Canadians in the TIMELINE

by Robert Markow

A slow start

Much as was the case with our neighbor to the south, classical music in Canada developed slowly and fitfully during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not a single composer in the Timeline is a Canadian until well into the twentieth century. True, there was classical music here before that, but no composers of lasting value emerged until Healey Willan (1880-1968) and Claude Champagne (1891-1965) began to put Canada on the musical map early in the last century. Furthermore, until the second quarter of the twentieth century, there were – with one exception – no permanent orchestras to play music that might have been written for this medium. That exception was the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Canada's oldest continuously operating symphony orchestra founded in 1902. Very few American orchestras are older than that.

After World War II

Things limped along until after World War II; then they virtually exploded. The development of classical music in Canada from that point onward has for the most part been a continuing search for new means of musical organization. Some composers preferred to remain in the more comfortable realms of neo-classicism, romanticism and/or impressionism (Adaskin, Champagne, Ridout, Glick, Morawetz), but many more pushed the envelope to incorporate serialism (Anhalt, Garant, Pentland, Pépin and Weinzweig, who wrote Canada's first twelve-tone composition), electronic music (Anhalt, Beecroft, Garant, Oliver, Schafer), spatial music (Schafer), aleatoric music (Mercure, Rea, Schafer), jazz (Buhr, Colgrass, Freedman, Turner), music derived from or inspired by geometric forms and physical phenomena (Aitken, Brott, Colgrass, Estacio, Fleming Garant, Hétu, Mercure, Prévost, Rea) and music incorporating practices and traditions of Canadian First Peoples (Louie, Murphy, Somers) or those of immigrants (Forsyth, Koprowski, Sokolovic). One of the more recent trends has been the influence of musical cultures from Asian lands such as Iran (Vivier), India (Buhr, Schafer, Vivier), Bali (Evangelista, Vivier) and Tibet (Gellman).

Important organizations

Rapid growth was further stimulated by the founding of such important and influential organizations as the CBC (1936), Radio Canada International (1945), the Canadian Music Council (1945), the Canadian League of Composers (1951), the Canada Council for the Arts (1957), the Canadian Music Centre (1959) and the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (1966). As an indication of the surging development of classical music in Canada over the past half century or so, the Canadian League of Composers, founded by three men in 1951, numbered about fifty members in the early 1970s. Today its membership has swelled to over three hundred. The Canadian Music Centre, (an entirely different organization) lists 748 composers living and deceased in its ranks as of May 2010.

A struggle, especially for women

The struggle of composers to carve for themselves a prominent niche on the Canadian arts scene was doubly difficult for women. Only within the past generation or two has the world of composition been regarded as equally acceptable for – and accepting of – both genders. (This condition is by no means limited to Canada; it has been a worldwide phenomenon.) Pioneers in this endeavor were Violet Archer, Barbara Pentland and Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, all born between 1899 and 1913. The latter even went so far as to adopt men's clothing in her effort to be accepted as a serious composer. Pentland, while still a girl, bristled at being sent to Paris not to study music but to attend finishing school.

Regional distribution

Composers exist all across Canada, of course, but it comes as no surprise to learn that the great majority of them are found in just two cities, Toronto and Montreal. Thirty-two of the 52 Timeline Canadians are identified with these cities alone. Canada's third largest city, Vancouver, claims just two but Ottawa, despite its relatively small size, has five. Alberta (Calgary and Edmonton combined) has four, Winnipeg three, and there is one each for Quebec City (Morel) and Kingston (Anhalt). Sydney Hodkinson has fled (permanently, it seems) to the U.S., Norma Beecroft carried out most of her work within the context of the CBC spread across several cities, Murray Adaskin divided his career about evenly between Saskatoon (he almost single-handedly put this city on the musical map) and Victoria (where he lived out a long retirement and wrote more than half of his compositions), and Robert Turner is equally identified with both the University of Manitoba and Vancouver. All in all, then, a fairly even spread across the country's vast landscape, with the Atlantic provinces the only glaring omission. One composer (Colgrass) migrated north from the U.S. while two Canadians have gone south (Hodkinson and Bouchard), not just for the winter.

Canadian elements in the music

Is there anything inherently “Canadian” about the music written in this country? In most cases, no. Composers are generally more disposed toward manipulating sounds in abstract configurations. However, there do exist a few qualities that mark some compositions as certifiably, if not unmistakably, Canadian. Musical evocations of the great Northland – Inuit communities, the northern lights, frozen landscapes, the bitter cold – would not likely come from composers whose lives are not in some way touched by these elements (Somers' North Country, Schafer's North/White, Estacio's Borealis, Colgrass's Arctic Dreams). The influence of native folksong finds its way into serious music in most countries, and Canada is no exception (Champagne's Symphonie gaspésienne, Beckwith's Music for Dancing, Forsyth's Atayoskewin, Gougeon's Écoutez mon histoire, Weinzweig's Red Ear of Corn). And then there is that sense of vastness, of big sky, of limitless space, which our country has in such abundance – a feeling that creeps in subtle ways into many of the musical compositions written in this country (Symonds' Three Atmospheres, Louie's Infinite Sky with Birds and Shattered Night, Shivering Stars). Harry Freedman flatly stated, “Canada is about space.” Environmental concerns are the subject of several major works by R. Murray Schafer.

A nation of immigrants

Canada is a nation of immigrants, so it comes as no surprise to learn that many of our composers were born abroad. No fewer than thirteen of the 52 Canadians on the Timeline – 25% – have come from other lands: England (Willan), Italy (Murphy), Hungary (Anhalt), Czechoslovakia (Morawetz), Spain (Evangelista), Yugoslavia (Sokolovic), Russia (Eckhardt-Gramatté), Poland (Freedman and Koprowski), South Africa (Forsyth), Hong Kong (Chan and Hui) and the U.S. (Colgrass). Canada is also a nation of movers. Just thirteen of the Canadian Timeliners died, or continue to live, in the city where they were born.

Composers as performers

It is still rare to find composers who make their living exclusively (or nearly so) from composing alone (Denis Gougeon, Alexina Louie and Michael Colgrass are exceptions). A good number of them also teach but, like many of the famous composers of the past in other lands, they are (or were) outstanding performers as well. However, whereas most of those other composers played the piano (and nothing else), Canada boasts many fine composers who are experts on an astonishing range of other instruments: Robert Aitken is well known as one of the world's leading flutists. Murray Adaskin was one of the first violinists to land a job in the Toronto Symphony back in 1923. Harry Freedman some years later played oboe and English horn in that same orchestra for a quarter of a century before taking up composition full-time. Malcom Forsyth divided his time in Edmonton between composing and playing trombone in the orchestra there. Alexander Brott was concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony for thirteen years. Norman Symonds played clarinet and saxophone in jazz bands. Michael Colgrass was one of the busiest percussionists in New York City during the 1950s and '60s. Healey Willan and Robert Fleming held positions as organist in several Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto churches. John Oliver leads an active life as a guitarist. Claude Vivier traveled to Bali to learn the gamelan. Most composers play piano to some extent, but several Timeline Canadians also have (or had) extensive experience as professionals. These include Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, Bruce Mather (as a duo-pianist with his wife Pierette) and Glenn Buhr (as a jazz pianist).

Long lives

As a final observation, it might be noted that a large number of Canada's leading composers have lived to a ripe old age. Maybe it's the water or the air. Violet Archer lived to the age of 86, Healey Willan to 87, Barbara Pentland to 88, Alexander Brott and Oskar Morawetz to 90, Jean Coulthard to 92, John Weinzweig to 93, Murray Adaskin to 96. Still alive in their eighties or nineties as of September 2010 are Robert Aitken, István Anhalt, John Beckwith, François Morel and Robert Turner. One other significant composer, who somehow escaped inclusion in our Timeline, is Otto Joachim, who turns 100 in October 2010. O Canada!