June 1, 2001
Richard Eaton Singers brought music to the people
Charismatic conductor pivotal figure in Alberta's music history
Margaret Matheson is surely entitled to a celebration. Her biography of Richard S. Eaton, a nine-year undertaking entitled A Passion for Music, is finally finished and rolling off the presses. A book launch at Convocation Hall May 31 has now capped off Matheson's hard work.
Founder of the University Mixed Chorus, (later the Richard Eaton Singers), and head of the music department through many significant changes, Eaton was a zealous proponent of music. He not only nourished a love of choral and classical music in the citizens of Alberta and Edmonton, but was a man of considerable wit and personal charm.
It's that side of Eaton, the man who surmounted a lack of formal education, which interests his biographer the most. "He came from a very ordinary background," explains Matheson. "He never finished Grade 8, which was normal at the time for anyone not planning to pursue higher education.
"He actually worked for years at a menial library job. When he was offered a scholarship to McGill, he couldn't accept because he hadn't finished high school. So at the age of 19, he went back to finish it. For me that was a kind of significant thing. By the time he got to Edmonton, he had a Bachelor of Music, which wouldn't have gotten him a job here. For him to rise to be the head of the department is quite unusual."
When Eaton arrived at the university, music was merely a division under the umbrella of the Department of Fine Arts. Eaton headed the music division for nearly 20 years, from 1948 to 1967 (he died in 1968). In that time, he not only played a dominant role in splitting the music division from the parent department (it became its own department in 1965), he also found time to help standardize musical examinations with his work on the Western Board of Music.
Eaton was also a co-founder of the Edmonton Centre of the Canadian College of Organists, roaming examiner for the Western Board, and driving force behind many classical and choral ventures of the time. It's no wonder that Matheson, who was busy researching a history of the Richard Eaton Singers for their 40th anniversary, became fascinated by the man himself.
"I would listen to the stories and anecdotes, and I spent a lot of time in the university archives reading the letters he wrote to other people and I thought, here's a biography staring me in the face," says Matheson.
Matheson's book doesn't fix Eaton as merely a pivotal figure in our province's music history. She sees Eaton as more than that. Her biography is filled with details of Eaton as a warm, witty participant in the social life of his time, not just spreading the gospel of choral music, but interacting with ordinary people.
"He was important to the city, the province, and to spreading the joy of participation in choral music to many people through the various choirs he worked with. They didn't just give concerts; they went into the elementary and high schools. It's hard to reconstruct what it was like then, before the days of television. It was an electrifying experience to have these young people and their beautiful gowns. And always, no matter what hamlet he was in, he always wore white tie and tails. And he loved to mix with people - he was certainly not a snob.
"It wasn't just music; he represented the university. There's a part in the book where Henry Marshall Tory, the first president of the university, said 'if the people can't come to the university, the university must go to the people.' And that's a concept Richard Eaton really understood."
A Passion for Music is available from Spotted Cow Press at www.spottedcowpress.ca.