Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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John Beckwith

John Beckwith
John Beckwith

 

John Beckwith is a Canadian composer who was born in Victoria, British Columbia. Beckwith studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and obtained a Masters in Music from the University of Toronto. He went on to work as a lecturer, professor, Dean and the first Director of the Institute for Canadian Music with the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto between 1952 and his retirement in 1990. Beckwith has created over 130 compositions, which range in genre from stage and orchestral to chamber, solo, and choral music. He was involved with Music at Sharon, a summer concert series near Newmarket Ontario, where he composed and performed over 200 arrangements of folk music of Canadian heritage between 1981 and 1991. Additionally, Beckwith has collaborated with notable Canadian writers such as James Reaney, Jay Macpherson, Margaret Atwood, and Dennis Lee.

The CBC commissioned his adaptive composition The Trumpets of Summer in 1964 as part of the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. In lieu of using Shakespeare’s words as the libretto of his musical composition, Beckwith decided to create a work based on the Canadian experience of Shakespeare. Beckwith’s decision was heavily influenced by the burgeoning success of the Stratford Festival, which he increasingly viewed as a “valued part of Canadian life” (Beckwith, Liner Notes). To serve as a literary collaborator, Beckwith’s friend and poet Jay Macpherson suggested a little known doctoral student named Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s subsequent writing would turn her into a prolific and iconic figure of national and international renown. The two developed a number of topics that coincided with Beckwith’s vision of the Canadian experience of Shakespeare. Among these were Shakespeare in the Canadian classroom; Stratford productions; academic disputes over authorship; and “familiar Shakespearean motifs such as the four ages of man and the seasons (Beckwith, Liner Notes).

Atwood’s completed libretto, combined with Beckwith’s composition and arrangement created a unique and thoroughly Canadian adaptation of Shakespeare––made all the more unique in that it took as its subject a distinctly Canadian take on the Bard. As such, the piece deals with the effects of Shakespeare on Canadian culture. The Trumpets in Summer comprehensively draws from all manner of Canadian experiences from “rather seedy touring company performances” to “a Stratford opening night,” as well as combining and exploring Shakespeare’s relatively new usage in the mediums of television serials and comic books, which exemplified the experiences from “modern Canadian youth to old age” (Beckwith, Liner Notes). The Prologue of the piece evokes the mood of the audience at Stratford asking why it came: "Was it to see / An unreal man, saying / words / words words words / that we can't understand / Or was it to see / A real man dying / slowly behind this mask of speech?" At the Prologue's end Atwood evokes the Stratford tradition of sounding the trumpets to call an audience in to a play's beginning and later in the Epilogue evokes the transposition of Shakespeare into distinctively Canadian contexts, using the following lines: "these our actors / are voices in the wind / passing with the passing / snowdrifts, rebuilding / the fabric of this vision / again from year to year / in this particular chilly space and time." Rebuilding Shakespeare's vision in this "particular chilly space and time" clearly signals the project that lay buried at the heart of the Stratford Festival, with its commitment to replaying classical Shakespeare. But the lines, perhaps unintentionally, also look ahead to other forms of rebuilding through the works of adaptation that were to become such a crucial component of Canada's Shakespearean "landscape."

The Trumpets of Summer is an exceptional musico-poetic adaptation as it celebrates the unique history of Shakespeare within Canadian culture, and deals with how individual Canadians of all ages and backgrounds have been educated and influenced by Shakespeare. The broadcasting of the piece by CBC Radio is also noteworthy as the CBC was in the 60s an essential mode of Canadian communication and cultural dissemination.

Beckwith’s score is exceptionally complex, with multiple voices both singing and speaking in solo and choir arrangements. Additionally, Atwood combines some of Shakespeare’s most recognizable prose with modern day language and euphemisms in a way that is both easily recognizable and relatable. Particularly of interest is Atwood and Beckwith’s interest in the manner in which school children are first introduced to, and then react to Shakespeare, from “words words word that we can’t understand” to a first theatre performance of “we are Senators in old bed sheets … with dirt on our faces, we shout when we’re supposed to” and finally to the awe of how “one man could build countries of words make men out of sentences and raise a whole world of syllables” (Atwood, Libretto). This multi-faceted approach to the libretto by Atwood created a formidable textual structure that is both entertaining and educational making this work an exemplary demonstration of a musico-textual adaptation from within a distinctly Canadian context.

Danielle Van Wagner (with Daniel Fischlin)

 

Link to Margaret Atwood page

 

Audio Clips:

The Trumpets of Summer from Canadian Composers Portraits: John Beckwith

Canadian Music Centre © 2003

Prologue: "The world's a theatre"

Children's Song: "Run, run, run, see Dick and Jane run"

The High School Play: "All the world's a stage"

Ladies and Gentlemen on Opening Night: "O ladies, o ladies, so tender and fair"

A Theoretical Discussion: "Here all the learned and authentic fellows"

Epilogue; "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"

 


 

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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.

 

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