Galt MacDermot | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Galt MacDermot

MacDermot, (Arthur Terence) Galt. Composer, pianist, b Montreal 18 Dec 1928; BA English and history (Bishop's) 1950, B MUS (Cape Town) 1953? He was raised in several Canadian cities, including Toronto (where he attended Upper Canada College, of which his father, T.W.L.

Galt MacDermot

MacDermot, (Arthur Terence) Galt. Composer, pianist, b Montreal 18 Dec 1928; BA English and history (Bishop's) 1950, B MUS (Cape Town) 1953? He was raised in several Canadian cities, including Toronto (where he attended Upper Canada College, of which his father, T.W.L. MacDermot, was the principal) and Montreal. While living 1950-3 in Cape Town, where his father was posted as Canadian high commissioner to South Africa, he studied organ and composition at the University of Cape Town; the rhythms of the African music he heard in the urban ghettos influenced his compositions.

MacDermot returned to Montreal in 1954, played piano in jazz clubs, and was the organist-choirmaster at Westmount Baptist Church until 1961. During this time he collaborated with James de B. Domville and Harry Garber on the score for the 1957 McGill UniversityRed and White Revue, My Fur Lady. His African Waltz, written in Cape Town, was popularized through recordings by Cannonball Adderley and John Dankworth and won Grammy Awards in 1961 as best jazz and best instrumental composition and a Novello Award (England) in 1961 in a similar category. MacDermot recorded the song himself in 1960 with Stan Zadak (bass) and Pierre Béluse (drums) for the LP Art Gallery Jazz (1960, Laurentian CTM-6002).

Musicals by Galt MacDermot

After a sojourn in London, MacDermot settled in 1963 in New York, playing in studio and R&B groups. He wrote the score for Hair in 1967 and, with that rock musical's phenomenal international success, began to devote most of his time to composition, playing piano only for the staging of some of his productions and in rare public appearances (eg, the CAPAC-MacMillan Lectures at the University of Toronto in 1972). He wrote scores for musical versions of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida (an opera entitled Cressida, with country-and-western influences), and Two Gentlemen of Verona, all produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Two Gentlemen of Verona (book by John Guare and Mel Shapiro) won a Tony Award for the best musical of the 1971-2 Broadway season and subsequently toured in North America. An original cast recording was released by ABC Dunhill (BCSY-1001) and the libretto was included (with that of Hair ) in Great Rock Musicals (New York 1979).

Not all of MacDermot's collaborations were successes. His Isabel's a Jezabel and Who the Murderer Was fared poorly on the London stage, and Dude and Via Galactica had only short runs in 1972 on Broadway. Of MacDermot's music for Isabel's a Jezebel, John Barber wrote: "He is a composer so strong, both harmonically and rhythmically, that he could set a catalog to music - and here he has done so. His use of counterpoint, of background choruses and recitative passages keeps the air tingling and the limping show on its feet" (London Daily Telegraph, quoted in the Canadian Composer, Feb 1971). MacDermot later wrote the music for The Human Comedy (1983, after Saroyan) and The Special (1985). The latter (with book and lyrics by the Montreal writer Mike Gutwillig) was set in Quebec during the 1980 sovereignty referendum and drew notice from Frank Rich for the score's "typically eclectic mix of folk, soft rock, Broadway and calypso" (New York Times, 5 Nov 1985). Not a New York hit, The Special was revised and produced in Montreal in 1986. MacDermot continued to write musicals through the 1990s (Sun, Blondie, Corporation, The Legend of Joan of Arc, and other titles), although none achieved the success of Hair. He was music supervisor for a New York revival of Hair in 2001.

Other Compositions

MacDermot's other compositions include scores for the films Cotton Comes to Harlem, Fortune and Men's Eyes, Duffer, Woman Is Sweeter, Rhinoceros, Mistress, and The Hopeless Romantic; the religious works Mass in F and Take This Bread (the latter, subtitled "A Mass in Our Time," written for and performed at the opening of Hamilton Place in 1973); the choral piece Ghetto Suite, with text taken from poems by black children in New York; the orchestral work Incident at Turtle Rock, commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and premiered 30 Apr 1975; and scores for dance and ballet: A Private Circus (the music taken from his Mosaic for wind quintet), La Novela, The Referee (or a Pre-Rock Dance Suite, premiered in 1975 and also performed by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1977), The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and Salome. His Concerto for Snug Harbor (1997) was a commission, as were The Staten Island Symphony (1995) and Cantata for Vancouver (1986).

Recordings and Performances

MacDermot established his own record label, Kilmarnock, in 1972 and released two LPs of his own piano playing (The English Experience, 1962, KIL-70001; Haircuts, 1969, CBC LM-75/KIL-69001) and recordings of Ghetto Suite, Isabel's a Jezebel, Dude, Fortune and Men's Eyes, and Woman Is Sweeter. Two of his songs were recorded by Kate and Anna McGarrigle. With his New Pulse Band, which he formed in 1979, he performed his own compositions and jazz, and made several recordings for Kilmarnock.

In 1990, MacDermot's song "Where Do I Go?" was "sampled" (original music overlaid by new lyrics) on the rap recording "Down With the King," by Run DMC; it won an ASCAP rhythm and blues award. This led to the rediscovery and "sampling" of MacDermot's African-influenced and funk rhythms on recordings by other rappers and hip-hop musicians, and to ASCAP awards in 1996 and 1997 for the Busta Rhymes recording "Woo-hah!! Got You All In Check." Kilmarnock subsequently released two recordings of unreleased MacDermot compositions (Up from the Basement, volumes 1 and 2).

For several years, as late as 2003, MacDermot performed annually at Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall. He resided in Staten Island, New York. Several of his songs from Hair became pop standards. He was inducted into the US Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 and received SOCAN's lifetime achievement award in 2010.


"Notes from a lecture," Canadian Composer, 73, Oct 1972

Further Reading