For most of his 90 years, Alexander Brott sat at the heart of music in Canada - as conductor, composer, violinist, teacher, academic and animator. His autobiography My Lives in Music, published to mark his 90th birthday, recorded some of the conditions he encountered when, having founded the McGill String Quartet in 1939, he took it on the road to play in the Canadian hinterland. "Our advertising consisted of a loudspeaker system on an old truck which would drive around announcing the concerts," he recalled:
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 ambience of the old cattle barn.
Brott was born in Montreal to parents who had immigrated from Latvia. In a 1975 orchestra composition, My Mother, My Memorial, Brott paid tribute to his mother, Anna. "She was full of music and though not a musician, she had great musical instincts," he said. "She was the person who in my early youth directed me toward the pursuit of music, often at great personal sacrifice."
By the time Brott was seven, it was obvious that he would become a musician. His formal training was completed at McGill University in Montreal and with a number of post-graduate qualifications, including diplomas in composition and performance at the Juilliard School in New York. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, but the outbreak of the Second World War thwarted his plans to travel to London.
In 1939, he made his début as a conductor, giving the first performance of a work of his own, Oracle (1938), the first of a long series of orchestral works that would enjoy performances by conductors as eminent as Sir Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Leopold Stokowski.
Brott had already played in the violins of the Montreal Orchestra (founded by ex-cinema musicians whom the talkies had put out of a job) from 1930, the year of its foundation, for four years, returning for two more as a graduate in 1939; in 1945 he joined the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for three years as leader and from 1948 to 1961 was intermittently their assistant conductor.
In 1939 Brott joined the teaching staff of McGill; there, until his retirement in 1985, he was a professor, conductor-in-residence and head of the Department of Orchestral Instruments.
Meantime, in 1945, assisted by his cellist wife Lotte, Brott expanded the McGill Quartet to become the McGill Chamber Orchestra. His conducting found a further outlet in 1965 when he began a 16-year stint as the artistic director of the Kingston Symphony Orchestra. Always keen to encourage young musicians, defying his own age in 1985 he founded Les Jeunes Virtuoses de Montréal; he also established a pops-concert series, Les Concerts Populaires de Montréal.
In 1955 he had been the first Canadian to conduct at an Albert Hall symphony concert when he led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in one of his own compositions for a Promenade Concert, and among Brott's many awards were two from Britain: a fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts and the gold medal of the Sir Arnold Bax Society as "Composer of the Commonwealth". The name Brott will continue to resound in Canadian music, too: his sons are the conductor Boris and the cellist Denis.
Alexander Brott's output as a composer comprises over a hundred works, many of them for orchestra and often stimulated by an external poetic idea, as in the violin concerto Cupid's Quandary or cello concerto Evocative Provocations (both 1975). The titles reveal his sense of fun, among them Trivial Trifles for strings (1984), Three Acts for Four Sinners for saxophone quartet (1961), Spasms for Six for percussion sextet (1971) and Saties-Faction for string quartet (1972). A seven-volume anthology of recordings of his music was issued by Radio Canada in 1985.
The end of Brott's life was marked by hearing loss, a hand injury that meant he had to lay down his violin, and his wife's long struggle with illness, but his memoirs betray no self-pity. "If I have not expressed the nitty-gritty of my sentiments," he said, "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."
Martin AndersonReuse content