Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Forgotten Canadian Composers

But aren't they all, justifiably, forgotten, you say? Ah, that is what they would like you to believe! And just who is "they"? The Dark Forces of Modernism, of course!

Inspired by a comment left on another post, I want to talk about some Canadian composers that we tend to neglect--even more than usual, I mean! Canadian composers, like Canadian limbo dancers, are unknown in the world at large. There are some interesting reasons for this and they do not boil down to "they aren't very good".

The first and foremost reason Canadian composers are unknown, even to Canadians, is that all the ones who were around before the shift to modernism--around mid-century in Canada--have been erased from history. Believe it or not, in my eight years of music study in Canadian universities not one Canadian composer, dead or alive, was ever mentioned in any class. Sure, they existed, some of them taught classes in theory and, of course, composition. But they weren't studied. European and American composers made up the whole curriculum.

The earliest composers to practice their art in Canada in a serious way were educated elsewhere. One was Healy Willan, born and educated in England, he moved to Canada in 1913 and was perhaps the leading church musician in Canada. But he also wrote a great deal of other music. Here is his Symphony No. 1 in D minor, composed in 1936:

Another is Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, born in Moscow, educated in Paris and moved to Canada in 1953. Here is her Symphony No. 2, "Manitoba" composed in 1970:

The generation of Canadian composers that were born in Canada begins with figures like Murray Adaskin, born in 1906. One inspiration for him was Stravinsky. He studied in Canada and, like many other Canadian composers of the 20th century, in the US. Here is his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra from 1965 in a Carnegie Hall performance:

Nowadays there are hosts of Canadian composers, the most well-known of whom is probably R. Murray Schafer. Here is his "Theseus" for harp and string quartet from 1983:

The question you might want to ask is what about this music is Canadian? Is it just like any other international modernist music? Are there any uniquely Canadian elements?


David said...

Bryan, another candidate for consideration in this category is Jean Coulthard (1908-2000). bio: http://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37190/biography

Thanks to YouTube, I have stumbled onto her Piano Sonata #1 which is quite enjoyable. Dating from 1947, apparently it was her first composition to be performed in Carnegie Hall.

I don't seek out a specifically Canadian character in Canadian compositions. I think the redeeming feature of good music is its inherent universal appeal that will persist despite the efforts of musical nationalists. Having said that, I will confess that Russian composers do sound "Russian" and composers that show a folk music influence bring a national flavour to their sound (eg: Spanish, Czech and Scandinavian music). Perhaps it is Canada's short history as a nation that dictates the lack of a "Canadian" sound. I suppose I would be able to identify the Canuck influence in a piece titled "Variations on I's the B'y".

By the way, do you identify as a Canadian composer (of the non-resident type)?

Bryan Townsend said...

Good, yes, I should have mentioned Jean Coulthard. Canada seems to have had a significant number of women composers as we could also mention Barbara Pentland and Violet Archer. Sounds like I could do another post!

I think I agree about the Canadian element: I'm not sure what it might be. Though perhaps Night Rain by Anthony Genge might qualify. I associate it very strongly with the landscapes of Vancouver Island.


Maybe some of my music might contain Canadian elements as well, though others should speak to that.

I don't think much about my identity, but I guess I don't consider myself a Mexican composer! Canadian-composer-in-exile, that's me!