Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Symphony in Canada

After diligent research--that's about fifteen minutes with Google--I have determined that there are five symphonies by Canadian composers. And four of them are a stretch. The only composers I can find on the Internet who are both Canadian and writers of symphonies are first Robert Farnon (1917 - 2005) who moved to England shortly after the end of WWII and spent most of his life there. Late in life he wrote three symphonies that, based on some brief excerpts on Amazon, sound rather like a lesser Vaughan Williams. Second there is Stephen Brown, who lists a symphony titled "The Northern Journey" among his works. Mr. Brown has taught composition at the Victoria Conservatory of Music from 1998 to the present. I was chair of the guitar department at the Victoria Conservatory from 1978 to 1990, oddly enough. The only other Canadian composer of a symphony that I know of is Anthony Genge, originally from Vancouver, but resident in Nova Scotia for the last few decades. I have worked with him recording much of his music for guitar. A few years ago he sent me a recording and score to his Sinfonia in nomine for string orchestra (2000).

And that, believe it or not, is that. Sure, there are lots of Canadian composers and lots of pieces for orchestra, but just very few symphonies. Excluding the ones by Robert Farnon, which should probably be considered English symphonies, there are only two. Well, three, as I have just finished my first symphony (though I can't say I won't make a revision or two...). So at the very least, I am quite possibly the third finest Canadian symphony composer. How very, very odd!

My Symphony No. 1 (2014) has not yet been premiered, but here are excerpts from the four movements:

1. Maestoso


2. Scherzo


3. Passacaglia


4. Vivace

The music is basically in C major, though with rather a Mixolydian feel, and I played it for several musicians last week and it was well-received. It's much better than Mozart's Symphony No. 1, but he did write that when he was only eight years old, so, not too surprising!

I am now working on my Symphony No. 2, which will have the title "Three Images" and is inspired by nature. If the first symphony has a bit of Sibelius and Philip Glass in its DNA, then the second will owe a bit more to Debussy. Here is a sample page from the first movement of this second symphony. The titles are in Spanish as I think it likely that it will first be performed here in Mexico:


The title of this particular movement is "Pájaro blanco, cielo azul" or "White Bird, Blue Sky" in English. I suspect that in a couple of years, without excessive effort, I will have multiplied the number of Canadian symphonies considerably.

These are not lengthy works. My writing has been called "pithy" and I suppose it is. I prefer concision and elegance to length and turgidity so my music is often brief. I also like clarity so I tend to thin the texture more than thicken it. The Symphony No. 1, with four movements, is only fifteen minutes long. The Symphony No. 2 with three movements will not be much longer.

But isn't it really odd that so few Canadian composers have written symphonies? Comparatively there are tremendous numbers of symphonies by American, British, Finnish, Swedish and Danish composers. Here is a list of symphonies by American composers.

There is literally nothing I can post for you to listen to that is immediately relevant. There is no Robert Farnon symphony on YouTube (and he is really English in any case) and there is no music by Stephen Brown at all. There is some by Anthony Genge, but not his Sinfonia. And mine has yet to be performed. In the absence of a symphony, about all I can post is this Piano Concerto No. 3 by Harry Somers (who did not write a symphony):


I wonder why we have a number of piano concertos, but almost no symphonies, by Canadian composers?

4 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

I don't know when Canada's classical music started to be "serious" (if it ever did) the same way it could be said that American classical music started to be "serious" at the end of the 19th century (i.e. started having prominent composers and make a noticable contribution to the music world). Maybe the seriousness of classical music in Canada came in a period of modernism and thus composers relied on the modernist ideals for the most part instead of more national romantic approach that many Scandinavian composers took instead, which in turn lead to many great symphonies of that kind. Maybe Canada also didn't have the same kind of national identity during that time so the general modernist approach seemed better.

Anyways, I hope you will share your symphonies with us (a performance would of course be better but even playback in Finale (if I remember correctly you use Finale) would be appreciated).

Shantanu said...

I would love to hear your symphonies some time!

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I hadn't thought that through myself, but I think you have the right of it. What we might call serious Canadian composition probably did not start in earnest until after the Second World War. Before then it was probably better described as British colonial music. When serious composition did get going after the war, the model was indeed modernism. Murray Adaskin (1906 - 2002) was inspired by Stravinsky and John Weinzweig (1913 - 2006), who obtained a M. Mus. degree from the Eastman School of Music in 1938, was inspired largely by Berg and Webern. Incidentally, this strong American influence on Canadian concert music was reflected decades later. When I enrolled at the University of Victoria in the early 1970s most of the music professors came from the Eastman School, including the chairman of the department.

Minimalism, which has seemed to lead composers like Philip Glass back to tonal composition and the symphony, has had little profile in Canada so far. I was actually one of the first composers to write minimal music in Canada. In 1978 I wrote a piece inspired equally by Steve Reich and Ligeti for two guitars and harpsichord that was premiered at McGill University. The head of the composition department, a composer of electronic music, called it "compositionally thin" while "sounding good on the instruments". Heh!

Bryan Townsend said...

Shantanu, I will get a synthesized playback of the Symphony No. 1 up as soon as I can!