The unknown history of Canadian musical culture
CBC’s Robert Harris delivers his latest Stratford Summer Music series lecture
Canada’s musical culture has been heavily influenced by a group of German Jews displaced by the Second World War.
Five men left a lasting legacy despite being held as innocent prisoners in Canadian internment camps during the early 1940s.
“This is an unbelievably interesting story,” said Robert Harris, who has been presenting a series of lectures connected to Stratford Summer Music with a Canada 150 theme.
His latest lesson, called Citizens of the World, delved into the impact a group of talented Europeans had on the country from a musical perspective in the decades after D-Day.
Harris, a CBC and The Globe and Mail journalist who is writing a book on the history of O Canada, told the story to a group of about 50 Wednesday morning at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus. But it’s not a well-known tale. “Virtually nobody knows, and I mean like nobody in the whole country,” he said.
The group of young Jewish men – some in their teens – fled from Germany before the war broke out in 1939. Many settled in England and continued their education, but were arrested and detained in May 1940.
The reason? Their citizenships. Initially imprisoned at the Isle of Man, 2,300 of them were shipped to Canada later that fall.
“These people were basically refugees, and they were guilty of nothing,” Harris said. “In fact, they were Jews who were fleeing Hitler so they had already been victimized.”
Many were held in Canadian prisoner-of-war camps until 1943. They weren’t treated harshly, but were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards while wearing a uniform with a large red circle on their backs.
“So if they tried to escape they would be easier to see and shoot,” he said.
Once the war ended and they were released, at least five of the former prisoners – called the Camp Boys – were integral to the creation of Canadian musical culture.
“Without them, who knows what we would have today?” Harris said. “The bedrock of our institutions were created by these five guys.”
The group included Walter Homburger, who ran the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, pianists John Newmark and Helmut Blume, Helmut Kallmann, a historian who established Canadian music scholarships, and CBC music TV producer Franz Kraemer. A pioneer in the industry, Kraemer was behind the world’s first TV production of The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“We did them on TV in Canada before they were done on TV in Great Britain because of Franz Kraemer,” he said. “Franz was unbelievably important to the history of this country in terms of its music.”
Harris spoke at length, while gesturing enthusiastically with his hands, about the impact of Kallmann.
“He was a mentor to every single academic in Canada who decided to make Canadian music their specialty,” he said. “Literally every single one.”
Yet the reaction and contribution of the quintet after being held in custody as innocent men was unbelievable, Harris said.
He added up until that time Canada was essentially a cultural wasteland. One of the causes was a colonial mentality.
“We were very much under the thumb of English culture,” he said.
Harris’ next lecture – the fifth of six – is Wednesday at 11 a.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door.
Robert Harris speaks to a group at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus on Wednesday. The radio and newspaper journalist delivered his latest Stratford Summer Music lecture.