Charles Wilson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Charles Wilson

Wilson, Charles (Mills). Composer, choir conductor, teacher, b Toronto 8 May 1931; B MUS (Toronto) 1952, D MUS (Toronto) 1956. He began piano lessons at six with Wilfred Powell and later studied organ with Charles Peaker.

Wilson, Charles

Wilson, Charles (Mills). Composer, choir conductor, teacher, b Toronto 8 May 1931; B MUS (Toronto) 1952, D MUS (Toronto) 1956. He began piano lessons at six with Wilfred Powell and later studied organ with Charles Peaker. After writing his first sonata he was encouraged by his high-school music teacher, Harvey Perrin, to study composition with Godfrey Ridout at the RCMT. Although he also attended the Berkshire Music Centre, Tanglewood, studying in 1950 with Lukas Foss and in 1951 with Carlos Chávez, Wilson has recognized Ridout as the strongest influence among his teachers. After a year at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, where he taught harmony, conducted the university choir, and completed his doctoral thesis, Symphony in A, he was organist-choirmaster 1954-64 at Chalmers United Church, Guelph. As founder and conductor (1955-74) of the Guelph Light Opera and Oratorio Co (later the Guelph Opera and Concert Singers) he used local singers to present one oratorio and one musical annually. During these years he conducted choirs and bands and taught high school in the Guelph area and was for a time music supervisor of Guelph Township public schools. He conducted 1962-74 the Bach-Elgar Choir of Hamilton, but resigned to devote his time to study and composition. He began teaching at the University of Guelph in 1979, where he became director of the electronic music studio and later also composer-in-residence.

Although Wilson has composed successful orchestral and chamber works, vocal music claimed his main attention after 1966, as witness his two-and-a-quarter hour centennial oratorio The Angels of the Earth (premiered Guelph, 19 Jun 1967, by the Guelph Light Opera Company, the Bach-Elgar Choir, and the soloists Mary Morrison and James Bechtel) and his operas, The Summoning of Everyman, Heloise and Abelard, and Kamouraska. Most of his major works between 1967 and 1980 were commissions, for the COC, the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, the Festival Singers, Canadian Brass, and Dalhousie University.

Heloise and Abelard, commissioned by the COC to mark its 25th anniversary, was premiered 8 Sep 1973 and had two subsequent performances at the O'Keefe Centre. The production travelled to Ottawa the following month for two performances at the NAC. Leon Major was the stage director, Victor Feldbrill the conductor, and Murray Laufer the designer; the cast featured Heather Thomson as Heloise, Allan Monk as Abelard, and Don McManus as Fulbert. The press praised the polish of the score, the libretto, and the production, but found the music wanting in strong character delineation.

Psycho Red, the full-length opera commissioned for the 1978 Guelph Spring Festival to a libretto by Eugene Benson which treats the triangular role-reversals of a psychiatrist, his wife, and his patient - is resourceful in achieving a neo-Bergian expressionism with a limited orchestra (viola, two flutes, two clarinets, piano, trombone, harp, three percussion, and six-voice choir). The use of the choir as part of the orchestral fabric, and of dances to enact the interior states of the three characters, gives Psycho Red its most distinctive sonic and dramatic aspects.

Wilson's style has incorporated most 20th-century idioms from serialism to indeterminacy, but also elements of tonality. His works are characterized by a strong emotional lyricism that has its origins in the human voice. His works, 1980-91, have been largely in the electroacoustic field. He is an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.

Selected Compositions

The Strolling Clerk from Paradise, chamber opera (Hans Sachs). Ca 1952. Ms

Johnny Fibber, play for children (P.J. Spensley). 1965. Ms

Ballet Score (based on Canadian Indian legend). 1969. Ms

Phrases from Orpheus (D.G. Jones). 1970. SATB, dancers. Ms

Heloise and Abelard, opera (Benson). 1972. Ms

The Selfish Giant, children's opera (Oscar Wilde). 1972. Ms

The Summoning of Everyman, church opera (Benson, adapted from 15th-century morality play). 1972. Ms

Kamouraska, opera (Anne Hébert). 1975. Ms

Psycho Red, 'a dramatic mindscape' (Benson). 1977. Ms

Orchestra, Soloists and/or Choir and Orchestra

Symphony in A. 1953. Orch. Ms

Sonata da Chiesa for Oboe and Strings. 1960. Ms

Cantata 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity' (Milton, Crashaw, Eliot, Donne). 1963. Sop, tenor, bar, SATB, orch. Ms

The Angels of the Earth, oratorio (Wilson MacDonald). 1966. Sop, bar, narrs, SATB, orch. Ms

Theme and Evolutions for Orchestra. 1966. Ms

En Guise d'Orphée. 1968. Bar, string orch. Ms

Sinfonia for Double Orchestra. 1972. Ms

Christo paremus canticam (Thomas Traherne, anonymous). 1973. SATB, orch. Ms

Symphonic Perspectives 'Kingsmere.' 1974. Full orch. Ms

Song for St Cecilia's Day (Auden). 1976. Sop, tenor, SATB, orch. Ms

Conductus. 1979. Pf, orch. Ms


4 String Quartets. 1950, 1968, 1975, 1983. All manuscript

String Trio. 1963. Ms

Concerto 5 x 4 x 3. 1970. Str quintet or woodwind quartet or brass trio. Ms. 1972. CBC SM-195 (Atlantic Brass Ens)

Choir and Voice

Three Madrigals on Latin Lyrics (Chaucer, Abelard, anonymous). 1964. SATB. Ms

'And Now Bless the God of All' (Sirach). SATB, organ. Wat 1965

'Dona nobis pacem' (liturgical). 1970. SATB, brass (organ). GVT 1972. Poly 2917 009 (Festival Singers)

Image out of Season (various authors). 1973. SATB, brass quintet. Ms

Missa brevis. 1975. SATB, brass (organ). Ms

Dream Telescope (Waddington). 1979. Alto, piano. Ms

First Book of Madrigals (MacEwan). 1980. Sop, instr ensemble. Ms

Un Canadien Errant (8 folk songs). 1981. Mezzo, tenor (bar), SATB, instr ensemble. Ms

Invocation. 1982. 8 solo voices, tape. Ms

Two Voices (MacEwan). 1983. Mezzo, clarinet, violoncello, piano, 2 percussion, tape. Ms

The Revelation to John. 1984. 3 SATB choirs, 3 conductor, organ. Ms

Also 6 sets of songs on texts by Stevenson, Blake, D.G. Jones, Spenser, St-Denys-Garneau (transl J. Glassco), and Hébert (1951, 1953, 1962, 1974, 1976, 1977)


Crosstalk D/A. 1988. Tape

A Possible Piece ' in a world gone mad'. 1989. Tape

Tim, a radio opera (Michael Cook). 1990. Ten, bar, tape

Further Reading