Historicist: The Symphony Six
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Historicist: The Symphony Six

Finding Communist "Reds" in the woodwinds and strings.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 1931-1932, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 8.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1922 under Viennese-born conductor Luigi von Kunits. After Kunits’ death in 1931, the baton was raised by Mimico-born Sir Ernest MacMillan, the internationally renowned conductor, composer, and educator. Knighted in 1935, MacMillan was the leading figure in Canadian music. Under MacMillan’s directorship, the TSO became one of the country’s foremost cultural institutions. In a 25-year span atop the podium, MacMillan elevated the stature of the orchestra and expanded the repertoire to include Sibelius, Stravinsky, and other contemporary composers. But in seeking touring engagements abroad to build an international presence for Toronto’s orchestra, MacMillan oversaw one of the uglier incidents in Canadian arts when a number of players—the Symphony Six—were barred from visiting the United States and subsequently fired from the orchestra for supposed Communist affiliations.

An invitation came for the TSO to perform at the Masonic Hall in Detroit on November 27, 1951, as part of a concert series featuring distinguished orchestras from Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. It would be the TSO’s first show in the United States, but MacMillan hoped it would lead to an increasing number of invitations and planned an ambitious program that would include Lois Marshall as vocal soloist, Elwell’s Pastorale, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

In preparation for the concert and as required by U.S. law, the TSO submitted a list of everyone travelling to immigration officials. Seven musicians were refused entry. “I was shocked that I wasn’t issued a visa,” the TSO’s youngest member, violinist Steven Staryk remembered in Len Scher’s The Un-Canadians (Lester Publishing Limited, 1992).

Although the reason remained officially undisclosed, given the Cold War climate, the cause was plain to all observers. The U.S. was then at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witchhunt to ferret out anyone suspected of Communist membership or sympathies from the government, military, academia, and the entertainment industry. It seemed the TSO’s barred musicians had come under the cloud of suspicion. One was later cleared. The remaining six included the aforementioned Staryk, fellow violinist John Moscow (who later returned to his Ukrainian name of Moskalyk), bassists Ruth Budd, William Kuinka, and Abe Mannheim, and principal flutist, the Dutch-born Dirk Keetbaas.

Globe and Mail, May 21, 1952.

The six were not particularly close socially and, apart from membership in the TSO, there were no commonalities that would suggest why these six were chosen. None were overtly involved in Communist politics. Budd, a wife and mother, came closest; she had been an active in a left-leaning youth group years earlier.

“I had been a member of a left-wing youth group and I suppose that was the reason for me,” Budd told Scher, “but I was very much involved with music to the point where I had no time to do anything else.” Staryk supposed that his performances for Ukrainian and other ethnic organizations may have led to his blacklisting. “Dirk said he had never been connected with any organization whatsoever,” Budd added.

On the other hand, some observers speculate that some or all of the six had been involved in the many Soviet-Canadian artistic exchanges which had been common immediately after the Second World War.

MacMillan had himself participated in the National Council for Canadian-Soviet Friendship in the late ’40s. But he resigned, “because he doubted that the Soviet Union was really interested in friendship and believed that Canada’s efforts were ‘decidedly one-sided,'” according to Ezra Schabas’ Sir Ernest MacMillan: The Importance of Being Canadian (University of Toronto Press, 1994). Afterward, he became an outspoken critic of left-leaning organizations.

In 1950, fearful that his past associations would impede his ambitions for the TSO to tour the States, MacMillan confessed in a letter to the American consul in Toronto. MacMillan had no trouble crossing the border for the 1951 concert in Detroit.

The concert went ahead with replacement musicians. And when the blacklisted players returned for the rest of the season, the controversy seemed abated. But it flared up again in May 1952 when the Toronto press discovered that the TSO did not renew the six musicians’ contracts.

At a board meeting, the TSO’s manager, Jack Elton, argued that for artistic reasons, the orchestra should not employ musicians who could not fulfill the increasing demands of touring of the coming season, which was to include visits to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. It was never clear whether Elton was operating on instructions from MacMillan, who was conveniently absent from any board meetings where the situation was considered.

“Neither the manager of the orchestra, Jack Elton, nor the conductor, Ernest MacMillan, ever confronted me face to face,” Staryk complained to Scher. “I was informed mainly by the media and probably by correspondence from the TSO or the Toronto Musicians’ Association or both.”

(Image: Sir Ernest MacMillan backstage, 1946, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 19.)

The local union, the Toronto Musicians’ Association (TMA) agreed with the TSO in seeing the ability to tour as a contractual obligation that these six had not fulfilled. TMA president Walter Murdoch insisted that his union’s position had nothing to do with politics. “It is a straight contractual matter,” TMA president Walter Murdoch argued. “The Federation has always been keen on keeping contracts, but there is nothing wrong in the orchestra’s not rehiring musicians.” Appeals to the union’s parent organization, the American Federation of Musicians, were rebuffed because the federation forbade membership to Communists and sympathizers.

The Symphony Six also appealed to the local Civil Liberties Association and the City’s board of control for support. There was initially a loud outcry in the press and community, with the story making front-page headlines across the country. The press questioned why the TSO had not simply cancelled the entire tour, as Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra had done when a few of its musicians were denied entry by American immigration officials. Reporters asked why the federal government had not intervened with American authorities in November 1951. Globe and Mail critic Langford Dixon defended the six so vehemently that it led to his dismissal from the paper, according to Scher. And journalists claimed that the orchestra was putting money above the art of music. The United Church pressed the TSO to reconsider their decision.

Within the TSO board, Harry Freedman—also a member of the TMA board—argued: “Everybody was so afraid of standing up because they thought they’d be smeared with the same brush.”

“I was so sick of the whole thing and was so disgusted with Sir Ernest MacMillan, the conductor, for not standing up for the members of the orchestra,” Freedman added. “He could have been a real national hero at the time if he’d simply said, ‘If these people are not allowed to go into the States then the orchestra is not going. Period.” But Freedman too gave in to the pressure of the time and eventually voted to support the musician union’s passivity.

Two prominent TSO board members resigned; 31 subscribers cited the controversy in cancelling their TSO subscriptions.

There was, however, also a significant backlash against the Symphony Six and their supporters. When sympathetic artists, musicians, and writers—the Assembly for Canadian Arts—planned a rally at the Arts and Letters Club on May 29, the TMA responded by vocally forbidding its membership from attending. On the day of the meeting, the TMA even posted members outside the event to intimidate members from entering. As a result, few musicians attended. The Telegram characterized it as a “communist meeting.” But, in the Globe and Mail, the organizers denied being a Red front.

Portrait of Ruth Budd, April 1982, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 429.

Many orchestra members shunned or avoided the Symphony Six, fearful of being branded Communists by association and having their careers similarly destroyed. “I found that people with whom I had worked for the past five years were really nervous about talking to me,” Budd told Scher. “I noticed my colleagues would cross the street when they saw me coming in order to avoid being seen with me. I had thought we were quite good friends.” She added that a few players were genuinely supportive.

Throughout the affair, MacMillan remained silent. Some suggest that he thought the orchestra as a whole was simply more important than any of its individual members. Others suggest that, while keeping himself aloof, he instructed Elton to be his hatchet-man. In any case, his insensitive refusal to comment publicly on the Symphony Six was cause for criticism. In a later letter, he indicated his support for the TSO’s course of action, but denied that it had been politically motivated. Schabas quotes MacMillan as writing:

The six, being unable to fulfil the terms of the contract, have been replaced by six other Canadian musicians, and the orchestra, far from suffering musically, has in some respects improved. I am told that the six themselves have found adequate employment; this is likely, as good orchestral players are in great demand, but I have no first hand information…At the present time morale seems to be excellent.

The Six did indeed find other work. Staryk freelanced and played with the CBC Symphony Orchestra before eventually becoming concertmaster at the Royal Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, and the Chicago Symphony. From 1982 to 1986, he served as concertmaster at the TSO—by then a new organization. He never had another problem crossing into the United States.

Budd returned to the TSO in the mid-1960s and later founded Toronto’s Senior Strings. Keetbaas moved to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and CBC Winnipeg Orchestra. Kuinka played with the Mandolin Chamber Ensemble and the Renaissance Quintet in Toronto, and continued to freelance. Mannheim later worked with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Philharmonic.

It is an irony that despite the TSO’s efforts to ferret out possible Reds from their ranks to facilitate tours of the U.S., there would be only seven performances south of the border in the four subsequent years.

Additional Source Consulted: Richard S. Warren, Begins With the Oboe: A History of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (University of Toronto Press, 2002).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.