James Rolfe | The Canadian Encyclopedia


James Rolfe

James Rolfe. Composer, b Ottawa, 20 Jul 1961; B MUS (Toronto) 1983, M MUS (Toronto) 1984, MA (Princeton) 1999. Rolfe learned trumpet in middle school and played in bands, stage bands and orchestras through his high school and undergraduate years.

Rolfe, James

James Rolfe. Composer, b Ottawa, 20 Jul 1961; B MUS (Toronto) 1983, M MUS (Toronto) 1984, MA (Princeton) 1999. Rolfe learned trumpet in middle school and played in bands, stage bands and orchestras through his high school and undergraduate years. At the University of Toronto he studied composition with John Beckwith, Talivaldis Kenins and Ka Nin Chan. After earning his music degrees he worked primarily as a music copyist, but by the early 1990s was receiving commissions and grants which allowed him to compose full time. In 1995 Rolfe entered Princeton University on a Naumburg Fellowship, studying composition with Steve Mackey and Paul Lansky and with visiting luminaries such as Louis Andriessen and Brian Ferneyhough. Rolfe began teaching as a sessional instructor of composition at the University of Toronto in 2007, but works mainly as a composer, writing for a wide variety of ensembles and performers.

Compositional Style

Though opera and musical theatre have become a major focus for James Rolfe, he has created an array of chamber works for mixed and standard ensembles, as well as music for choir and orchestra. His compositions often revolve around rhythmic cells which set a framework for the development of the music. More variable than the pulse often associated with minimalism, there is nonetheless a kind of spotlight on the metre and motion of the music, which shapes the piece. As well, there is a melodic and harmonic consistency to his compositions, more or less traditional depending upon the intent of the work. His vocal and operatic works make excellent use of his affinity for melody.


In 1998 Rolfe completed his first opera, Beatrice Chancy, with a libretto by George Elliott Clarke, produced by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, and performed during 1998-99 in Toronto, Dartmouth and Edmonton. It was televised by the CBC in 2000. Since then Rolfe has composed several more works for musical theatre and opera, including Elijah's Kite, a children's opera for Tapestry Theatre (libretto by Camyar Chai); Rosa, also for Tapestry Theatre (libretto by Camyar Chai); Swoon for the Canadian Opera Company (libretto by Anna Chatterton); Aeneas and Dido for Toronto Masque Theatre (libretto by André Alexis); and Inês for Queen of Puddings (libretto by Paul Bentley). In 2008 the Canadian Opera Company commissioned Rolfe to compose a full-length opera for its 2011/12 season. Entitled Donna, with librettist Anna Chatterton, it is meant to be a contemporary version of Don Giovanni.

Other Compositions and Performances

Rolfe has received commissions and requests for compositions from a wide range of Canadian performers and ensembles. Among them are Eve Egoyan, Esprit Orchestra, Toronto Symphony, Hemispheres, Elora Festival Singers, Elmer Iseler Singers, Soundstreams and Continuum, as well as CBC Radio. He has written for performers outside of Canada including Bang on a Can All-Stars (New York), Michigan Opera Theatre, marimba player Nancy Zeltsman (New York and Boston), Nieuw Ensemble (Netherlands), Nash Ensemble (Princeton), Ixion Ensemble (London), and 175 East (New Zealand). His works have been broadcast across Canada, in the Netherlands and in New Zealand.


Several of Rolfe's compositions have been recorded on CD. Pianist Barbara Pritchard included his "Idiot Sorrow" on The View From Here (1998, Centrediscs CMCCD 6298). "Come lovely and soothing death" and "Three Songs" are included on My soul, there is a country (2001, Arktos 200149) featuring the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, Leonard Ratzlaff, conductor. Rolfe's "Oboe Quartet" is on Canadian Oboe Quartets (2009, The Gallery Players of Niagara).

Awards and memberships

Rolfe has been well recognized and awarded for his efforts, going back to 1984 when he won the first of five prizes in the CAPAC Young Composers' Competition (1 gold, 3 silver, and 1 bronze). He won second prize (Chamber Music) in the CBC Young Composers' Competition (1990) for "Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman," and his "Fêtes de la Faim & Plainte" was selected for the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) World Music Days (1997) in Seoul, South Korea. He received the Ontario Arts Council's K.M. Hunter Music Award (2003) and the Louis Applebaum Composition Award from the Ontario Arts Foundation (2005). Rolfe's work "raW," commissioned by the Ergo Ensemble, won the Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music in 2006. In 2009 his opera Inês was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award, and also in 2009 he won the SOCAN Jan V. Matejcek Award for logging the most performances of Canadian classical music. Rolfe was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2000), a Canadian Opera Creation Program Professional Development Grant (2004) and several grants from the Canada Council and the Toronto Arts Council. He is the president of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.

List of Compositions

Operas and stage works
Inês. Opera. 2008. Libretto by Paul Bentley

Aeneas and Dido. Chamber opera. 2007. Text by André Alexis

Swoon. Chamber opera. 2006. Libretto by Anna Chatterton

Elijah's Kite. Opera for young audiences. 2005. Libretto by Camyar Chai

Enid and the Swans. Opera for young audiences. 2005. Text by Alexis Diamond, based on Hans C. Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling"

Orpheus and Eurydice. Opera. 2004. Libretto by André Alexis

Rosa. Opera. 2004. Libretto by Camyar Chai

Fire. 1999. Words by André Alexis

Beatrice Chancy. Opera. 1998. Libretto by George Elliott Clarke

Orchestral music
Flourish. 2005. Acc, orch

Songs and Rounds. 2001. Recorders, orch

Mechanical Danny. 2000. For children. Narr, orch. Words by Dennis Lee

Ears, Nose, & Throat. 1994

Choral music
Blind. 2006. SSAATTBB. Words by Dennis Lee

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd. 2006. SSAATTBB. Words by Walt Whitman

Four Anthems for Four Seasons. 2003. SSSSAATTBB. Words from the Bible

Under the Sun. 2002. Eight choirs, each SATB. Words from Ecclesiastes

O that you would kiss me. 2001. Double choir, each SSAATTBB. Words from Song of Solomon

Come lovely and soothing death. 2000. SSAATTBB. Words by Walt Whitman

O you whom I often. 2000. SSAA. Words by Walt Whitman

Three Songs. 1998. Four women's voices SSAA. Words by E. Pauline Johnson

Chamber music
The Mayor's Fanfare. 2009. 4 tpt

Ask You Dance Me. 2008. Picc, ob, b cl, bn, hn, tpt, trb, perc, pno, 2 vln, vla, vlc, db

Oboe Quartet. 2006. Ob, vln, vla, vlc

Freddy's Dead. 2005. Pno, vln, vlc

Juggle. 2005. 2 ob, cl, b cl, bsn, cbn, 2 hn

raW. 2003. Picc, b cl, pno, drum set, vln, vlc

Worry. 2001. Vln, eight vlc

And Then Grace. 1999. String trio

Drop. 1999. Vln, pno

Bouquet. 1998. Cl, vln, vlc, pno

Tunnel. 1998. 2 vln, vla, vlc

Squeeze. 1997. Alto fl, cl, vln, vla, vlc, pno

Scroll. 1996. Fl, eng hn, hpd

Tombeau. 1996. Fl, ob, cl, bsn, hn, tpt, trb, db, pno, vlc

Devilled Swan. 1995. Perc, pno, vln, db

Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! 1995. Cl, perc, pno, vlc

Dissolution. 1994. Cl, tpt, trb, perc, pno, vln, vla, vlc, db

Before After. 1992. Picc, cl/b cl, hn

Global Bifurcation & Chaos. 1992. Cbn, acc, pno, vln, vlc

James' Theorem. 1992. Mixed 14-piece improvisatory ensemble

Departure Lounge. 1991. Rec, cl, tpt, reed org, synth, pno

Railway Street. 1991. Solo b cl, perc, pno, vln, vlc, db

Chamber music with voice
Beloved. 2005. Sop, mezzo, pno. Words by Dennis Lee

Bird. 2005, composed with John Oswald. Sop, chamber ensemble

Swipe. 2005. Sop, pno. Words by Anna Chatterton

Dust. 2003. Sop, vlc. Words from Wilhelm Müller and Ecclesiastes

Six Illuminations. 2003. Sop, pno. Words by Arthur Rimbaud

Six Songs. 2001. Sop, string quar. Words by Walt Whitman

Simon & Garfunkel & The Prophets Of Rage. 1993. Voice, perc, pno

Fêtes de la Faim & Plainte. 1991. Sop, cl, fl, perc, pno, vln, vlc. Words by Arthur Rimbaud and Sappho

Phrase. 1991. Sop, cl, pno

Four Songs on Poems by Walt Whitman. 1990. Bass, pno

Solo works
Sticky. 2009. Marimba

The Connection. 2001. Marimba player who also recites. Words by Daniil Kharms

Lilacs. 1999. Pno

All the Rage. 1997. Pno

Thin Air. 1996. Pno

Accordion Motel. 1993. Acc

Cello Motel. 1993. Vlc

Discontinuous Probability Fields #1-4. 1993. Pno

Discontinuous Probability Field #5. 1993. Pno

Viola Motel. 1993. Vla

Violin Motel. 1993. Vln

Idiot Sorrow. 1990. Pno

Further Reading