John Rea reflects on his decades at Schulich

John Rea, Professor of Composition since 1973, has announced his retirement at the end of this semester. He will host an intriguing Research Alive event on March 13th, and in this Q&A he reflects on his years at the Schulich School of Music.

Internationally renowned composer and educator Professor John Rea has announced his retirement from the Schulich School of Music at the end of the Winter 2019 semester. He began teaching at McGill in 1973, and has inspired countless undergraduate and graduate students in composition, music theory, and music history in the decades since. He also served as the Dean of the Faculty of Music from 1986-1991. His most recent honour came at the start of this year, when he was named as a Member of the Order of Canada "for his musical creations and technical experimentations as a composer and musicologist.”

On March 13th at 5pm, Prof. John Rea will present the final Research Alive event for this year in Tanna Schulich Hall. Entitled Secrets, Lies, and Memory Sticks in the Art of Composition, audience members are invited to step into the mysterious world of composition as John Rea unveils secrets in the art of writing music, how these secrets may lead to lies, and what happens when a composer’s memory starts playing tricks... It will also feature pianist Prof. Stéphane Lemelin performing live. It is open to the public, and will also be webcast live on our YouTube channel.

Watch this short video preview with John Rea:

Find out more about the Research Alive event on our website.


I asked Prof. Rea some questions ahead of his Research Alive presentation and retirement, that summarize his time at the Schulich School of Music:

What have been some of the most significant changes to the teaching of composition since you began at McGill in 1973?

Certainly the quality of the incoming student at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has changed significantly over the last 45 years! By this I mean that young people compose more and better music than they did years ago, and they possess the tools and the skills to render their music purposeful and very expressive. Of course such a turn of events owes its origin in part to the introduction of the personal computer years ago into our daily lives. Today, the ubiquitous laptop workstation exemplifies the way everyone accomplishes things. And the art of composition together with its teaching has participated fully in this ethos.

Touch on a few memorable moments from throughout your time at the Schulich School of Music:

There are so many wonderful memories, to be sure, but I especially recollect with great joy the 1975 opening of Pollack Hall, the performance there in 1982 of my Treppenmusik, the appearance of our MGSO at Carnegie Hall in 1989, the visit of Witold Lutosławski in 1993, the 2005 presentation by Opera McGill of Louis Riel, and of course also in 2005 the renaming of the Faculty of Music, thanks to the generosity of Seymour Schulich, and the inauguration then of our new music building, today, the Elizabeth Wirth Music Building, named so in 2015.

What does compositional life have in store for you post-McGill?

In the short term, I will be doing some incidental music for a theatrical production in the early autumn at the Théâtre du nouveau monde, and then I will be devoting myself to other compositional and writing projects, perhaps even a book.

If you were hosting a dinner party and could fill your dinner table with composers from any era, who would they be?

Such a wonderful thought, since it reminds me of a ‘magic realism’ novel that I like very much, Concierto barroco, by Alejo Carpentier. Here the author imagines a surrealistic encounter in Venice between Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel, and even the spectres of Wagner and Stravinsky. So, for my magical dinner party – where I would host six guests: Barbara Strozzi, Domenico Scarlatti, Fanny Mendelssohn, André Caplet, and Alma Mahler. I’d sit next to her.

If you could summarize your time at Schulich with one piece of music, what might it be?

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind: the third movement from Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), In ruhig fließender Bewegung, summarizes my time at Schulich. As its composer wrote: Mahler’s Scherzo, from his Second Symphony behaves in the Sinfonia’s third movement like “a river flowing through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another altogether different place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical events.”