Obituary: Helmut Kallmann, preeminent Canadian music historian

“Big news” stories out of Canada can be gleaned from headlines. A great many small stories, on topics beyond the mainstream, deserve notice too. In that spirit, here’s a nice obituary by Shelley Page in the Ottawa Citizen on the passing of Helmut Kallmann (1923-2012). Kallman died in February, at age 89.

A librarian at CBC for 20 years, he rose to become chief of the music division at the National Library of Canada. He was responsible for the content of the unprecedented and unsurpassed Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. And his A History of Music in Canada 1534-1914 was the subject’s first comprehensive treatment and established the field for subsequent researchers.

Page goes on to detail Kallman’s life, including a childhood that spanned tumultuous times:

When Kallmann left Berlin in 1939, his lawyer father and social worker mother, along with his sister, were unable to get papers to leave. But Britain had organized the Kindertransport, which took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied countries. The family decided it best for Kallmann to go, even though they worried that he hadn’t graduated from high school, according to [Dawn] Keer’s thorough thesis on Kallmann.

For a time in London, the “refugee from Nazi oppression” was free to explore its libraries, reading books on music and history. Then the British government changed the status of Jews to “enemy aliens” and he was imprisoned on the Isle of Man, before being sent to a prison camp in Canada.

In 1940, Kallmann arrived in Quebec City on board the Sobieski, part of a convoy of 2,000 other “prisoners of war.” For the next three years, he was moved from one camp to another, starting in one near Fredericton, in the middle of a forest surrounded by barbed wire.

His family perished in concentration camps. Remaining in Canada, Kallmann went on to become

… a “one man authority on Canadian music,” according to his longtime friend and protégé, Maria Calderisi. She said the “humble and generous” Kallmann was sought out world wide as this country’s leading expert and did much to either set the record straight about Canadian music, or just get it included in the international record.

More information about Kallmann’s professional career can be found in this Canadian Encyclopedia entry. John Beckwith wrote this blog post recounting how his friend:

…told the University of Toronto student yearbook at the start of his career that his ambition was “to be useful” – a modest aim that in my view he more than realized.

Classical music doesn’t get a lot of attention. Canadian classical music is practically a sub-set of a sub-set. So, here’s to those who toil to study, preserve and share precious things, big and small.

Here’s to being “useful.”

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2 Comments on “Obituary: Helmut Kallmann, preeminent Canadian music historian”

  1. Bob Falesch says:

    I’m fortunate to know first hand through interactions with the Canadian composers and performers, listening to their music, buying their recordings, having promos sent to me in my former life as a producer, and reading their academic papers, that Canadians are very strong and active in the field of new-music. Montreal’s new-music community is one of the healthiest and most vibrant of all and I put it in the company of Paris, Berlin, NYC, Boston, and SF Bay among the world’s most important new-music centers. That this fact is not appreciated by the general public, Canada’s or ours, I think relates to your assertion that it’s a subset, Lucy. New-music is a subset of so-called “classical music.” It has always drawn a niche following. However, the passion and dedication of that following is utterly overwhelming.

    Kallman’s story is touching. That country has only 1/10-th the population of the USA, yet their ability to get the word out, their assiduousness in promoting their wares seems to eclipse ours, at least in the field of classical music (this is based on my earlier role on a college station back in Chicago). I wonder if this is, in part, a piece of Kallman’s legacy. The CMC (Canadian Music Centre) would send me CD releases seemingly every darned week. It’s not clear to me how they’re funded, but as far as I can tell, there’s nothing like it here. AMC (American Music Center) is a private enterprise and, while important, it has nothing like the resources of the CMC.

    Canada has a crucially valuable subset-of-a-subset-of-a-subset, so if I may add another level to yours, Lucy: Classical – New Music – Canadian. I’m going to keep my microscope handy to keep an eye on the developments :–)

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  2. Bob Falesch says:

    That’s New-music

    (Tim Berners-Lee, go jump in the lake, and Wikipedia, please fully resolve your blasted URLs!)

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