Alexander Brott: 75 Years of Music in Montrealby Kristine Berey
/ April 9, 2005
seed for Alexander Brott's newly-published autobiography Alexander Brott: My
Lives in Music was planted 20 years ago by his late wife Lotte.
Now, with the help of the author's sons Boris and Denis, brother Steve and
writer/researcher Betty Nygaard King, 75 years of music in Montreal has finally
The narrative is both a personal memoir and a cultural
history of Montreal. Reading it is like having a leisurely conversation with
the renowned maestro, as he recalls key moments from his professional "lives"
as violinist, conductor, teacher and consummately Canadian composer.
The book begins with a bang, literally, as a furnace
explodes at the CBC during a 1948 recording session, killing one person and
maiming the Steinway grand piano. "It was a defining moment, the first time he
came face to face with mortality," Boris explains. "He says that after that,
everything was a plus."
The book then shifts back through time, illuminating
different aspects of Brott's life not strictly chronologically but as
overlapping themes. We are introduced to the McGill String Quartet, the
ensemble that eventually became the enduring McGill Chamber Orchestra, as they
rehearse and perform in one of their first rehearsal spaces, a barn:
"Our advertising consisted of a loudspeaker system on
an old truck which would drive around announcing the concerts," Brott writes.
"The members of the audience brought their own kitchen and dining room chairs
[...] Although the barn was all cleaned up, the odour of cows permeated the
walls. The building was all wood -- no synthetic concrete and metal -- so its
acoustics were what we call 'live', meaning reverberant but with not too much
of an echo. Since string instruments are also made of wood -- a natural
substance which resonates -- they sounded wonderful in the ambiance of the old
We are also treated to glimpses of a pre-Place des
Arts Montreal, where the Montreal Symphony performs in high school auditoriums
and freelance musicians accompany silent films, before inevitably losing their
employ to the "talkies."
We learn that at one time music was an Olympic event,
and that while 12-tone music was discouraged in Soviet Russia, the authorities
there were very much "au courant" of what was being produced in America. "They
collected this music to keep in touch," Brott reasons. "Even in music the
Soviet system was very thorough at information gathering."
We witness the expansion of the quartet into the
McGill Chamber Orchestra, and follow Brott as he and Lotte organize concerts at
such quondam venues as the high school gym of Le Plateau, the Montreal Forum
and the Maurice Richard hockey arena (before it became the Velodrome). We join
the musicians "under the stars" at the Mount Royal Chalet where Montrealers
flocked with blankets to sit on the lawn and listen to orchestral music that
was accessible, both musically and financially. "During the late 1930s the
Montreal Symphony could not fully employ our city's finest musicians, so in
order to earn a decent salary we had to teach, play in vaudeville theatres, and
find other freelance work," Brott remembers. "I was convinced that if we could
set high performance standards, program a mix of old and new, European and
Canadian compositions, and engage the best guest artists from Canada, America
and Europe, we could make chamber music take root here. I'm as devoted to that
belief today as I was over sixty years ago."
As a composer, Brott greatly admired the "master of
counterpoint" Paul Hindemith: "Hindemith has a compositional voice that makes
his work immediately identifiable. He is one of the most original and forceful
composers of the 20th century. He combines modern devices such as atonality
with polyphony that stems from Bach."
Although he experimented with different styles and
incorporated folk elements into his works, Brott's musical language is
essentially tonal. He never embraced the modernist trends in music, such as musique
concrète, that came into vogue in the seventies.
"I wrote several pieces using the twelve-tone
technique but I've never been particularly attracted by it," he writes. "My
early compositions were mainly Romantic and my other works were more along the
Neoclassical line -- some with a satirical bent, since I believe the greater
truth can be told through jest."
As a performer, Brott firmly believes that music must
be expressive in order to be effective: "There are many theories about the
interpretation of Baroque music... Some performance practices suggest a
complete detachment with no gradual gradations of dynamic, no crescendos and
diminuendos and little vibrato, only planes of either loud or soft. I disagree.
I believe the instruments of that time were capable of many gradations of
colour and dynamic. Though this may not be the popular view of twenty-first
century authorities, I point to books on performance practice written by
masters of the time, such as Francesco Geminiani who clearly demonstrates in Art
of Playing the Violin, (1740) that crescendos and diminuendos and
vibrato were used during the period."
Alexander Brott's contribution to Canadian music is
immense. He nurtured young musicians in the Young Virtuosi ensemble, which he
founded in 1985, and was the first Canadian conductor to bring Canadian music
abroad. Brott and Lotte often felt like cultural ambassadors or musical
missionaries on such occasions, and the McGill Chamber Orchestra premiered over
50 Canadian compositions. "I took the responsibility toward my fellow Canadian
composers seriously and commissioned them to write for the orchestra whenever
circumstances allowed," Brott states. "I regularly programmed existing works by
Canadians because a second performance of a new work can often be more
difficult than a premiere."
Clermont Pépin and Pierre Mercure were among the
composers featured overseas. Brott's credo is that "music is the
arch-communicator of the spirit" and, he maintains, "We are all of our time."
In his capacity as musician, conductor, teacher and composer, he consistently
strove to make music available to everyone while being mindful of the
musician's need to make a living.
Lotte's presence is palpable on every page. It was her
record-keeping, for the book that she would never see, that made the formidable
task of collecting such a vast range of memories manageable. "My mother used to
keep meticulous scrapbooks and photos," recalls Denis. "We used to kid her
about it, but in the end it was a guide, a 'feuille de route'."
Lotte, as cellist and manager, was the heart of the
McGill Chamber orchestra. As Brott writes, "Perhaps the best known and notable
of her achievements was her ground-breaking establishment of corporate
sponsorships for concerts, which were completely unknown in Canada until 1940
[...] What Lotte began is now taken for granted -- witness the number of
corporations that sponsor jazz festivals, the ballet and symphony concerts."
She was also a magnificent trouble-shooter, and once
delayed an Air Canada flight so that Peter Pears could finish a performance of
Britten's St. Nicholas Cantata before rushing to the dying composer's
bedside. When Brott writes that the very foundations of his life collapsed when
she died, one cannot help but empathize.
Though he mentions the personal challenges he has had
to face, including his wife's long battle with serious illnesses, the hand
injury that forced him to stop playing the violin and his severe hearing loss,
Brott does not dwell on them. As he notes himself, a baton makes no sound: "If
I have not expressed the nitty-gritty of my sentiments, it is not because I
didn't feel them, I wrote my feelings into my music. Nothing is achieved
without love, sweat and tears. Not even death."
Alexander Brott: My Lives in Music published by Mosaic Press will soon
be on sale at Archambault. It is also available online at www.ocm-mco.org
Editor's Note: Alexander Brott passed away in
Montreal on April 1, 2005. Read obituaries