerned with the encouragement of young composers. I should like to point out three aspects of this reality that appear to me to work against the ideals of the League’s [the Canadian League of Composers, founded in 1951] founders: overproduction, the weight of the historical heritage, and the problem of memory retention of complex music.”

Essentially, Kallmann is arguing that there are now (then) too many composers writing too many pieces — and there are even more in 2013.

He also makes an interesting point regarding audiences’ antipathy towards so much new music: that it is so complex that it’s hard to remember it once the music stops.

This is, obviously, the most contentious point Kallmann makes here, and he himself admits that the argument deserves an essay of its own, On page 100, he writes:

“I believe that most composers have always withed that their music not only be beheld by their audiences in performance but to some extent be absorbed and retained so that the impact would haunt the listener and at least part of the music could be ‘recollected in tranquillity.’ For this reason there exists a certain relationship between the complexity of a composition and its method of dissemination and likely frequency of performance. Folksongs and chorale tunes were written for oral transmission and rarely were long and complex. Classical chamber and piano music was written for people who could read music, absorb it through practice, and repeat it at will. Rossini or Verdi operas contained a certain number of hit-tunes so that memorization would last until the next performance a year hence, probably reinforced by the performance of medleys and fantasias. Today endless repetition through recording is possible and, though I do not think that the complexity of composition techniques and electronic sound patterns has arisen because of that possibility, nevertheless the composer does not have to consider memory retention…. This is not an argument against writing complex music or against ‘modern’ music, because the problem does not apply to much of it and because there are passages in The Art of the Fugue or Beethoven’s late quartets that I find similarly difficult to recall mentally. Nor is it a case of lacking familiarity. It is merely an argument that may explain why audiences fail to establish an intimate relationship with a large body of music of our time, music that does not settle in the inner ear.”

Was Kallmann right?

John Terauds




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