Alexander Brott: My Lives in Music

By Alexander Brott and Betty Nygaard King

Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press with the Canada Council for the Arts, 2005
xiii, 228 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
index. composition list.
ISBN: 0889628548

So many Americans are just unaware of the accomplishments and achievements of Canadians. Possibly this is more ignorance than snobbery, but sometimes it seems to be a bit of both, without good reason for either. This snobbery particularly extends, it seems, in music. Our friends in Canada continually prove themselves extremely worthy, and yet notions to the otherwise persist. Fortunately, Canadians are a patient people and their accomplishments continue to shine and speak on their behalf. One such accomplished and distinguished musician is Alexander Brott. If you haven’t heard of him, then perhaps this memoir, published on the occasion of his 90th birthday, and written with the help of Betty Nygaard King, will be an antidote.

The book is an autobiographical memoir about his life as a violinist, conductor, composer, teacher and producer. It is written in the first person, and contains all the faults and benefits of a gossipy memoir (including a bit too much repetition), but also provides an invaluable history of musical life in Montreal in the last sixty or so years. Brott’s wife, Lotte, was a musician as well as his two sons, Boris and Denis, who all went on to outstanding musical careers. The book tells an intimate family portrait of these people, but the focus is on Alexander. The book is organized by the various “lives”, or roles he played over the years. It is written in such as style, so that the reader will feel that they have just had a pleasant, albeit rambling, visit and established a personal relationship with Brott. And indeed, he’s painted a tale of a talented, energetic, entrepreneurial, musical, curious, and imposing man– someone you will never forget.

Brott is a man who obviously loved rubbing shoulders with the giants of music, but he loved making music with them more. He was proud of his own accomplishments and rightly so, but reveals his inner insecurities and hopes for acceptance of his music. He tells of his flamboyant style and yet reveals inner weaknesses for some of this showmanship. He is proud of his Jewish heritage, but is clearly a fierce Canadian patriot and nationalist. He works unendingly to improve the cultural life of Montreal, but must also accept defeats and setbacks. He is a ‘comeback kid’, but recognizes and credits his ever active and creative wife Lotte as the true strength behind the man and business successes. He is unfailingly dedicated to his projects, but must move from one to another in the course of his career. This is a man who is unafraid in this memoir to reveal many of the painful ‘warts’, but he glosses over what must surely be more to the story–a story he inspires you to learn more about.

In the foreward, his son Denis Brott, starts with the word “resilient,” and after reading the book, the reader will probably use that as the most distinguishing characteristic of this life loving musician. Brott passed away shortly after his 90th birthday, on April 1, 2005.

Alexander Brott (born Joel Brod) in Montreal in 14 March 1915, served as founder of the McGill String Quartet, which later became McGill Chamber Orchestra, which he conducted for decades and with whom he toured and recorded extensively. He served as concertmaster of the Montréal Orchestra for many years. For fifteen years Brott conducted the Kingston Symphony Orchestra. He created Les Concerts Populaires de Montréal, an annual pop concerts series in cooperation with the City of Montréal, and established a training orchestra, Les Jeunes Virtuoses de Montréal. As a composer, he had over 100 of his works performed by orchestras and ensembles in Europe and North America, as well as recorded on various labels. He received many of the top honors of Canada, including the Canadian Music Council Medal, Member of the Order of Canada, Association of Canadian Orchestra Awards, Canada 125 and Queen’s Jubilee Medals. He also was awarded a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts of London, an honorary doctorate from the Chicago Conservatory and McGill University, and not least, a Bronze Medal for Composition at the Olympiads of London in 1948, and Helsinki in 1952.

For readers of the Jewish Music WebCenter, this book is interesting not only for this unique view of the history of Canadian music, but also for the glimpses into the lives of other Jewish musicians in Canada and around the world, with whom Brott interacted. Glimpses of others are pretty much it for most of this book. This is clearly told as his memoir, so unfortunately, there’s not much about Brott’s students and other close colleagues at McGill with a few exceptions of some of his mentors. That aspect in his life is not really accounted for here, and will remain for others to expand upon. Brott himself mostly focuses on the institutions he founded or groups he conducted, which he clearly sees, along with some selected compositions, as his lasting legacy.

For musicians and librarians, a handy listing of the complete compositions of this composer (up to publication point in 2005) is available in the appendix. Unfortunately there is no information listed in the book about where to obtain these scores, but 111 items are listed through theCanadian Music Center website .

This book is recommended for public and academic libraries. Betty Nygaard King is a subject editor with Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
January 11, 2006