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'Dean of Canadian composers' got his start in Saint John

by Mike Mullen - Friday, September 12, 2008

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN - In an interview with the Telegraph-Journal five years ago, Eldon Rathburn admitted he was no closer to figuring out why he was a composer than when he wrote his first intermezzo for his orchestra at Saint John High School seven decades earlier.

All he knew, he said, is that he couldn't stop pursuing the passion that took him on the road with Don Messer in the 1930s and led to a storied career with the National Film Board, during which time he wrote more than 300 film scores.

"It's all a mystery to me," Rathburn said in a 2003 interview at his Ottawa condo. "I guess it's an impulse. It just comes naturally."

Known as the "dean of Canadian film composers," Rathburn died in the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital on Aug. 29, following a short illness. He was 92.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen following Rathburn's death, Julian Armour, the founder and director of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, had nothing but praise for the man he had known since being asked to perform Rathburn's work for the NFB as a music student at McGill University a quarter century ago.

"The things about his music that were remarkable then, he kept for the rest of his life," Armour said. "First, he had that meticulous craftsmanship, which allowed him to score beautifully for every instrument, and with a concision that meant there were never any extra notes. Just as important, he was one of the few composers that could appeal as much to the general public as a music specialist."

Verdun (Speedy) Wilcox, 93, of Saint John, a trombonist who played in the same SJHS orchestra as Rathburn and, later still, with the Bruce Holder Sr.'s, remembered him Thursday as a "fabulous person, musically, and in other ways.

"He was terrific. He could do it all. Eldon was the guy," added Wilcox. "And he had no problem with booze or anything, like some of the older musicians had back then. He didn't even smoke. He was just an ordinary, regular, run-of-the mill fellow. Everybody liked him."

Rathburn's accomplishments, he said, made him "a star in his own right" on the national scene.

Born in Queenstown, N.B., on April 21, 1916, Rathburn was a pianist in dance bands, a church organist and a radio arranger in Saint John from 1939 to 1947. Many older Port City residents will remember him from CHSJ's popular Holiday for Strings broadcasts and as the accompanist for the operetta Hansel & Gretel, staged by Victoria School in the early 1940s.

Among the films scored by Rathburn during his NFB career - 1947 to 1976 - were Short and Suite, Canon, City of Gold and Drylanders.

He also taught composition technique for film at the University of Ottawa from 1972 to 1976.

In retirement, Rathburn continued to turn out compositions while becoming one of the more familiar figures at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.

His best-known composition was the Ottawa Suite, commissioned in the late 1990s for the festival. In 11 short movements, it pokes fun at many Ottawa institutions, including the Senate, whose members are gently satirized in several refrains written for "snoring" kazoos.

In his 2003 interview, Rathburn said he - like most Canadian composers - are always grateful to hear their work performed, but the reaction often depends on the talents of those performing it.

Rathburn traced his musical beginnings to age eight, when he said he risked being a social outcast by taking up the piano.

"In those days, it was dangerous to take piano lessons, because you were considered a sissy," he said.

But he followed up his 1938 triumph in the national scholarship competition for young performers with the top prize at a similar competition sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the mid-1940s.

While in L.A., Rathburn heard his work performed under conductor Alfred Wallenstein and spent an afternoon at the home of Arnold Schoenberg, one of three judges, who was considered among the greatest composers of the 20th century.

His triumphs as a young composer led to his full-time job at the NFB where, in addition to meeting his wife Margot, who was working there as a sound editor, he wrote the score for such films as the Buster Keaton comedy Railrodders and had his work featured at Expo 67.

His music was recorded in New York and London by some of the world's finest musicians and sung by such luminaries as the late Burl Ives.