Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Walter Pitman

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Walter Pitman

Walter Pitman, biographer and Officer of the Order of Canada, talks to Open Book about writing the biography of Victor Feldbrill, the Toronto-born conductor and violinist who championed Canadian musicians and composers at a time when the musical talents of our citizens were underappreciated both at home and abroad. Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire was published by Dundurn Press.

Open Book:

Why were you inspired to write the biography of the Canadian conductor Victor Feldbrill?

Walter Pitman:

I was inspired to write Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire, as I was with my previous Dundurn volumes on Lou Applebaum, Harry Freedman, Mary Morrison and Elmer Iseler, by the extraordinary presence of exceptional musicians, composers and performing artists who have emerged in Canada and particularly in Ontario since World War II.

I came to realize that living in this part of the world was a distinct privilege. New music and splendid performance are a major aspect of the cultural life of the nation and every region in it. However, few Canadians are aware of the contribution of those artists who, in many cases at personal sacrifice, worked tirelessly to achieve excellence in creation and performance over the decades since World War II. I and my fellow citizens who have lived such a life amidst all this great music should give something back.

Writing these volumes has been my contribution.

OB:

What were you most surprised to find out about Victor Feldbrill?

WP:

I was pleasantly surprised to discover to what extent Feldbrill cared deeply about the total well-being of the arts in Canada. We tend to see famous individuals as caught up in their own careers. Victor cared deeply about the well-being of musicians in his orchestra and about the survival of composers. He fought for the playing of Canadian music at concerts at risk to his own career.

OB:

What were your richest research resources for the writing of this book?

WP:

Most fortunately, the subject of the biography was very much alive and available for interviewing. He is highly articulate and has a formidable penchant for critical analysis of his own life story. As well, he was prepared to file his personal papers at the York University Library in the Archives. Fortunately he has saved an enormous collection of his own writing.

Astoundingly there were among these papers hundreds of letters he exchanged with his life partner, Zelda Mann, during the late 1930s and mid-1940s. They provide a surprising picture of a boy and a girl in the early stages of mutual attraction, the cruelty of separation through war service and the joyous reunion when the war finally ended.

And for a public figure like Victor there were countless individuals who endured interviews, some for several hours.

OB:

It must seem daunting to embark on the process of writing a significant figure's life story. When you set out to write a biography, where do you begin?

WP:

I find that the first step of the biographer is that of determining the context of the subject of the biography, in particular the times and the places which form the setting for the life story. Very early the themes arise from interview and archival materials. The meaning of the individual’s life to the world around becomes central to the journey the author is exploring.

OB:

The other biographies you have written — on Elmer Iseler, Louis Applebaum, and Harry Freedman and Mary Morrison — have also focused on important figures in the music world. What role does music play in your life?

WP:

I am writing my biographical volumes for a general readership — not for professional musicians, instrumentalists and composers. Victor Feldbrill's biography is not about the intricacies and mysteries of music making. I am not a trained professional musician. As an amateur and an avid listener, I hope to spread my enthusiasm for the contributions of these musical “GIANTS” to the attention of a broad reading public, both young and old, whose knowledge needs expanding and whose interest demands enhancing. From all of this may come stronger support for the arts leading to greater delight for present and future generations…in short, there may be inspiration passed on to others who may join the army of those now devoted to the arts and culture of a great country.

OB:

Tell us what an average writing day looks like for you (and if you listen to music while you write!).

WP:

This author’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. At that time I can review my notes from studying the archival materials or the notes from interviews while all is fresh from the previous day’s activities. I have never been a full-time author nor have I ever had a study break that would allow for total absorption in writing history or biography. For this author writing is a form of inspiration and recreation!

OB:

Have you recently read any biographies that you would recommend?

WP:

I have found that the most helpful preparation is the reading of biography that has served other arts disciplines. Recent biographies I have read include Dundurn publications, in particular Wayne Larsen’s book on A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter and Katerina Atanassova’s volume on F.H. Varley: Portraits into the Light. As well, Ross King’s Defiant Spirits on the Group of Seven is most enlightening and provides an insight into the visual arts that is most informative.


Walter Pitman has been a federal MP and an Ontario MLA, as well as president of Ryerson University and director of the Ontario Arts Council. He is a Member of the Order of Ontario and an Officer of the Order of Canada. In addition to writing Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire, he is the author of the biographies Elmer Iseler: Choral Visionary; Music Makers: The Lives of Harry Freedman and Mary Morrison and Louis Applebaum: A Passion for Culture. Walter Pitman currently lives in Toronto.

For more information about Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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