Alexander Brott Biography

(Courtesy of the Canadian Encyclopedia)

Brott possessed a mastery of form and structure along with the techniques of composition, a remarkable aptitude for work, and considerable effectiveness in his vocal and instrumental writing (public domain).

Brott, Alexander

Alexander (b Joël) Brott (b Brod). Conductor, composer, violinist, teacher, b Montreal 14 Mar 1915, d Montreal 1 April 2005; L MUS (McGill) 1932, lauréat (AMQ) 1933, Diploma orchestration, composition (Juilliard) 1938, Diploma interpretation (Juilliard) 1939, honorary D MUS (Chicago Cons College) 1960, honorary LLD (Queen’s) 1973, honorary D MUS (McGill) 1980.

Alexander Brott studied violin with Eugene Schneider and Alfred De Sève, and at age 11 performed as soloist in vaudeville. In his early teens, Brott entered the McGill Conservatory (McGill University) which granted him five bursaries 1929-34; his teachers were Maurice Onderet (violin) and Douglas Clarke (composition). He continued his studies 1934-9 at the Juilliard School, where his teachers were Sascha Jacobsen (violin), Willem Willeke (chamber music), Bernard Wagenaar (composition), and Albert Stoessel (conducting).

Brott played 1930-4 and 1939-41 in the Montreal Orchestra, and in 1934 he began giving solo recitals in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and the Maritimes, and on several CBC radio stations. In the early 1930s he was a member of the Montreal Trio with Edmond Trudel and Jean Belland, and played with various radio orchestras and the Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

He received the Loeb Memorial Award for chamber music performance in 1938 and 1939 and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge prize for orchestral composition in 1938 (Two Symphonic Movements) and 1939 (Oracle). He also received the 1939 Strathcona Scholarship in composition, granting him three years of study at the RCM, but he returned to Canada soon after starting, because of the outbreak of World War II. He then embarked on a fruitful career in Montreal as violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher.

In 1939 Brott began teaching at McGill University and was exempted from military service; the same year he founded the McGill String Quartet, in which he played first violin. Individually, he was heard in radio recitals with John Newmark, with whom he played the Brahms and Beethoven sonatas. As well, he was violinist with the CBC Trio (with Newmark and cellist Roland Leduc), which was the first to perform the complete Beethoven trios on CBC radio. With the MSO he was concertmaster 1945-58 and assistant conductor at different times 1948-61. At McGill, Brott taught violin, orchestration, and conducting and in 1955 assumed responsibility for the department of orchestral instruments. He was appointed teacher of conducting and musical literature in 1965 and conductor-in-residence in 1974 until his retirement in 1985.

Brott made his conducting debut as a student, replacing Douglas Clarke with the Montreal Orchestra. In the early 1940s, he was called on by Wilfrid Pelletier to conduct English educational concerts. In March 1939 with the Montreal Orchestra, Brott premiered his own symphonic poem Oracle, a work that was repeated by the TSO under Sir Ernest MacMillan in 1942, by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham in 1942, and again under Beecham at the Montreal Festivals in 1944. The work established Brott’s reputation as a composer and presaged what was to become, over the years, a large orchestral output, ranging from broad symphonic frescos like War and Peace (CAPAC award 1945), Concordia, and From Sea to Sea to lighter works such as the overtures Delightful Delusions and Martlet’s Muse (1962), via such works for soloist and orchestra as Songs of Contemplation and the Violin Concerto (played at Carnegie Hall in 1953 by Noël Brunet under Stokowski’s direction).

Brott toured Europe in 1948 and 1949 as violinist, conductor, and composer, performing sonata recitals for radio and guest-conducting radio orchestras in the European premieres of several Canadian compositions, making him the first Canadian conductor to tour Europe presenting Canadian compositions. He returned there for several visits independently, and in later years with the McGill Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1945.

After developing a hand injury that limited his ability to play the violin, Brott gave up his violinist’s activities in favour of a dual career as composer and conductor. He guest-conducted in England, Belgium, France, Holland, Israel, the USA, Luxemburg, Mexico, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR. He won the Pan-American Conducting Prize in 1957 in Mexico. Notable concerts conducted by Brott in Canada include the Montreal premieres of the complete Brandenburg concerti and Handel concerti grossi, and Canadian premieres of works including Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastorale Symphony. Several series of pop concerts, in particular at Montreal’s Mount Royal Chalet and Maurice-Richard Arena, and in Kingston, Ont, were presented at his and his wife, Lotte’s initiative, as were several performances of oratorios at Notre-Dame Church and Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral where, among other works, he conducted Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Christ at the Mount of Olives.

He guest-conducted most Canadian symphony orchestras, including the CBC Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and led the orchestras on the CBC TV programs ‘Heure du concert’ (20 times), ‘Concerts populaires,’ and others. In addition to his heavy schedule in Montreal, he was the artistic director 1965-81 of the Kingston Symphony, and from 1981-90 of the Kingston Pops Concerts. In 1985 he founded the Montreal Young Virtuosi, an orchestra of 15 young instrumentalists, sponsored by Employment and Immigration Canada. Brott conducted most of the concerts of the McGill Chamber Orchestra from its founding until 2000, when he turned over its leadership to his son Boris; the elder Brott continued to guest-conduct the orchestra frequently and to be actively involved in its management.

Considering the volume of his production, the abundant variety of his means, and the ever-changing nature of his inspiration, it is not easy to discern and define the real personality of Alexander Brott the composer. After the solemnity and even austerity of his early works, of which certain passages call to mind Richard Strauss, Bloch, and Shostakovitch, he gradually adopted a style at once more relaxed and less affected, affording a large place to humour and satire (eg, Critics’ Corner), an attitude reflected in the titles of the works, and often in their content. He made forays into 12-tone music, such as in Spheres in Orbit, but most of his works take neo-classical forms, and many employ counterpoint. The composer’s strong patriotic sentiments are evident in his use of Canadian and indigenous folksong and folklore (From Sea to Sea, La Corriveau, Indian Legends).

Brott also made noteworthy orchestral arrangements of classical works. His admiration for Beethoven led him to compose Paraphrase in Polyphony (commissioned by Lawrence Lande), based on a two-part canon that Beethoven had dedicated to the Canadian musician T.F. Molt in 1825, and to make adaptations for orchestra of unpublished youthful works by the great composer: The Young Prometheus (1970 see Discography; commissioned by the CBC) and Seven Minuets, Six Canons (1971). The latter work was recorded by the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

It is acknowledged that Brott possessed a mastery of form and structure along with the techniques of composition, a remarkable aptitude for work, and considerable effectiveness in his vocal and instrumental writing. From the perspective of over six decades of creative activity, his work may be viewed as an immense kaleidoscope of changing forms and colours, an aspect which well may constitute one of its chief attractions. Brott received numerous commissions from the CBC, Canada Council, the Lapitsky Foundation, the MSO, McGill University, the Centennial Commission, the Kingston Symphony Orchestra, and the Canadian Jewish Congress; conductors including Désiré Defauw, Vladimir Golschmann, and Pierre Monteux; and performers including Gary Karr and various chamber ensembles. While Brott composed much less after 1980, he was active into the 21st century; his later works included Millennium Prelude and Millennium Sinfonietta.

To those who would accuse him of conservatism Alexander Brott replied: ‘I take exception to this business of whether one does or does not write contemporary music. We are all of our time … I do not particularly favour the mainstream of today for a variety of reasons … Either we choose to express emotions and feelings and sensations which are common sensations, which most people have and share, or else a form of escapism into a remote area where a few of the more experimental composers feel they can impress other experimental composers’ (Canadian Composer, November 1976).

  • Bronze medals for composition were conferred on Brott at the Olympiads of London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952.
  • In 1961 was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts of London and received the Arnold Bax Commonwealth Medal.
  • In 1974 received the prize of the Concert Society of the Jewish People’s Schools and Peretz Schools, awarded annually to a personality of the Canadian artistic world.
  • Awarded the Pro Mundi Beneficio medal of the Brazilian Academy of Human Sciences in 1975.
  • Received the Canadian Music Council medal in 1976.
  • Named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1979.
  • Knight of Malta of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1985
  • Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Québec in 1987.
  • In 1990, Brott received the ACO award.
  • The City of Montreal named Brott ‘Grand Montréalais’ in 1993.
  • Received the 1996 Vital Lifetime Award.
  • Awarded both the Canada 125 and Queen’s Jubilee medals, and was recognized by many international associations.
  • Member the CLComp and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.