This Week in History

Ernest MacMillan: Canada's Musical Knight

For the Week of Monday, August 13, 2018.

On August 18, 1893, conductor and composer Ernest MacMillan was born in a suburb of Toronto to Alexander and Wilhelmina MacMillan.

Ernest Macmillan in 1946
© Library Archives Canada

His father, a Presbyterian minister, encouraged Ernest to learn to play the organ, a central part of any Sunday service. He displayed remarkable talent that impressed his teachers. When he was just 10 years old, Ernest first performed at Toronto’s Massey Hall. In 1905 his father took a sabbatical in Scotland, where Ernest studied music at the University of Edinburgh. By the sixth month of classes, the 14-year-old passed a very difficult exam, which many more senior students fail, earning the Associateship of the Royal College of Organists.

MacMillan was attending the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, when the First World War began. He was arrested by German forces and imprisoned as an enemy alien at the Ruhleben internment camp, near Berlin, until 1918. While in prison, he composed England: An Ode in 1918, which he used towards his doctorate at Oxford University that same year.

MacMillan’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the Conservatory Choir and the Beethoven Choral Symphony at Massey Hall in 1933
© Library Archives Canada

Returning to Toronto in 1919, MacMillan served as organist and choirmaster at the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church until 1925. Two years later, he became dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. A great musical talent, he was a natural successor to conductor Luigi von Kunits, who led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra until his death in 1931. The first performance conducted by MacMillan began with the funeral march movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, as a tribute to Kunits.

MacMillan served as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 25 years and worked to generate financial support for Massey Hall, which helped save the building from demolition during the Great Depression. The hall reopened in 1933 and thereafter served as the usual venue for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra until the opening of Roy Thomson Hall in 1982.

In 1935, King George V awarded MacMillan with a knighthood. By the time of his retirement in 1951, he had significantly increased the number of annual Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances and had attracted many renowned international musicians to the city.

Ernest MacMillan is a designated national historic person and Massey Hall is a national historic site.

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