An Unbelievable Story: Canada’s Musical Hero, Sir Ernest MacMillan

by Abigail Richardson-Schulte

On May 23rd 2017, the HPO will be performing a string orchestra concert as the first concert in our What Next Festival. The concert will feature works by Sir Ernest MacMillan, John Burge, Claude Vivier and Marjan Mozetich. This concert isn’t to be missed. For this post, I’d like to tell you the remarkable story of Sir Ernest MacMillan and his journey to becoming (in my opinion) the most important musical founder of the Canadian music scene. In 2014, I visited the Sir Ernest MacMillan archives at the National Library of Canada. I read a speech written by MacMillan entitled “Making Music in a Prison Camp”. It was typed up but full of his own pencil corrections. This speech and a few others, along with the book entitled “Sir Ernest MacMillan: The Importance of Being Canadian” by Ezra Schabas, provided the material for this post.

Canada was a very different place before WWI. Outside of Quebec, it was a stronghold of English traditions. Music was no exception. The few professional classical musicians in English Canada were mainly English church organists. The even fewer composers across the country wrote mainly functional music for the church choir or organ and were often organists themselves. It looked like another such person would be Ernest MacMillan. Born in Ontario, 1893, to a Scottish born Protestant minister, Ernest MacMillan became a musical child prodigy. He gave his first solo organ recital at 9 years old. As a teenager, he moved back and forth from Scotland to Toronto and received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Oxford at 15. On his return to Canada, he realized he could no longer pursue further musical studies (the programs were not worthy) and instead studied political science at the University of Toronto while also maintaining a position as church organist at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Hamilton! After three years of University, MacMillan took a trip to study organ in Paris for the summer before moving on to Bayreuth, Germany, for the famous Wagner festival. This trip took place in the summer of 1914.

On June 28th, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month later. Russia mobilized two days after that. On August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia followed by a quick invasion of Belgium and France. What was Ernest MacMillan doing? Listening to glorious Wagner concerts in Bayreuth, Germany. He waited a little too long to pack up and was soon unable to leave at all.

In September, the government issued a notice for all “enemy aliens” to report daily. Upon checking in, MacMillan’s home city of Toronto was likely misinterpreted as Taranto, Italy, which led the official to suggest he check in once a month. Once it was discovered he was Canadian, he was tried and not only fined, but sentenced to 9 weeks solitary confinement. The prison guards were sympathetic to MacMillan. Knowing he was an organ virtuoso, they did not make him do the expected manual labour and even allowed him to exercise if he gave his word he would not speak to other inmates. At the completion of his sentence, he was taken to Ruhleben, a camp holding mainly British (or commonwealth) prisoners.

Ruhleben was a former racetrack on the outskirts of Berlin with stables meant for a few dozen horses. Instead, over 4000 men were housed there from fishermen and workers to academics and artists. Men slept on straw mattresses, had humiliating toilet conditions and inadequate rations that became sparser as the war continued. Most of their food came in care packages from home, often with the prisoners eating better than the guards. They were neither ill-treated nor prevented from “improving their lot”. Money from the British government allowed them to improve their shelter, rent the race-track for sports, and build lean-to’s for clubs. After several months, the prisoners were allowed self-government, clubs, their own journals/newspapers and allowed to create their own entertainment.

“Four thousand men of British nationality are herded together and left for four years in the stables of a race-course near Berlin. Under the circumstances it is inevitable that they create diversions for themselves- for in the direction of idleness lie brooding, acute depression, and perhaps insanity. It is safe to say that music preserved the reason of many a man during his period of internment, for not only were Ruhleben concerts of great interest to the camp at large, but the really hard work done by musicians, professional and amateur, in rehearsal and private practice, must have been of inestimable benefit to themselves”. – MacMillan

Prisoners also presented lectures in languages, nautical subjects and arts and sciences.

MacMillan soon became part of a club called the “Corner House”, a group of artists and musicians who formed a library and a camp school. The former restaurant of the race-track became a camp theatre and concert hall with various productions mounted by the prisoners. These shows and concerts cost money for a seat but standing room was always free. MacMillan joined in for the musicals, often playing female roles more by persuasion than by choice, but he was good at it. He particularly enjoyed playing Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” with his deep contralto voice and natural dramatic disposition.

There was already an orchestra when MacMillan arrived. A good number of composers, conductors and performers had been visiting the Bayreuth Festival and were imprisoned at Ruhleben. MacMillan wrote to his fiancé Elsie about the experience of conducting: “Since coming here I have found that I have a natural talent for conducting which I should greatly like to develop; how, where, and when remains to be seen.” He would go on to become Music Director for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for decades.

In June 1915, he conducted his first serious concert of Bizet and Liszt. Shortly after, he and a number of other composers recreated Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” from memory – they just had a copy of the libretto. MacMillan took the lead on the project and conducted all 13 performances which were written up in British newspapers and even attended by the American Ambassador to Germany.

MacMillan wrote to his family during rehearsals, “It keeps me from the blues, and I think it will not be all bad. It was…heavy work scoring it (the score is at least two inches thick) but there is a lot of fun in it, too…There is a great pleasure to be gained, for me, conducting even an amateur orchestra. I haven’t touched an organ for two years and a half, but I fear I shall find its colours pale mournfully before the richness of the strings. Why didn’t I learn the fiddle when I was ten? And yet there is very little in my life I would care to unlive, and I wouldn’t be anyone else for the world! Not even if I were out of Ruhleben.”

Besides leading lighter musicals, MacMillan gave serious lectures on the works of Debussy, Viennese Classicists, the Beethoven symphonies, and even “Milestones in Canadian Constitutional Development”. He soon tired of the distractions and decided to work on his doctorate through connections of a fellow prisoner. The University of Toronto had graciously granted his BA in absentia due to his extenuating circumstances and high achievements during his time at U of T. This meant that he could pursue graduate work. Surprisingly, the biggest problem in this endeavor was the lack of privacy. The camp school helped by allotting him a cubby hole to work and allowed him to rent a piano for an hour a day. He wrote a fugue a day among other exercises. Even though he had done all the required study, the University of Oxford exempted him from writing the exams due to his extenuating circumstances. His only task left was to write a work for choir and orchestra which did indeed earn him a Doctorate of Music during imprisonment.

This sounds like a glorious and fulfilling existence but things were not all rosy for MacMillan. Conditions were absolutely dreadful and he feared of his growing distance from his fiancé. The two did manage to hold together and married upon his return. He was released on November 24th, 1918. What was the first thing he did when he got out? He took the opportunity of attending performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Brahms’ German Requiem by the Berlin Philharmonic, “I confess that tears filled my eyes when, in the fifth bar of the overture, the two horns sounded their notes with perfect clarity and security. I had almost forgotten that horns could sound like that! Sitting beside me was a girl eating a baked potato which her escort had brought with him as a special treat. Food was at a premium and the value of the mark was dropping like a stone down a well. Yet the Berliners had to have their music.”

After returning to Canada, MacMillan became involved in practically every different aspect of building a musical culture in Canada: conducting and programming serious orchestral works with the TSO, education from beginning to university level, ethnomusicology, infrastructure including the development of national organizations and government funding. He became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, changing the organization dramatically, introducing family, holiday and education concerts as well as bringing important current international music to Canada such as the works of Sibelius and Shostakovich. He supported Canadian composers through commissions and performances, as well as promoted young Canadian talent such as Glenn Gould and Lois Marshall.

He was Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music for 25 years as well as President of the Toronto (Royal) Conservatory of Music for 16 years where he implemented the examination system including history and theory for practical exams. He conducted the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 15 years and served as president of the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) for 22 years. He was also integral in lobbying the government for the creation of the Canada Council whose first project was the formation of the Canadian Music Centre of which he became the first president. Ernest MacMillan was knighted in 1935 by King George V for services to music in Canada. His most dramatic contributions to the development of the Canadian music scene were still to come, working tirelessly for the cause until his death in 1973.

On top of all of this remarkable and forward building vision, he was a fine composer. Join us on May 23rd to hear Sir Ernest MacMillan’s Two Sketches on French Canadian Airs to experience a piece of Canada’s musical history.