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A leading figure in the development of Canada’s early music scene, Prof. Sawyer was a musicologist and baroque violinist and viol player. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades and touched many lives, he taught generations of UBC undergraduate and graduate students in both music history and performance, founding and directing the School’s Collegium Musicum early music ensemble. As a scholar, he published vital essays on Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, and others, and edited the critical edition of Handel’s Agrippina. He was also a founder and performer in the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, serving as both its director and as one of its orchestral librarians, and he was involved in many other aspects of Vancouver’s musical community.
A member of UBC’s first Bachelor of Music cohort (B.Mus.’62), Sawyer graduated with first class honours. He went on to complete M.Mus. and Ph.D. degrees in musicology from the University of Illinois (1965) and University of Toronto (1973), respectively. Prof. Sawyer returned to UBC as a faculty member beginning in 1967, and retired in 2002. In September 1967, he was a faculty performer on the first Wednesday Noon Hour concert in the new Recital Hall of the newly built Music Building.
He is survived by his wife, Elaine (also B.Mus.’62), and their three children.
On May 7th, 2017 there will be an event celebrating the life of John Sawyer. Click here for more information.
What follows are fond memories of John from his friends and colleagues in the music community.
"Almost single-handedly, he created a truly wonderful program"
I was very saddened to hear of the passing of John Sawyer, a person who was absolutely central to the establishment of the early music movement here at UBC and in Vancouver at large. The original “Handel freak,” John was an expert on his music, and was a top-notch performer on the baroque violin and the viola da gamba. He had a very long history here at UBC, and essentially founded the Collegium Musicum which exposed innumerable students to the joys of historical repertory and performance.
I have long been amazed at how many of today’s professional and amateur musicians in the early music scene were taught by John, and recall his passion and focus. He was one of the founding members of the Vancouver Society for Early Music, an organization which has made a truly distinctive cultural contribution to the city. Through his work with the Society and with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, a group he also helped to found, John brought early music and musicians into the life of the university as well. Almost single-handedly, he created a truly wonderful program.
I occupy John’s former office in the Music Building and recall fondly his help and support as I got started at UBC. I’ve tried, to the best of my ability, to carry on his legacy, but I am surrounded by constant reminders of his initiative, energy, and passion: the dozens of historical instruments—violins, gambas, trombones, recorders, even crumhorns!—and the hundreds of musical scores and parts in this office are all his doing. Without John’s efforts, early music would simply not be possible here. He will be sorely missed.
– Dr. Alexander Fisher, Professor, UBC School of Music
"An enthusiastic and supportive teacher"
I was saddened to hear of John’s passing. When I was a student in the School of Music and later when I led the Collegium Musicum Vocal Ensemble in the early '90s, John was an enthusiastic and supportive teacher and colleague.
– Morna Edmundson (BMus'81)
"An ideal colleague"
John’s sly smile always caught me. During my first years at UBC, he would flash that smile and invite me to unburden my stress about classes and such. After his retirement, I would still see that smile at concerts, after which we would discuss the performance and upcoming concerts. John was an ideal colleague, supportive of his peers and interested in what we were doing. We, of course, were interested in his work.
I was impressed by how well John blended performance and scholarship. His study of performance practice enriched his playing, while his perspective as a musician deepened his academic work, as with his edition of Handel’s Agrippina. As both a musician and scholar, John laid a foundation for early music performance and study at UBC. Recent performances by the Early Music Ensemble and the Baroque Orchestra Mentorship Program build upon that foundation. I am sure that John would have loved the concerts by both ensembles, and I would have loved to talk to him afterwards.
– David Metzer, Professor, UBC School of Music
"A real gentleman"
I have been thinking about John today . . . there were lots of great Vancouver Cantata Singer parties at the Sawyers' Dunbar home, Elaine was a vibrant hostess with John, quiet in the background. I never had him as a professor, but I do remember him fiddling in the violin section of PBO. I also remember him as a frequent Music Library user, I think he had most of our early music score collection checked out on his library card and sitting in his office. A space saver for the crowded library!
To mark his retirement, he and Elaine invited the Music Library staff to their home for lunch, what a lovely occasion. He was always gracious and kind, a real gentleman. He will be missed.
– Maureen Bennington (BMus’82), Reference Assistant, Music, Art & Architecture Library, UBC
"A very dear person"
I had a special time in his Handel course. I started singing so much music by Handel after it, and purchased (back then) my own video copies of Agrippina and other works for which he shared his enthusiasm. My love for Handel's music is because of John. He would also bring home-made muffins to class!
Whenever I saw him at a VCS/PBO collaboration, he always said 'Hi' to me and remembered me. Later, when I was having a difficult time accommodating my work schedule with the graduate degree courses in music theory because of my new job (I was just regularized at the college), John was my 'advisor' and all he said was, "Jobs are hard to come by", and that was that, he took care of it - won't ever forget it.
I'm very sad to learn of his passing. I thought he was a very dear person.
– Paula Kremer (BMus’94), Artistic Director of the Vancouver Cantata Singers and Faculty member at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College
"His legacy as a teacher, performer, musicologist and editor is stellar"
I’ve known John since 1967, when I was a student in his very first Baroque Music History class at UBC. A newly-minted Musicology professor, he approached the course as if it were a graduate seminar, with the students giving colloquia while he sat back to provide comments and ask probing questions. It was all very formal at first (“Dr. Sawyer; Miss Oke,” etc.) but I’m not sure that lasted very long. The course became convivial as well as challenging, and I remember some good class parties at John & Elaine’s home that year.
The late '60s were heady years to be involved with the fledgling “early music” movement. Wonderful recordings on historical instruments by the pioneering great players and ensembles in Europe were beginning to appear, and there was a feeling of being launched into an exciting new world. For me personally, this sense of discovery deepened immeasurably in John’s Baroque History class. I remember being enthusiastic about my first assignment, Bach’s Coffee Cantata (it gave me a chance to bring coffee for the class), but then John asked me to give a presentation on the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. I duly trudged up to the Music Library and listened to whatever fusty old recordings were there, only to be taken aback that anyone could think this was interesting music, much less a great work. Then, just before my presentation, the breakthrough Archiv recording of the Vespers by Jürgen Jürgens et al was released, and I — and, I hope, the rest of the class — was blown away. It's fair to say that this experience was a real turning point for me.
At about this time, John was one of the founders of the Vancouver Society for Early Music (now Early Music Vancouver), which over the following decades brought early-music performance and teaching to prominence in Vancouver. John not only directed and/or performed in many of the Society’s locally-produced concerts, but also served on the Artistic Committee and Board for years. He volunteered a vast amount of time, attending countless meetings, sending out mailings, and participating in various money-raising tasks, such as selling raffle tickets in shopping malls, or — believe it or not — invigilating at casinos. (A “charity” such as the VSEM would supply volunteers for a night in a casino, and in return would be given some of the money taken in.)
John was also involved with the annual Early Music & Dance Workshop co-sponsored by the VSEM and the UBC School of Music each summer, co-directing it several times, and — for many years — teaching viol students, coaching ensembles and performing in the faculty concerts. Even after he stepped down from participation in the workshops, John continued to act as liaison between the VSEM and UBC Music, and the summer Early Music Program’s ongoing success was secured. In the early years, although the workshops were fun for the teachers as well as for students, they were exhausting, as we faculty members did much of the organizing as well as giving lessons, coaching ensembles, rehearsing and performing. Every day we would aim to finish teaching by 5:00 pm on the dot, so that we could rush over to the Faculty Club and have drinks in the luxurious Lounge with its fabulous view, and happen to be on hand when free appetizers were circulated at just that time. An annual perk, much appreciated.
As has been said by others, John put early music on the map at UBC by establishing the Collegium Musicum as a small-ensemble option. Before its inception, students could take lessons on early instruments (yes, millennials, there was a time when most Music students took secondary instruments as a matter of course), but there were no early-music ensembles given for credit. Collegium was invariably well-enrolled by John’s viol students, by wind players and by select singers, and John worked very hard to involve violinists and cellists as well. Some years there would be a solid core of students learning to play Baroque stringed instruments, but other years they would be sparse. He must have been thrilled when a couple of years ago the Baroque Orchestra Mentorship program was established at UBC, with the aid of Early Music Vancouver, as part of Early Music Ensembles (formerly Collegium). This would have been a dream come true for him.
I believe I owe my years of teaching at UBC to John, as he notified me when the sessional position for harpsichord instructor became available in 1979, and encouraged me to apply. From that time until his retirement in 2002, John and I were colleagues in the School of Music as well as friends. We were also fellow-performers in many concerts over the decades, usually in chamber-music ensembles of various sizes, and as founding members of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. John was that rare bird, a musicologist who also performs, and it is greatly to his credit that he was able to devote himself so well to both disciplines.
It has been a pleasure knowing John and Elaine over the years: enjoying many memorable parties and fabulous dinners at their home; relaxing, hiking, eating royally at their Mt. Baker “cabin;” watching their three bright, beautiful daughters grow up; going for walks with whichever faithful dog they owned at any given time. John’s impact on early music in Vancouver, and at UBC in particular, is undeniable; his legacy as a teacher, performer, musicologist and editor is stellar. Perhaps less well-known was his devotion to his family, his wry sense of humour, and his hilarious ability to unwind at parties, all of which provided his many friends with countless priceless memories.
He will be greatly missed.
– Doreen Oke (BMus'68), harpsichordist and former instructor, UBC School of Music