Alexander Brott: My Lives In Music
Alexander Brott and Betty Nygaard King
Alexander Brott: My Lives in Music is an essential, if not particularly literary, memoir. It is essential because the history of classical music in Canada still goes largely untold, and its documentation is frighteningly ephemeral. But Brott was not a writer. Nor, it seems, is co-author Betty Nygaard King a good ghost writer. In the preface she admits that the memoirs “were compiled from…personal interviews, telephone conversations …letters” and family reminiscences. Given the golden material of Brott’s life, the mundane prose is a disappointment.
And Brott’s is a life worth celebrating. Born in 1915 and raised just off the Main, he literally dedicated his life to music. At his prime in the 1950s and 60s, Brott pursued an international solo violin career, composed prolifically, and nurtured (with his wife, cellist and business manager Lotte) the McGill Chamber Orchestra. He writes, “…[It’s] hard to believe that Lotte and I did so much in a lifetime, but we did it by working constantly and sacrificing recreation, rest and precious family time. We wore ‘career blinders’.” Besides talent, Brott had the tenacity and drive to succeed.
The autobiography provides glimpses into the personalities and institutions that shaped Montreal’s music scene over eighty years. But for all the names listed in the index, Brott functioned best within a tight circle. His McGill Chamber Orchestra is a family affair: founded by Brott, managed by his wife, now led by son Boris. The book carries this same insular quality. Brott was a tireless advocate of Canadian composition, yet he never discusses his relationships with or opinions of his contemporaries. He is strangely silent, too, on his teaching career. McGill University is present in the person of his mentor, Douglas Clarke, and immortalized in the name of his own ensemble, but of teaching colleagues, students, and pedagogy, Brott is mostly silent.
Unfortunately, Brott also glosses over the darker periods of his life. He skirts around the emotional impact of his father’s disappearance in 1927, a debilitating hand impairment, and his early loss of hearing. Likewise, professional disappointments are given short shrift. Only in the later chapters – perhaps because the memories are more recent – is Brott more candid. Discussing his rancorous departure from the Kingston Symphony in 1980 and the loss of his wife, Brott lets some deeper emotion shade the plucky tone of the preceding chapters.
The book’s greatest drawback, however, is how brief, disorganized, and hastily edited its contents are. In music Brott admired form and design, but these qualities are absent from his autobiography. Anecdotes rarely stretch beyond a paragraph in length with no overall development through a chapter, let alone the entire book. Frequently a story will recur in a later chapter with no fresh insight added. Nygaard King gives what shape she can to Brott’s reminiscences, grouping them together into broad chapters (one for each “life” plus various topics such as “On Tour” and “Distinguished Artists”). Still, this book rarely finds a momentum.
Perhaps time was short. My Lives in Music appeared last March to mark the author’s ninetieth birthday and now serves as his valedictory. But it is only a beginning: in time the thorough scholarly examination Brott deserves will supplement the memories captured here. mRb