Eldon Rathburn

Eldon Rathburn

Eldon Rathburn

Eldon Davis Rathburn, CM (1916-2008), a renowned Canadian film composer, pianist, organist, and teacher, was born in Queenstown. Often referred to as the “Dean of Canadian film composers,” Rathburn created over 300 film scores during his illustrious career, including iconic National Film Board shorts like City of Gold and Universe, significant English-language features such as Nobody Waved Good-bye and Who Has Seen the Wind, and numerous IMAX films. He also taught film score composition at the University of Ottawa from 1972 to 1976. A member of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre, Rathburn was made a Member of the Order of Canada and received the Arts and Heritage Award from the City of Ottawa.

Don Messers Jubilee

Rathburn pursued piano studies under Eric Rollinson in Saint John and later played with Don Messer and His Islanders as a teenager. He studied music at McGill University, earning a Canadian Performing Rights Society scholarship for his compositions Silhouette (1936) and To A Wandering Cloud (1938). He then attended the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music) in 1938-39, studying composition with Healey Willan, organ with Charles Peaker, and piano with Reginald Godden.

Returning to Saint John in 1939, Rathburn worked as a dance band pianist, church organist, and radio arranger. After his composition, Symphonette (1943), won first prize in the 1944 Los Angeles Young Artists’ Competition, he traveled to California, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the piece under Alfred Wallenstein’s direction. During this time, Rathburn also met Arnold Schoenberg, one of the competition judges.

Eldon Rathburn

Rathburn joined the National Film Board (NFB) at its Ottawa headquarters in 1944, serving as their staff composer until 1976. Like other NFB composers, he developed a light-textured and adaptable style that could easily suit a film’s mood. By 1976, he had composed approximately 300 scores, primarily for short films, including notable works such as Colin Low’s The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1952), Corral (1954), and Circle of the Sun (1961); Tom Daly’s Introducing Canada (1956); Wolf Koenig and Low’s City of Gold (1957); and many others.

This photo was taken when Rathburn was 92, in his Saint Laurent Blvd. Condo in 2008. Photo: Lois Siegel.

During his semi-retirement in Ottawa, Rathburn remained active, composing over 30 additional scores. He wrote music for numerous IMAX films and features, such as Allan King’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1977) and Donald Brittain’s Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985). Rathburn continued composing concert works until his death, with a special interest in music related to railways.

Rathburn experienced a career resurgence beginning in 1995, when Julian Armour, then-director of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, programmed several of Rathburn’s works. Audience reception was so positive that his music became a staple of the festival. In 2006, the festival hosted a concert dedicated to Rathburn’s music in honor of his 90th birthday and released the CD Eldon Rathburn: Works.

A book titled “They Shot, He Scored: The Life and Music of Eldon Rathburn,” written by James K. Wright, chronicles Rathburn’s life and works using extensive archival and documentary materials. Rathburn’s life was also the subject of a 1955 National Film Board documentary, “Eldon Rathburn: They Shoot… He Scores.”

Eldon Rathburn Book Cover

In 1998, Rathburn was honored with the title of Member of the Order of Canada. He was also the recipient of the Arts and Heritage Award in music from the City of Ottawa in 2000. Two of his wind compositions were featured in Volume 24 of The Canadian Musical Heritage, as part of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society’s collection. Rathburn’s scores can be found at Library and Archives Canada.

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