Canada's first great music historian


Refugee from Nazi oppression spent time in internment camps


Helmut Kallmann reads a letter he sent while he was in an internment camp during the Second World War.

Photograph by: Dave Chan, The Ottawa Citizen

By the time Helmut Kallmann was seven years old, he’d memorized the names and locations of all 80 street car lines, 40 bus lines and 100 subway lines in Berlin. But he held a special fascination for cataloguing music.
The shy, soft-spoken boy organized all his family’s recordings of duets, sonatas and symphonies into categories. And in a game he played with his father, he began memorizing the catalogue of Mozart’s 626 compositions.
On the night before the 16-yearold fled Nazi Germany for London, he sat at his desk copying the opus numbers for Beethoven’s works into a reference list to take with him.
This passion for detail, order and music would lead Kallmann to become, in his time, Canada’s leading historian of music. A librarian at CBC for 20 years, he rose to become chief of the music division at the National Library of Canada. He was responsible for the content of the unprecedented and unsurpassed Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. And his A History of Music in Canada 1534-1914 was the subject’s first comprehensive treatment and established the field for subsequent researchers.
He died Feb. 12 at age 89.
Friends and colleagues say Kallmann’s fascination with order and investigation, as well as his passion for music, set him on a path to become Canada’s first true music historian. He believed that in Canada y
ou could be a “pioneer” in your chosen field.

Kallmann told Dawn Keer, who researched Kallmann’s life for her masters thesis in 1990, that in Germany, music’s history had been written. In Canada, it remained to be discovered.
When Kallmann left Berlin in 1939, his lawyer father and social worker mother, along with his sister, were unable to get papers to leave. But Britain had organized the Kindertransport, which took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied countries. The family decided it best for Kallmann to go, even though they worried that he hadn’t graduated from high school, according to Keer’s thorough thesis on Kallmann.
For a time in London, the “refugee from Nazi oppression” was free to explore its libraries, reading books on music and history. Then the British government changed the status of Jews to “enemy aliens” and he was imprisoned on the Isle of Man, before being sent to a prison camp in Canada.
In 1940, Kallmann arrived in Quebec City on board the Sobieski, part of a convoy of 2,000 other “prisoners of war.” For the next three years, he was moved from one camp to another, starting in one near Fredericton, in the middle of a forest surrounded by barbed wire.
Kallmann explained to Keer that he made the most of camp life, joining the orchestra and maintaining a diary, including the songs popular with the internees. His compulsion to organize drew him to the modest camp library. By 1941, he was running it. Kallmann’s first citation as a librarian came from a camp official who wrote of his “gratitude and admiration” for the teenager.
At a camp in Farnham, in Quebec, where he also became librarian, he lamented the lack of music and music history among the works of fiction. He was able to order works by Mozart and Beethoven for the collection. While at a camp in Sherbrooke, he graduated from high school by correspondence, and also composed essays on music while waiting for his release, wrote Keer.
After the war, Kallmann learned that his family had perished in concentration camps. There was little thought of going home. He set out to discover Canada.
In 1946, a naturalized Canadian, he enrolled in the University of Toronto music program. He wanted a degree in music history, but there wasn’t one. Instead, he enrolled in the “school music course,” which would enable him to teach. He was so shy, his fellow students wondered how he would ever stand in front of a class to give a lesson, according to Keer.
In his spare time, Kallmann conducted his own research into Canadian music history, mostly at Toronto’s libraries, amassing detailed notes in three-ring binders on composers and published compositions. Even then, he envisioned a national library of Canadian music.
After graduation, he landed a job revising the Catalogue of Canadian Composers, a major source of information for the CBC. He would remain there for 20 years, becoming the library’s supervisor.
His thousands of pages of research formed the basis of his subsequent books, including the 3,000 entries that comprised the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, first published in 1981. He ferreted out details, such as the location of the first organ on the continent: Quebec City in 1657. And about the first bona fide opera in North America, written in 1789 by Joseph Quesnel, a French immigrant to Montreal. Kallmann tracked down the music of the first Roman Catholic missionaries, the musical interests of colonial officials, and the songs of the habitants and voyageurs. More at: THE OTTAWA CITIZEN
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