Toronto Music Garden

Designers: Julie Moir Messervy, Yo-Yo Ma | City: Toronto, ON | Project Type: music garden, cultural center, waterfront
Date Visited: 08.30.12
Location: 75 Queens Quay W, Toronto, ON
Size: 3 acres
Official Opening Date: June 10, 1999

The brainchild of landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Toronto Music Garden combines garden design with Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello. Curving paths move visitors through six garden “movements” that reflect the different moods and forms set by Bach’s classical piece.

I highly recommend participating in one of the free garden tours led by the volunteer docents. In addition to explaining the garden’s background, the docent plays a one of Bach’s movement at the entry of each representative garden; the music accompaniment is essential to the garden experience.


Celebrating the “spirit of music, dance and artistic delight,” the Toronto Music Garden holds open-air classical performances and a Music Garden Eco Camp for kids in the summertime. I scheduled a guided tour on a Thursday afternoon so that I’d have time to snag a seat for one of the garden’s famed and very popular open-air concerts.

Our docent met us at the entrance of the Prelude, located near the middle of the garden. He started by explaining that landscape designer Julie Messervy was heavily influenced by Japanese garden design. Messervy meticulously planned each of the garden movements; each boulder was carefully and precisely placed, the transition from one movement to another determined subtly through elevation and the changes in plant palettes, colors, textures, light and shadow.

From the City of Toronto website:

The six movements:

An undulating river scape with curves & bends
The first moment of the suite imparts the feeling of a flowing river through which the visitor can stroll. Granite boulders from the southern edge of the Canadian Shield are placed to represent a stream bed with low-growing plants softening its banks. The whole is overtopped by an alley of native Hackberry trees, whose straight trunks and regular spacing suggest measures of music.

A forest grove of wandering trails
The Allemande is an ancient German dance. Interpreted here as a Birch forest, the movement invites the visitor to swirl inward to various contemplative sitting areas, that move higher and higher up the hillside, culminating in a rocky vantage point that looks over the harbour through a circle of Dawn Redwood trees.

A swirling path through a wildflower meadow
Originally an Italian and French dance form, the Courante is an exuberant movement that is interpreted here as a huge, upward-spiralling swirl through a lush field of grasses and brightly-coloured perennials that attract birds and butterflies. At the top, a Maypole spins in the wind.

A conifer grove in the shape of an arc
This movement is based on an ancient Spanish dance form. Its contemplative quality is interpreted here as an inward-arcing circle that is enclosed by tall needle-leaf evergreen trees. Envisioned as a poet’s corner, the garden’s centerpiece is a huge stone that acts as a stage for readings, and holds a small pool with water that reflects the sky.

A formal flower parterre
This French dance was contemporary to Bach’s time. Its formality and grace are reflected in the symmetry and geometry of this movement’s design. Hand-crafted with ornamental steel, a circular pavilion is designed to shelter small musical ensembles or dance groups.

Giant grass steps that dance you down to the outside world
The Gigue, or “jog” is an English dance, whose jaunty, rollicking music is interpreted here as a series of giant grass steps that offer views onto the harbour. The steps form a curved amphitheatre that focus on a stone stage set under a weeping willow tree; a place for informal performances. Shrubs and perennials act as large, enclosing arms, framing views out onto the harbour.

Tours are led once every Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon, or, if you cannot make a tour you can purchase a $6 hand-held music device from a Harbourfront Centre location.

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