University community mourns loss of iconic Canadian composer

(Edmonton) When famed University of Alberta composer Malcolm Forsyth came to Canada from his home in South Africa in 1968, he brought with him the ingredients for a musical sound that would both shake the Canadian classical music establishment and thrust him into a spotlight he was only too happy to share with the people around him. Forsyth, an extraordinary composer, mentor and colleague who epitomized loyalty, died July 5 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 74.

“Malcolm Forsyth made a major contribution to music at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, in Canada and throughout the world,” said Leslie Cormack, dean of the Faculty of Arts. “During his 34 years teaching in the Department of Music, Dr. Forsyth influenced generations of composers and musicians and helped make Edmonton the great music city that it has become.”

Although Forsyth became internationally known as one of the great Canadian conductors and composers, he was a musician first. Born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1936, Forsyth picked up the trombone and seemingly never put it down. He took it to the University of Cape Town where he received a bachelor of music in 1963. Although Forsyth would change his major from trombone to conducting and composition, he played the trombone in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra while simultaneously doing a master’s in music 1966 and his PhD 1969.

Forsyth came to Canada in 1968 and joined the U of A’s Department of Music, taking on a full load teaching theory, composition, conducting and trombone. He went on to hold the position of Composer-in-Residence and conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra.  He was also a member of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for 11 years—three as bass trombonist and eight as principal.

It was, however, Forsyth’s work as a composer that will stand the test of time. He is the only Canadian composer to have been nominated for six Best Classical Composition Juno Awards, receiving three Juno Awards in 1987, 1995 and 1998 for Atayoskewin, Sketches from Natal and Electra Rising, respectively. He was named Composer of the Year in 1988 by the Canadian Music Council, and in 2003 was made a Member of the Order of Canada, as well as winner of the Queen's Jubilee Medal.

While Forsyth had obvious gifts, it was his deep respect for the listener that drove his sound.

“I always have had a sense of responsibility to the audience,” said Forsyth in 1996. “I am myself a dedicated audience member, dedicated to the idea of concert music that sweeps people away . . . everything I’ve done is with that experience in mind.”

Acting chair in the Department of Music Janet Scott Hoyt, whose first year as an undergraduate student studying music at the U of A was also in 1968, says Forsyth’s ability to make music accessible to the all was his true genius.

“He was South African, so he came to Canada with the sounds and the rhythms of South Africa in his veins,” said Scott Hoyt. “A lot of his music incorporated the rhythms of the music there, and he made it his own; he infused it into something that wasn’t African anymore—it was Canadian, but it had that special flavour of something from afar.”

Besides having charismatic, bigger-than-life presence in the department, Scott Hoyt says Forsyth was a great teacher.

“He was a fine composition teacher because he really reacted well to talent,” she said, adding he was an uncompromising but very encouraging and stimulating mentor to young students. “What was striking is how many of his students went on to become professional musicians.

“I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to know him and be affected by that big brain and his big creative spirit.”

Although Forsyth retired from the U of A in 2002, he never stopped working. His catalogue of 140 pieces, including three symphonies, was topped off in June when he travelled to Ottawa to attend the world premiere of his final work, A Ballad of Canada, performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which employs Forsyth’s daughter, Amanda, as principal cellist.

U of A choral music professor Len Ratzlaff was hopeful that his long-time friend would push on to hear the U of A’s Department of Music premier A Ballad of Canada in November. The show will go on, Ratzlaff says, but not without some heavy hearts.

“He really was a great colleague,” said Ratzlaff. “He was the kind of guy where you could just pick up where you left off. He would stop everything if you would be in the hallway. He never put anyone off as though he didn’t have time for them. As a young teacher, I learned a lot from him.

“I must say that I am missing him a lot.”