From delivering babies to delivering world premieres by Britten to delivering a new Faculty of Music building: meet Dean Boyd Neel #tbt

“It seems to come as a complete surprise to many people, especially in United Kingdom, that Canada has a vital musical life of its own, both as regards performance and creative activity. That this should be so is due chiefly Canadians themselves, who are the most backward of all people in spreading abroad the facts of their cultural life. Apart from this, they are ill-served their own musicians, who arrive in large numbers in the United Kingdom telling everybody that they have come because there is nothing for them to in Canada.”

-Boyd Neel, “Music in Canada”, Tempo, No. 38 (Winter, 1955-1956), pp. 7-9, Cambridge University Press.

As someone who was originally a surgeon and family practitioner, conductor Boyd Neel started an orchestra in 1932 of highly trained amateurs in London at age 28 at a time when there were no smaller ensembles performing.

The city took notice after its debut on June 22, 1933 (following which Neel delivered a baby!), fame was quickly achieved, and a number of performances and recordings were made. The Boyd Neel Orchesta led a revival of the performance of and interest in baroque music.

Following a brief pause for Dr. Neel to assist injured soldiers in the war, the Boyd Neel Orchestra toured England and Europe beginning in 1934. In 1937 they commissioned Benjamin Britten for Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and the work had its premiere at the Salzberg Festival.

Following a reorganization with the Faculty of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1952 where Sir Ernest MacMillan retired as Dean and Arnold Walter was made Director of the Faculty of Music, Chair of the Board of Directors of the RCM, Edward Johnson sought out a new Dean, one preferably who was English to “create a proper Canadian balance, whatever that might mean”, according to Ezra Schabas. (from There’s Music in These Walls, p133)

Finding someone with no academic experience, no music degrees, and no administrative experience seemed curious for a choice for Dean, but that was who took over in 1953.

In his time as Dean (overseeing both the RCM and the Faculty of Music), Boyd Neel led the school towards creating a new music school building at the University of Toronto. He also wished to ensure ongoing training of musicians and to encourage a vibrant music scene in Canada.

The old music building owned by the RCM was sold to Toronto Hydro in February 1962.

The northside of the Toronto (Royal) Conservatory of Music building on southside of College, 1963 by Norman James, courtesy of Toronto Star Archives, TPL

Working closely with U of T president Claude Bissell, Boyd Neel moved forward with developing the Edward Johnson Building as well as renovating McMaster Hall on Bloor Street (home of the Royal Conservatory of Music). Classes at the Edward Johnson Building began in fall 1962. The RCM moved into McMaster Hall in March 1963.

Edward Johnson Building in May 1963, photo by Harold Whyte

Neel’s work as a conductor did not conclude when he arrived in Canada. In 1954 he founded the Hart House Orchestra. The Hart House Orchestra went on tour Canada and Europe. It continued until his retirement as both Dean and conductor in 1971.

Neel was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972. He published his memoirs My Orchestras and Other Adventures in 1985. He died of cancer on September 30, 1981 at the age of 76.

Additional resources

Boyd Neel at The Canadian Encyclopedia

Boyd Neel Wikipedia page