“Sixth Letter” from Twelve Letters To A Small Town

Illustration by James Reaney, 1962

A House on King William Street

Like the life here
The wallpaper repeats itself
Up and down go the roses
Similar blows struck out
By air-banging green fists:
A bright rose and a blue one
A pink blow and a blue one

The years have not changed their likeness
Except that those behind the sofa
Have kept their original blaze
And those opposite the window
Have turned yellow.

Aunt Henny says to Aunt Penny,
“Have you read She? Oh, a terrible book,
An awful book! Yes, it’s by
Haggard Rider Haggard.”

Aunt Lurkey says to Aunt Turkey:
“I nearly slipped today, I nearly
Slipped today.
We should put a piece of carpet
On that particular step
We should,”
Says Aunt Lurkey taking another should
Off the would pile.

No one remembers when
The wallpaper was new, except
The wallpaper itself
In the green smothered darkness behind 
The sofa and the cupboard.

And I, I their awkward fool
Board there while I go to school.

James Reaney, 1962

“Sixth Letter” is from Twelve Letters To A Small Town, a suite of poems commissioned by CBC Radio about the poet’s hometown, Stratford, Ontario, with music by John Beckwith. See also “The Music Lesson from Colours in the Dark” and “Eleventh Letter: Shakespearean Gardens”.

( ( 0 ) ) For more about James Reaney’s work with composer John Beckwith, see “James Reaney and Music” from November 5, 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

( ( 0 ) ) To listen to an archived sound recording of Twelve Letters To A Small Town from July 1961, visit the Composers Showcase at the Canadian Music Centre.

Illustration by E.K. Johnson from Rider Haggard’s She (1887) courtesy wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She:_A_History_of_Adventure

Songs of London Poetry and Painting with Serenata Music on January 18

Join us on Saturday January 18 at 8:00 pm at Western’s von Kuster Auditorium for a musical evening of “Songs of London Poetry and Painting” by local composers Oliver Whitehead (guitar) and Steve Holowitz (piano). 

Inspired by poems and art with a Southwestern Ontario connection, Whitehead and Holowitz have set to music poems from James Reaney’s Souwesto Home and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book.

The performers are London musicians Sonja Gustafson, soprano, and Adam Iannetta, baritone, along with  Ingrid Crozman on flute and Patrick Theriault on cello (replacing Christine Newland). 

When & Where: Saturday January 18, 8:00 pm, von Kuster Auditorium, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University

Tickets are available at the door or online from the Grand Theatre Box Office and OnStageDirect. Students $20 and Adults $40

For more about upcoming concerts and events, visit Serenata Music: http://serenatamusic.com

Souwesto Home, Brick Books 2005
James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, Ontario, 1982.

John Beckwith honoured on his 90th birthday

February 23, 2017 — The University of Toronto Opera Division honoured composer John Beckwith with an evening of music from four of his operas — The Shivaree, Night Blooming Cereus, Crazy to Kill, and Taptoo! — all with librettos by James Reaney. The concert was held at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto.

On March 8, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music held a 90th birthday celebration for former dean John Beckwith, and he presented a lecture on Canadian music since 1967. Congratulations on your 90th, John!

More concerts featuring John Beckwith’s music are planned:

♦ On March 23 his Fractions for microtonal piano and string quartet (2006) will be performed at Schulich Hall, McGill University.

♦ On April 28, New Music Concerts in Toronto will present a program he is curating, featuring his Avowals (1985) and the premières of two mixed instrumentation chamber works: Quintet (2015) and Calling (2016).

((( ♦ ))) Archived recordings of John Beckwith’s music, including several Beckwith-Reaney works, are available for streaming at the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase.

((( ♦ ))) John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I7cIjO4hA

Composer John Beckwith speaks on “James Reaney and Music” at Words Fest in London, Ontario, November 5, 2016

John Beckwith at Words Fest in London, Ontario, November 5, 2016

Composer John Beckwith: https://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/biography

James Reaney Memorial Lecture November 5 at Museum London

Join us on Saturday November 5 at 4:30 pm at Museum London to hear composer John Beckwith speak about his 40-year collaboration with poet and dramatist James Reaney.

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney.
James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney.

John Beckwith and James Reaney became friends during their student days at the University of Toronto in 1946, and a shared love of music drew them to collaborate on several operas, plays, and musical collages. Four operas Night Blooming Cereus (1959), The Shivaree (1982), Crazy to Kill (1988), and Taptoo! (1994) are among the most notable.

Composer John Beckwith: https://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/biography
Composer John Beckwith: https://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/biography

Archived recordings of several Beckwith-Reaney works are available for streaming at the Canadian Music Centre‘s Composer Showcase.

When: Saturday November 5 at 4:30 pm

Where: Museum London, 421 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario

Admission is free; James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, will introduce the speaker.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of this event. The annual lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario.

Museum London is located at 421 Ridout St North, London, Ontario.
Museum London is located at 421 Ridout St North, London, Ontario.


From John Beckwith’s 1997 book, Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer (page 219): Page from James Reaney’s draft of the libretto for Night Blooming Cereus, with notes on the central character, Mrs. Brown (Faculty of Music Library, University of Toronto).

Composer John Beckwith’s music at the Canadian Music Centre


James Reaney was fortunate to have composer John Beckwith set many of his poems to music: The Great Lakes Suite, A Message to Winnipeg, and Twelve Letters to a Small Town. Beckwith and Reaney also collaborated on longer operas Night-blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, and Crazy to Kill.

To listen to original recordings of Beckwith-Reaney works, visit the Canadian Music Centre‘s Composer Showcase.

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney.
James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney.

Note from Susan Reaney: In his new memoir, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer,  John Beckwith recalls his career as a composer, including his collaborations with James Reaney. The book is available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Taptoo! in Toronto and John Beckwith’s new memoir

Thank you and congratulations to all the fine musicians and singers who performed Taptoo! so splendidly last month at the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.  Your spirited performances brought the characters to life.

We especially liked young Daniel Bedrossian as Seth Jr. and Teddy Perdikoulias as Ebenezer Jr., and Lise Maher as Mrs. Jarvis and Allison Angelo as Atahentsic were wonderful in Act II. We loved Todd Delaney as Major John Graves Simcoe and Robert Longo as Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne.

Thank you, Larry Beckwith, for conducting and directing the orchestra and singers so well. And thank you, Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Toronto Operetta Theatre, for making the premiere of John Beckwith and James Reaney’s work possible. We wish you every success in the future.

John Beckwith, composer, and his son Larry Beckwith, Conductor and Chorus Director at Taptoo!, February 25, 2012.

The Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto, February 25, 2012

James Reaney and John Beckwith developed Taptoo! in 1994, when it had a workshop reading at Historic Fort York. Before this professional production (February 24-26, 2012), there were two presentations of Taptoo! by the students of McGill University (1999) and by the opera division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music (2003).

In his new memoir, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer John Beckwith recalls his life as a composer, including his collaborations with James Reaney. The book is available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney

Taptoo! premiere in Toronto on February 24-26

On February 24-26 next month in Toronto, the Toronto Operetta Theatre will present the premiere of Taptoo!, an opera in two acts, libretto by James Reaney and music by John Beckwith.

The opera is based on events surrounding the founding of the town of York, Upper Canada (now Toronto), roughly from 1780-1810. Using real historical characters like Major John Graves Simcoe as well as imaginary ones, the story tells how a Quaker family, the Harples, flee America to Canada to escape mob violence:

From Scene 1:

MOB: Take off your hat
To the emblem of our state,
Our state, our state!

TWO VOICES:  (shouting) The rattlesnake!

JESSE: Friends, I will
Take off my hat
To neither king nor republic
Nor a flag, nor a …

MOB: You don’t want freedom?

JESSE: Yes. Freedom from all oppressors
Kings or — mobs like yourselves!

MOB: (shouting in unison)
Take off your hat!

(Jesse does not move. Pause, then sudden quick action as they seize him.)

MOB: Tar and feather him!
Seize that tub,
Burn that little flag there!

In a recent article about his collaboration with James Reaney, John Beckwith describes the music of Taptoo! “as the modern equivalent of a ballad opera, in which scraps of familiar songs and dances would now and then drift in to the musical score. I included about 20 such musical references — hymn tunes, popular sentimental or patriotic songs, dances, marches and, of course, historical military music.”*

Taptoo! will be led by Larry Beckwith, Conductor, and Guillermo Silva-Marin is the Stage Director. Featured performers are Robert Longo,Michael Barrett, Todd Delaney, Sarah Hicks, and Mark Petracchi.

When: February 24 and 25 at 8 pm; February 26 at 2 pm

Where: Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street East Toronto, M5E 1B4

Order your tickets here from the St. Lawrence Centre box office, or

by phone: (416) 366-7723 or 1-800-708-6754

See you there!

Old Fort York at the foot of Bathurst Street in 1793

The full libretto for James Reaney’s Taptoo! is available in Scripts: Librettos for Operas and Other Musical Works, published by Coach House Books.

*John Beckwith, “Portrait of a partnership,” Opera Canada, Fall 2011, page 32.

Bravo for “Crazy to Kill”

Congratulations to the singers and musicians who performed James Reaney and John Beckwith’s opera “Crazy to Kill” last weekend in Toronto, November 11-12, a Toronto Masque Theatre production. Here’s a rave review from some members of your enthusiastic audience:

We thought the production was fantastic! The opera singers can truly add “puppeteers” to their CV’s.

Loved the way everyone moved about the stage — when Agatha slowly drifted past us, it made us part of the story.  A great set, with many levels (“rings”).

Loved the opening sewing scene when Agatha mimed the old treadle — and the sound effect, a great idea! Also loved her expressive face peering through the bed pillow — another great idea.
The two musicians, Greg Oh (piano) and Ed Reifel (percussion), sounded like a full orchestra. We loved how they were in costume and part of the story!

You must all be exhausted, but also pleased that it was such a success. Jamie would have been delighted.

Thank you again,
Susan, James, and Elizabeth

Two of the puppets from “Crazy to Kill.” The original puppets were designed and made by Anna Wagner Ott in 1989, and  were refurbished by Ann and David Powell in 2011.

Crazy to Kill: Miss Scarth

Tim O’Connor, the red-haired asylum guard, was operated by Brendan Wall. Mezzo soprano Kimberly Barber, who played Agatha, operated Miss Scarth.

Costume designer Sue LePage chats with John Beckwith after the show, November 12, 2011

Pre-show talk with James Stewart Reaney, Larry Beckwith, and John Beckwith

Crazy to Kill In Toronto, November 11-12

This month Toronto Masque Theatre presents James Reaney and John Beckwith’s opera Crazy to Kill, which was first performed in 1989.

Based on Ann Cardwell’s 1941 mystery novel about a series of murders in a mental asylum, the opera has 22 roles and requires three singers, two actors, and 18 puppets. In this production, David Ferry directs mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber as Agatha, soprano Shannon Mercer as Mme. Dupont, Doug MacNaughton as Detective Fry, and actors Ingrid Doucet and Brendan Wall.

Crazy to Kill

Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.

Pre-show chat with Artistic Director Larry Beckwith: 7:15 p.m.

Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre
231 Queen’s Quay West

Tickets: $40 regular/$33 senior/$20 under 30

You can order tickets online from Toronto Masque Theatre. See you there!

Puppets from Crazy to Kill

Night Blooming Cereus (1959)

“Night Blooming Cereus” image by designer Louis de Niverville and adapted by William Toye for the program for the first stage production (April 5 and 6, 1960 in Toronto).

Night Blooming Cereus, a chamber opera in one act, is one of several musical collaborations between poet and playwright James Reaney, who wrote the libretto, and composer John Beckwith. In his autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, John Beckwith had this to say about his first opera:

“Furthering my ambition to compose an opera, I had the great good luck to find a librettist — a writer who understood music. James Reaney shared my love of opera, and early in our friendship in student days we spoke of perhaps collaborating on an original work. In early 1953 I received from him a draft of Night Blooming Cereus. The one-act opera he imagined taking shape as a sort of southern Ontario miracle play. It turned out to be the first of four operatic works we produced together over succeeding decades…” [Unheard Of, page 246]

Night Blooming Cereus calls for eight singers and an instrumental ensemble of fourteen players, and lasts about sixty minutes.[…] The image of a flower that blooms once a year — or by poetic licence once a century — stands for human hope and renewal…” [Unheard Of, page 247]

John Beckwith completed the music and orchestration in the summer of 1958, and CBC Radio commissioned a broadcast for the “Wednesday Night” program in April 1959 and again in 1960. The first stage production of Night Blooming Cereus was at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 1960 with the following cast:

ALICE: Anne Stephenson
FIRST GIRL: Shelia Piercey
SECOND GIRL: Ruth Ann Morse
MRS. BROWN: Patricia Rideout
MRS. WOOL: Irene Byatt
BEN: Alexander Gray
BARBARA: Patricia Snell
MR. ORCHARD: Bernard Johnson

Settings and costumes were by Louis de Niverville, musical direction by Ettore Mazzoleni and stage direction by Pamela Terry.

Program for Night Blooming Cereus designed by William Toye, 1960. SCENE: A street in a small town; later Mrs. Brown’s cottage. TIME: An evening in late March.

To listen to archived sound recordings of music by John Beckwith, see the complete catalogue holdings at the Canadian Music Centre.

Page from Reaney’s draft of the libretto for Night Blooming Cereus (see John Beckwith’s 1997 book, Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer, page 219)