Book Review: An Immigrant’s Tale

Canada is not the kind of country that wakes up in the morning to the sound of trumpets and drums. No MP ever gave a speech entitled “Canadian Exceptionalism”, and if somebody tried, a voice in the back of the room would say: “In fairness, Belgium makes pretty good chocolates.”

Yet we enjoy an extraordinariness most dramatically illustrated in the immigrant experience, and none more unusual than the story documented in Reflections On Malcolm Forsyth. The composer in his dying days devoted his last breaths to a national tribute.

“His last major work was A Ballad For Canada written for the National Arts Centre Orchestra,” recalls Robin Elliot, Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College: “By the time of the premiere, Forsyth had been hospitalized with pancreatic cancer and knew he did not have long to live. 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 on June 9, 2011. He then returned to Edmonton and died less than a month later.”

Reflections On Malcolm Forsyth has obvious interest for musicologists, but also tells an uncommon and compelling tale of an immigrant who fell under Canada’s spell. Forsyth in his earlier works adapted in his compositions the Zulu rhythms of his native South Africa. In the end his Ballad For Canada embraced an uber nationalism with musical accounts of northern lights and shipwrecks, leaping salmon and crashing Atlantic waves. He was “generating a sense of belonging”, writes Mary Ingraham, Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Lethbridge.

Forsyth emigrated from apartheid South Africa in 1968. He was no civil rights activist. Forsyth’s father was deputy mayor of Pietermaritzburg; he skipped out six months after the country imposed mandatory military service.

Nor was Forsyth a lovable figure. He was brusque, crusty and argumentative, and married three times. “He could put people off,” writes his widow Valerie: “He loved a good debate but, if taken too far, he would eventually get agitated.”

A former student, Professor Allan Gordon Bell of the University of Calgary, recounts an initial meeting. “In the fall of 1974 at my first composition lesson with Malcolm Forsyth, he declared, ‘I can tell you nothing about composition. Understood? Good, now let’s get started.’”

For all that, Forsyth spent forty-two years on the Prairies writing, playing, teaching. “He brought great pride to our city,” wrote Edmonton bandleader Tommy Banks. He won Juno Awards and the Order of Canada, was 1989 Composer Of The Year and wrote a brass fanfare for national telecast at the Calgary Winter Olympics.

Facing death, he thought of Canada. “In his selection, manipulation and musical settings of the poems he chose, we find evidence of a profoundly poetic musical artist reveling in and reminiscing on the place he called home,” write Prof. Ingraham. “‘Canada is the land,’ he declared; ‘It’s a vast, vast space….’”

By Holly Doan

Reflections on Malcolm Forsyth, edited by Mary Ingraham and Robert Rival; University of Alberta Press; 288 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-5030; $34.99

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