Memorable Manitobans: Chester Duncan (1913-2002)
Writer, broadcaster, university professor, pianist and composer.
Born at Strasbourg, Saskatchewan on 4 May 1913, the son of Scottish parents who returned to Scotland while he was a teenager, leaving him in Canada. His musical talent developed early. He obtained the LRCT and for a while earned his living as a piano teacher. However, he had a parallel interest in literature and for 36 years (1942 to 1978) he was a Professor of English at the University of Manitoba. After retirement, he was declared Professor Emeritus. He was especially recognised as an authority on the poetry of W. H. Auden.
Many people will remember him as a critic and writer. For 17 years, Duncan was a critic and occasional host on CBC’s nationally broadcast program “Critically Speaking” with Clyde Gilmour and Lister Sinclair, commenting on radio, television, books and cinema. He also provided lively critical commentary for many years on the locally produced program “The Passing Show”. In the summer of 1963, he contributed weekly arts reports on CBC’s “Duncan’s Diary”, speaking on what the CBC Times called “current happenings as seen in a somewhat sardonic light.” During the 1960s and ‘70s he worked as a freelance critic for the Winnipeg Free Press producing both film and music reviews. For a number of years he wrote the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s program notes, notably during the tenure of Piero Gamba. In 1975 he published a collection of humorous and semi-autobiographical essays entitled Wanna Fight, Kid? (Winnipeg: Queenston House Publishing).
He performed frequently as a pianist, as accompanist, as a member of the celebrated “Hidy Trio”, and as concerto soloist with the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra. In 1989 he recorded the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ with his son, Laurie. This was released commercially.
It is as a composer, however, that Duncan will be best remembered. During a composition career spanning more than 60 years, he became one of the twentieth century’s supreme exponents of English art song. Largely dedicating himself to this genre of composition, he wrote more than 150 songs in which poetry of the highest quality is matched by music of subtlety and great beauty. Some of the poets whose work he set were his personal friends and colleagues at the University of Manitoba. There is an elegiac quality to much of his work, some has an autobiographical content, and some shows a keen sense of social awareness. In 1983 he recorded 65 of his songs with friend Orville Derraugh. A set of 24 songs selected by the composer and interpreted by singers of his choosing, with Laurie Duncan as pianist, appeared on an independently produced CD, released posthumously in 2002.
He died at Winnipeg on 31 March 2002.
“They will never be forgotten,” Winnipeg Free Press, 31 December 2002, pages A8-A9.
This page was prepared by Keith Davies Jones.
Page revised: 5 February 2022