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Sir Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973)

Portrait of a Canadian Musician

Maureen Nevins


The Early Years

"He came to us on the eighteenth day of August, 1893, in the midst of a tempest of rain, with thunder and lightning." - Alexander MacMillan

Born in Mimico, Ontario, Ernest Alexander Campbell Macmillan, son of the Reverend Alexander MacMillan and Wilhelmina Ross, showed exceptional musical ability at an early age. He began his studies on the organ at the age of eight and, by the young age of thirteen, became an Associate of the prestigious Royal College of Organists in London. In 1911, MacMillan became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford University.


"Here beginneth a new chapter in the history of a captive Colonial ... I fully expect to be a truly interesting personage ... you may imagine how the ingenuity of several thousand men succeeds when they have practically all their time to themselves! One soon falls into one's place, and I feel quite at home(!)" - Ernest MacMillan

During the summer of 1914, while MacMillan was attending the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, World War I was declared. In January 1915 he was arrested , tried and imprisoned for having violated Article 4, no. 2 of the Defence of the Realm Act, an order which required every foreigner to register with the police. After nine weeks in solitary confinement MacMillan was transferred to Ruhleben, a racetrack near Berlin which had been converted to a British civilian prisoner-of-war camp. He was interned for the remaining war years.


"... 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." - Ernest MacMillan

MacMillan made his initial mark as a professional conductor with annual performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. These spanned a period of 30 years (1925-53) and became an important event in Toronto's musical life. He conducted both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1931-56) and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (1942-57). By the mid-1930s, MacMillan gained fame as a guest conductor in the United States. On several occasions he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in Canada was a frequent guest with Les Concerts symphoniques de Montréal (now l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal) and the Vancouver Symphony Society (now the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra). He toured Australia for three months in 1945 conducting 30 concerts in five continental state capitals. He was invited to Brazil in 1946 to guest conduct the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira.


"Musical composition, though less widely recognized, is in the long run more important; through our creative output we shall be ultimately judged as a musical nation." - Ernest MacMillan

Although composition was not MacMillan's main preoccupation, he regarded it as a normal activity of the complete musician. Earlier works show his contrapunctal skill and his mastery of post-romantic harmonies and colours. As MacMillan's interest in folklore developed, it became the inspiration for further compositions. He and other composers of his generation were the first to introduce an indigenous element into Canadian musical literature. MacMillan composed less after his appointment to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, "finding it a difficult task while his head was constantly filled with the music of others."


"... Canadians are still slow to recognize excellence in their young musicians until other countries put upon them the stamp of approval. However, we are gradually learning to trust our own judgement and to accord due recognition to a number of fine artists born in this country." - Ernest MacMillan

MacMillan was both an organist and a pianist. Although his most active period as a recital organist predated his appointment to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he continued to perform regularly throughout the 1930s and 1940s. MacMillan's last public recitals took place in the early 1950s. It was never his intention to become a concert pianist although he enjoyed playing chamber music. MacMillan not only performed with numerous string quartets but frequently appeared as accompanist in recitals given by noted singers. In the early 1940s, together with violinist Kathleen Parlow and cellist Zara Nelsova, he formed the renowned Canadian Trio.


"There can be no more satisfying hobby ... because it is one that ... can never [be] outgrow[n]. Nor is there any more valuable study for the all-around development of the mind." - Ernest MacMillan

In 1919, MacMillan began a long career as an educator with his appointment to the faculty of the Canadian Academy of Music in Toronto. Between 1926 and 1942, he was principal of the Toronto (now Royal) Conservatory of Music and served as dean of the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto from 1927 to 1952. MacMillan participated in countless activities designed to enrich the musical lives of young Canadians. He was closely associated with the Jeunesses musicales of Canada movement (now Youth and Music Canada outside Quebec) and the CBC Talent Festival programmes.


"In an age when the government of practically every civilized country is concerned with disseminating and publicizing its nation's cultural wares, we still lag woefully behind. We are losing much more than we realize." - Ernest MacMillan

MacMillan was involved in administrative matters for most of his career -- organizing choirs, concerts and special events, and serving on various commissions, committees and in organizations. As principal of the Conservatory, he was equally responsible for fulfilling non-musical obligations. Toward the end of the 1940s, MacMillan took on additional duties in connection with the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC), the Canadian Music Council, the Canadian Music Centre and lastly, the Canada Council.


"Maintenance of high standards and spreading of musical knowledge and activity were Sir Ernest's life blood; there are few corners of our country which do not continue to benefit from such a forthright musical personality." - J. Hugh Faulkner

MacMillan's tremendous contribution to the development of music in Canada was acknowledged through the numerous honours bestowed upon him throughout his career. In 1931, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Music, the first Canadian to receive this distinction, and named an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in 1938. MacMillan was knighted in 1935 by King George V "for services to music in Canada." He was a recipient of the University of Alberta National Award in Music (1952), the Canada Council Medal (1964), the Companion of the Order of Canada (1969), and the Canadian Music Council Medal (1973). In addition, honorary degrees were conferred from the University of British Columbia (1936), Queen's University (1941), l'Université Laval (1947), McMaster University (1948), the University of Toronto (1953), the University of Rochester (1956), Mount Allison University (1956), the University of Ottawa (1959), l'Université de Sherbrooke (1962), and the Chicago Conservatory College (1971).

His story should be known by all aspiring Canadian musicians and students of Canadian culture as a model of personal achievement and service to profession and country.

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