Music Composition | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music Composition

The attribution of the music to a native-born priest, Charles-Amador Martin (1648-1711), is an attractive possibility, though not fully proven. This piece, though not nearly as early as the earliest compositions from New Spain, does antedate the earliest known by composers of New England.
Dessane, Antoine
Antoine Dessane (portrait by Théophile Hamel courtesy Musée du Québec). The music is an excerpt from his Ouverture of 1863 with the Orchestre Métropolitain, Gilles Auger conducting (courtesy CBC).
Adaskin, Murray
Adaskin's compositions employ a highly personal neoclassical idiom, frequently using Canadian folk material (courtesy Nicholas Morant/Canadian Music Centre).
Freedman, Harry
Freedman first won critical acclaim for his superb orchestration (courtesy Canadian Music Centre).
Ridout, Godfrey
Ridout's compositions, ranging from chamber music and symphonic pieces to scores for radio drama and film, are professional and tuneful (courtesy Canadian Music Centre).
Somers, Harry
Somers's music is internationally respected and is performed throughout the Western world (courtesy André Leduc Assoc/Canadian Music Centre).

Music Composition

  The repertoire of works composed in Canada in the traditions of Western art music goes back about 300 years; but by far its largest part belongs to the post-WWII period. The late-17th-century "Prose de la Sainte-Famille," a long plainchant preserved in several manuscript copies in Québec City, is original both in text and music.

The attribution of the music to a native-born priest, Charles-Amador Martin (1648-1711), is an attractive possibility, though not fully proven. This piece, though not nearly as early as the earliest compositions from New Spain, does antedate the earliest known by composers of New England.

In the early 1980s a large number of previously unknown musical manuscripts, particularly those of the so-called Montreal Organ Book (1724; facsimile ed, 1981), revealed anonymous choral and organ-solo compositions of the early 18th century, some of which may be by local composers.

In the century preceding Confederation, the annals of urban musical life in many parts of Canada illustrate the versatility of pioneering professionals, who typically led choirs as well as chamber, wind and orchestral ensembles; handled sales of instruments and sheet music; taught music both privately and in schools; organized musical performances; and in almost all cases composed at least a modest quantity of new pieces.

With the gradual flowering of a Canadian music-publishing industry after 1840, much of this literature followed the prevailing markets of sentimental and patriotic songs, dance music, piano variations on favourite melodies, and sacred music. But there was also a respectable and growing production of works in larger forms. Historical published (and occasionally also unpublished) Canadian music has been made more accessible through the series The Canadian Musical Heritage (Ottawa, from 1984), of which 23 vols had appeared by 1999, with several more in preparation.

 The part-time composers of this period were nonetheless often quite skilled. Many came to Canada from other countries: Joseph QUESNEL (1746-1809), Charles Wugk Sabatier (1819-62) and Antoine Dessane (1826-73) from France; Stephen Codman (1796-1852) from England; James Paton Clarke (1808-77) and G.W. Strathy (1818-90) from Scotland; Frederic Glackemeyer (1751-1836) and T.F. Molt (1796-1856) from Germany; Stephen Humbert (1767-1849) and Mark Burnham (1791-1864) from the US. Gifted native-born Canadians included J.-C. Brauneis, Jr (1814-71), Ernest GAGNON, Calixa LAVALLÉE, and Romain-Octave Pelletier (1843-1927).

Achievements of unusual interest include the operetta Colas et Colinette (1789, text and music by Quesnel), one of the earliest North American works in this genre; Humbert's anthems and fuguing tunes, based on then current New England models; Dessane's imposing concerted church-music settings (he had been one of the last pupils of Cherubini); and the song cycle Lays of the Maple Leaf (1853) by Clarke.

Indigenous references in subject or text are rare (the Clarke work is a notable exception); others include J.J. Perrault's Messe de Noël (1861), introducing folksong motives from French-speaking Canada, and Gagnon's "Stadaconé" (1858), a piano piece evocative of Amerindian rhythms.

Lavallée was the most versatile and prolific Canadian composer of the later 19th century, rarely overstepping convention but possessing a strong melodic sense and an extensive vocabulary of harmonies and colours. Some of his songs, and especially his works for solo piano (eg, "Le Papillon,""L'Oiseau-mouche") enjoyed an international vogue and have been successfully revived along with larger works such as his concert overture La Rose nuptiale and his operetta The Widow. Canadians know him best as the composer of "O Canada."

Among composers active between Confederation and WWI, most were native Canadians: eg, Joseph Vézina (1849-1924), Guillaume Couture (1851-1915), Alexis CONTANT (1858-1918), Wesley Octavius Forsyth (1859-1937) and Clarence Lucas (1866-1947). But this era also saw a large influx of professional musicians from Britain, many of whom were influential in teaching composition as well as in composing, especially for chorus; Charles A.E. HARRISS (1862-1929) and J. Humfrey Anger (1862-1913) are leading examples.

Large choral-orchestral pieces now appeared more frequently, among them Arthur E. Fisher's The Wreck of the Hesperus (1893), Harriss's Torquil (1894), Contant's Caïn (1905) and Couture's Jean le Précurseur (1909), as well as orchestral works like Lucas's concert overture Macbeth (1900) and, less often, extended chamber works like Contant's Trio (1907).

The favoured stage form was romantic or parodistic operetta rather than full-scaled opera. Themes were often frankly escapist, but indigenous situations inspired both Oscar Telgmann's Leo, the Royal Cadet (1889, still among the longest-running of Canadian operettas) and Vézina's Le Fétiche (1912, a fictionalization of French-Indian conflict).

In the interwar period, prominent composers were the native Canadians Rodolphe Mathieu (1890-1962), Claude CHAMPAGNE (1891-1965) and Ernest MACMILLAN (1893-1973), and the British-born Healey WILLAN (1880-1968) and Alfred Whitehead (1887-1974). MacMillan, best known as a conductor, produced one of the first Canadian string quartets (1921), and Willan what may be the first symphonies (no. 1, 1936; no. 2, 1948).

The music of this group reflects, particularly around 1930, a strong interest in local folk music as material for compositional development. It also shows greater technical assurance than the music of earlier generations, but perhaps only in works such as Mathieu's Trio (1922) and the later works of Champagne (Quartet, 1954; Altitude, 1959) do international styles of 20th-century music show a marked influence.

Willan had the longest and most productive career of any Canadian composer to date, covering almost a 70-year time-span and touching on almost all standard forms including symphony, concerto, opera, chamber music, organ and choral music and songs. His choral works, effectively combining classic a-cappella textures and an English-romantic harmonic idiom, drew wide international notice.

 A few of Willan's students went on to composing careers which relate to his outlook (Godfrey Ridout, 1918-84; Robert Fleming, 1921-76). Champagne was also a widely respected teacher. But the period 1935-50 was one of generational confrontation: younger composers by and large rejected their seniors' work, and asserted new emphases. They regarded composing as a central professional activity, adopted current international idioms, turned to US rather than British or Continental-European schools for their training, established a new teacher-pupil tradition in Canada, and - most importantly - produced a substantial and vital new repertoire of musical works.

   The national cultural stirrings of the 1950s coincided with the rise of these figures (Murray Adaskin, b 1906; Jean Coulthard, b 1908; Barbara Pentland, b 1912; Violet Archer and John Weinzweig, both b 1913; and Jean Papineau-Couture, b 1917) and their students (Harry Freedman, b 1922; Harry Somers, 1925-99; Clermont Pépin and François Morel, both b 1926; Pierre Mercure (1927-66); John Beckwith, b 1927; and Serge Garant, 1929-86) and with the arrival of important immigrant practitioners (Otto Joachim, b 1910, in Canada from 1949; Oskar MORAWETZ, b 1917, in Canada from 1940; Istvan Anhalt, b 1919, in Canada from 1949; Talivaldis Kenins and Udo Kasemets, both b 1919 and in Canada from 1951; and Sophie-Carmen ECKHARDT-GRAMATTÉ, 1899-1974, in Canada from 1953).

The spirit of the epoch was further reflected in the founding of a professional association, the Canadian League of Composers (1951) and a support organization, the Canadian Music Centre (1959), in policies favouring contemporary works in CBC broadcasts and recordings, and in increased acceptance of creative music as a major subject in Canadian conservatories and university music departments.

 This was a favourable climate for the maturation of a younger group, born in the 1930s, among whom are some of Canada's best-known composers - Gilles Tremblay, b 1932; R. Murray Schafer, b 1933; André Prévost, b 1934; Jacques HÉTU, b 1938; Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, 1938-85; and Bruce Mather, b 1939.

Among a large number whose work captured attention after 1967 (ie, composers born since 1940) may be mentioned Brian Cherney, b 1942; John Hawkins and John Rea, both b 1944; Donald Steven, b 1945; Michel LONGTIN, b 1946; Walter Boudreau and Barry Truax, both b 1947; Claude Vivier, 1948-83; Denis Lorrain and Steven Gellman, both b 1948; Chan Ka-Nin and Alexina LOUIE, both b 1949; John Burke, b 1951; Serge Arcuri, b 1954; Denys BOULIANE, b 1955; and Robert Rosen, b 1956. Composers rising to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s include Denis Gougeon, b 1942; Marjan Mozetich, b 1948; Patrick Cardy and Christos Hatzis, both born 1953; Owen Underhill and Glenn Buhr, both born 1954; Linda Bouchard, b 1957; Rodney Sharman, b 1958; and Omar Daniel, b 1960.

Seasoned composers born abroad came to Canada in the later 1960s to assume influential positions at leading Canadian universities. Among these were Rudolf Komorous, Elliott Weisgarber and Steven Chatman in British Columbia; Lothar Klein, James Tenny and Peter Paul Koprowski in Ontario; and Bengt Hambreaus, Alcides Lanza and José Evangelista in Québec. Tenney and Komorous in particular brought with them an appreciation of the aesthetic philosophy advanced by the American composer John Cage. A trio of prominent American composer-instrumentalists - percussionist Michael Colgrass (b 1932), clarinetist Raymond Luedeke (b 1944) and saxophonist David Mott (b 1945) - have also contributed to Canadian music in recent decades.

The repertoire which took shape in the 1950s exhibited many new features: for example, the pastoral strain in Coulthard; the amiable neoclassicism of Adaskin's scores; original approaches to abstract structuring, pursued with intensity especially by Pentland and Papineau-Couture. The 1960s, buoyant decade of the national centennial, saw a remarkable flourishing of compositions exploring new directions such as chance music, electronics and theatricalism. With major scores such as Mercure's Triptyque (1959) and Lignes et points (1963-64), Joachim's Contrasts (1967), and Somers's Five Concepts (1961) and Stereophony (1963, for an orchestra deployed around the auditorium on various levels), the range of Canadian orchestral expression became considerably broadened.

The latter's work in particular has continued to combine fullness of structure with a personal expressiveness touching on anguish in the soliloquies of Louis Riel (1967) and in the Shaman's Song (1983) or on sensuousness mixed with humour in Love-in-Idleness (1976, based on a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream). In Somers's second opera for the Canadian Opera Company, Mario and the Magician (1992), the heyday of fascist Italy in the late 1920s is chillingly evoked through the use of quotation and stylistic allusion.

Weinzweig's works for solo instruments and orchestra (3 concertos, 8 divertimenti) have resulted from a close study of instrumental idioms. His music is characteristically lean-textured and often contains jazz, blues and swing inflections (Refrains for double bass and piano, 1976; Out of the Blues for wind ensemble, 1981; and the virtuostic Fifteen Pieces for Harp, 1983, are typical). Since the mid-1970s he has enriched the Canadian vocal repertoire with a series of solo and choral compositions set to his own texts; among these are his Private Collection (1975), Prime Time (1991) and Journey Out of Night (1994).

Sensitivity to percussion colours is a feature of the music of Tremblay and Mather. Both excel in chamber works of mixed instrumentation. The former's preoccupation with an almost pantheistic symbolism (eg, in Solstices, 1971, and Compostelle I, 1978) may be traced to the influence of his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, while the synthesis of science and nature found in his large orchestral work, Fleuves (1976), stems from the music of Edgard Varèse.

A noted oenophile, Bruce Mather often titles his works after choice wines (Musique pour Champigny, 1978; Barbaresco, 1984). Since the mid-1970s he has conceived his works in the system of microtonal intonation advanced by the Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky. Kasemets holds an independent avant-garde position; virtually his entire production since the early 1960s consists of happenings and mixed-media schemes rather than conventional musical "works." His compositions of the 1990s have often derived their architecture from the world of physics, notably the principles of fractal geometry established by Benoit Mandelbrot.

Canadian research in electro-acoustic music has been internationally recognized from the pioneer inventions and compositions of Hugh LeCaine (1914-77) to the work of Anhalt, Joachim, Schafer, Saint-Marcoux, Truax and many others. Toronto's Canadian Electronic Ensemble, formed in 1971, is recognized as the world's senior improvisational ensemble. The city of Montréal has achieved a global reputation as a centre for electro-acoustic music through the initiatives of the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ, founded in 1978) and is the home of Jean-François Denis's Empreintes digitales recording label.

In the theatre sphere, apart from incidental music by specialists such as Louis APPLEBAUM (b 1918), Gabriel Charpentier (b 1925) and Gary Kulesha (b 1954), the repertoire includes ballets by Freedman (Rose Latulippe, Romeo and Juliet, Oiseaux exotiques), Somers (House of Atreus), Garant (Findings, based on his Offrande I) and Klein (Canadiana), and operas by Charles Wilson (Heloise and Abelard), Somers (Louis Riel, The Death of Enkidu, Mario and the Magician), Beckwith (The Shivaree) and Vivier (Kopernicus). An intense involvement with the world of modern dance and a predilection for cyclic rhythmic procedures are characteristics of a maverick faction of composers encompassing Ann Southam (b 1937), Michael J. Baker (b 1949), Henry Kucharzyk, Peter Hannan and John Oswald (all born 1953), and Robert W. Stevenson (b 1954).

Charpentier's cycle of 10 mini-operas, A Night at the Opera, like Schafer's more cosmic music dramas, Patria and The Greatest Show on Earth, had been produced only in part by 1987; however, in subsequent seasons the latter's Apocalypsis, The Princess of the Stars, Ra and Hermes Trisgamestos all received full productions revealing a powerful mingling of operatic with ritualistic and earth-art elements. Somewhat more conventional productions of the 1990s included Nic Gotham's Nigredo Hotel, Randolph Peter's Nosferatu, Kulesha's Red Emma, Quentin Doolittle's Charlie the Chicken and Underhill's The Star Catalogues.

Historical reference and quotation, encountered in Schafer, Beckwith and others, become crucial factors in Rea's chamber work Com-possession, where dancing, electronics and live-instrumental sounds from past and present blend to evoke the spells of tarantulism.

The association of music with social comment is seen in Weinzweig's Wine of Peace and Dummiyah; in Pentland's News; in several works by Morawetz, notably Memorial to Martin Luther King and From the Diary of Anne Frank; and in Prévost's Second Quartet ("Da Pacem") and Ahimsâ.

Overt Canadianism is exemplified in works connected with Canadian history or environment or visual art, or based on Canadian literary texts. Examples are Schafer's youthful Brébeuf, set to portions of Brébeuf's journals; Morel's Boréal and L'Étoile noire, the latter based on a famous Borduas canvas; works by Weinzweig, Garant and others employing Inuit and Indian sources; Freedman's impressionistic Images and Klee Wyck; and Anhalt's unique music dramas - half cantata, half documentary/pageant - Foci, La Tourangelle and Winthrop. The last 2 works delve into the meaning of cultural transplantation (from Old World to New), with a resourceful fusion of images drawn from the lives of particular early immigrants (seeMUSIC HISTORY). A post-modern manifestation of nationalism occurs in the electroacoustic transformation of Inuit voices by Christos Hatzis in his Footprints in New Snow (1997).

These nationalist approaches are counterbalanced by a number of works that are derived from foreign cultures, or, as in the music of Louie and Chan, are reflective of their composer's ethnic heritage. The Montréal-born composer Colin McPhee's journeys to the island of Bali in the late 1930s are echoed decades later in Somers's utilization of Sanskrit vocables in the choral work Chura-churum (1985), in Vivier's allusions to Japanese music in his Zipangu (1980) for strings, and in Evangelista's peculiar heterophony of Balinese and Spanish influences.

In the 1980s there was a renewal of interest in orchestral music, with highlights ranging from Pépin's Fifth Symphony (like his Third, inspired by astronomy) and Kenins's Seventh (with mezzo-soprano solo), to Garant's taut and austere Plages and Cherney's ... into the distant stillness .... In 1988 the Canada Council sponsored the development of composer-in-residence programs for the orchestras of Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Kitchener, Ottawa, Montréal and Québec City. Another encouraging development was the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's establishment of an annual festival of contemporary orchestral music in 1990.

Especially formidable dimensions were undertaken in Rosen's From Silence (1982-83) and Gellman's Universe Symphony (1985) with their large forces, seriousness of tone, and Ivesian breadth and density. Recent works by Longtin, Hawkins and others sounded a call for renewal of classic key-centered forms (Longtin's deliberate homage in Autour d'Ainola, 1986, was to Sibelius; that of Hawkins, in Breaking Through, 1982, to Weill) - to which several younger composers seemed responsive. In Canada as elsewhere, the visual-art revival of representation after abstraction is paralleled in creative music by a revival of tonalism after serialism.

In works such as Louie's Music for a Thousand Autumns and Vivier's Siddartha, nonwestern and even animalistic influences arise. A US observer, Stephen Young, singled out the last 2 composers during a 1987 address on recent Canadian music, finding in their scores "a kind of spirituality that may be unique." Young added, "Canadians have triumphed over their own world view of insecurity [in] a spiritual journey that, like the Rastafarian inner fire, cannot be taken from them by any who would seek to dominate, be it the cold, the US, or their own sense of inferiority."

The music-publishing industry in Canada, though thriving in earlier days, could not expand sufficiently to cope with the serious works of the post-World War II period. Efforts in the 1960s by G. Ricordi (Canada) Ltd, Leeds Music (Canada) and especially BMI Canada Ltd through its Canavangard series, and in the 1980s by Les Éditions Doberman in Québec, gave published status to only a fraction of the successful concert repertoire produced - making the collection of the Canadian Music Centre an indispensable source for performers and students. However, the growth in production of serious-music recordings in the country has provided a fairer degree of accessibility. Major projects include Radio Canada International's Anthology of Canadian Music, a series of 38 single-composer and thematic albums, and the catalogue of over 50 Centrediscs, produced and distributed by the Canadian Music Centre.

Though the availability of several computer-based music notation programs in the 1990s enabled composers to present their music in a highly legible format, the dissemination and promotion of these scores remained quite limited. A major initiative to address this issue was launched in 1998 with the establishment of The Canada Council for the Arts' Digital Music Library at the Canadian Music Centre. This unprecedented undertaking is intended to greatly enhance the dissemination and promotion of Canadian music by making the CMC's collection globally accessible through the Internet.

Since the mid-1960s, larger Canadian cities have witnessed the growth of concert societies devoted to contemporary music, in which the work of local composers has received special, sometimes exclusive, attention. If large operatic and symphonic companies are like public art museums in their historical view, these new-music organizations may be compared to small independent galleries covering the contemporary scene. The oldest is the still-active SOCIÉTÉ DE MUSIQUE CONTEMPORAINE DU QUÉBEC, founded by Serge GARANT and others in 1966. Toronto's New Music Concerts was founded in 1971; the Vancouver New Music Society and Toronto's Array music followed a year later. Other ongoing promoters of contemporary music include Continuum (Toronto, 1984); Vancouver Pro Musica (1987); Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne (Montréal, 1989); Espace Musique (Ottawa, 1979) and Ground Swell (Winnipeg, 1992). The ESPRIT ORCHESTRA (Toronto, 1982) remains Canada's singular resource of contemporary orchestral music.

Commissioning programs have provided a further boost to the composing profession, increasingly since about 1960. Whereas in the 1950s one rarely heard a new work which had been commissioned, today one rarely hears one which has not been. The CBC's commissioning policies already created precedents in this regard in the 1940s; now the arts councils, as well as soloists, ensembles and concert-giving societies, have all become familiar sources of support for new compositions. Though newer and less widely publicized than the Governor General's Awards for literature, the Jules Léger Prize for chamber music parallels them in one area of composition for which Léger (founder of the prize during his term as governor general) had special fondness. Past winners include Schafer, 1978; Mather, 1979 and 1993; Garant, 1980; Rea, 1981; Boudreau, 1982; Hawkins, 1983; Cherney, 1985; Longtin, 1986; Bouliane, 1987; Colgrass, 1988; Koprowski, 1989 and 1994; Steven, 1991; Burke, 1995; Hatzis, 1996; and Daniel, 1997.

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