Concert Program Notes


Born in Montreal, May 27, 1891; died in Montreal, December 21, 1965

Symphonie Gaspésienne is one of the most explicit examples of Canadian landscape painting in the repertory. It is not difficult to hear in the contrasting instrumental colors of Champagne's music the curling of waves, the cries of seagulls, even the irregular topography of the shoreline of the Gaspé peninsula.

The single-movement, twenty-minute Symphonie gaspésienne was composed in 1945 and first performed in a radio broadcast by the CBC Montreal Orchestra on December 21, 1947, conducted by Jean Beaudet. The first concert performance was given by the Montreal Symphony under Désiré Defauw on March 1, 1949. Although a symphony in name, it is as much a symphonic poem in its overt intention of conjuring up images and feelings of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. As such, it is widely regarded as one of the most notable examples of Canadian landscape painting in music. “It was nature that impressed me most in my life, so far as my music is concerned,” Champagne once said. Composer and professor Marvin Duchow called it “a monument embodying [Champagne's] deeply felt vision of the physical and spiritual beauty of his native land.” Champagne provided the following commentary about his work:

“Two elements were present in the elaboration of this symphony: the evocative element and the expressive element. These two elements melt into the sound texture. The broad movement of the work describes the curl of the waves and the view of the physical irregularities of the Gaspé coast. The continuous rushing of the waves is half-concealed in the background. The opening harmonies describe the dense morning fog. We hear odd sounds coming from ships out at sea and the cracked resonance of church bells from the little churches scattered along the peninsula. Gradually the fog disperses and a theme emerges, followed by a ray of sunlight that is crystallized by the sound of the violins. Then the oboe sings of its melancholy. These two themes must be remembered as they recur throughout the work.

“After the ascent of the violins, daylight bursts out in all its strength and sings its joie de vivre … and the andante ends. The allegretto soars toward the summits, it is noon, the atmosphere is bright and vibrant. Gradually the sea grows agitated, the wind whips the waves and whistles cascades of scales, then becomes calm in a pastoral cantilena which serves as a half-way mark and bridge section.

“Then comes the reappearance of the themes of the andante, followed by figures from the allegretto, which, as it develops, accentuates all the sound material already familiar. This is like a long peroration in which the evocative and expressive elements amplify the intentions suggested in the exposition. One notes the augmentation, the canon, the effect of the waves breaking on the shore, the repeat of the church bells, the flight of the seagulls in the blue sky.

“A coda ends the work, commanding attention with a long phrase by the brass that is taken from a secondary figure in the allegretto.”


Born in Toronto, September 11, 1925; died in Toronto, March 9, 1999

North Country is one of Somers' earliest scores, still one of his most frequently played, and one of his most quintessential, containing all the important elements of his musical style during the 1950s and ‘60s. To many listeners, it also evokes the bleak, tranquil landscapes of northern Ontario where the composer was visiting when he wrote this work.

North Country was written in the fall of 1948 and first performed that year by the CBC Orchestra in Toronto conducted by Geoffrey Waddington. It is one of Somers' earliest orchestral scores and remains, more than sixty years later, one of his most frequently played. It is also, in the words of biographer Brian Cherney, “one of Somers' most original and striking achievements. It contains all of the important elements of his language during the fifties and sixties: the lean, highly strung melodic lines; thin transparent textures, often involving considerable contrapuntal organization; the tight thematic control; the use of the extended orchestral crescendo as a structural device; the restless dynamic contrasts; and the tension-producing appearance of tonal elements within a non-tonal context.” Another quality common to this music, notes Cherney, is the surface tranquility just barely concealing inner tension and unrest. For many listeners, North Country evokes qualities of the northern Ontario wilderness where Somers had been visiting about the time he wrote the work - its rugged terrain, bleak landscapes, tranquility and loneliness.

The first movement is the most substantial, and serves as a microcosm of nearly every compositional technique Cherney mentions above. The frolicsome second movement begins with rapidly repeated notes played pizzicato and punctuated with descending glissandos. Then follows another slow movement, this one quietly reflective, and the suite ends with a very brief but energetic movement replete with irregular rhythmic patterns.


Born near Nelson, BC, Dec 23, 1920; died in Toronto, Aug 21, 1998.

Symonds invites the listener to share his thoughts and feelings upon contemplating three Canadian nature scenes, each of which he has translated into sound.

In 1969, with the aid of a Canada Council senior fellowship, Symonds undertook a marathon 25,000-mile road trip throughout Canada. He later called it “one of the most important things I've done in my life in terms of the harvest I've reaped from it.” Most of the compositions Symonds wrote in the remaining years of his life were derived in some way from this experience – the vastness of the country, the landscapes, the wonder of nature. Three Atmospheres was one of the fruits of this harvest. It was commissioned by the Hamilton Philharmonic, which gave the first performance during the 1972-1973 season. The composer has provided detailed descriptions of each of his three “atmospheres”:

'Loon and Lake' is about a twilight in northern Saskatchewan beside a deserted lake. The stillness was absolute, and as the last light hung in the air, a loon cried, then another, and for a brief period their calls accumulated around the lake, slowly dying away to one distant echoing note; then it was dark. … This movement is of a gentle and primitive mystery. The solos are microcosms; like time-lapse photography, they mirror, in a few seconds, the cycle of nature - birth, growth and death – and must be played with the appropriate intensity. The 3/4 section is slightly pagan, a ritual dance. The whole movement should feel as though without beginning or end.

“'Mist and Mountain' is of a scene on the Alaska Highway south of Whitehorse early one morning. There was a heavy mist in the air which partly obscured a dark, cone-shaped mountain in the near distance. The whole wilderness scene was one of heavy age, dark and mysterious. … The tempo is critical and so are the dynamics. The conga drum rhythm is like the heartbeat of the earth.

“'Sun and Sea' is descriptive of another morning I spent loafing on the rocky shore around Sambro lighthouse near Halifax. It was a brilliant, sunny day in June, the sea was in a gentle mood and I spent the morning breathing (deeply), lying in the sun and absorbing the rhythm of, in Jacques Cousteau's words, ‘great, sweet, Mother Sea.'”


Born in Calgary, May 24, 1953; now living in Calgary

In Spirit Trail, the composer has attempted to capture the very “sound” of the Canadian prairies. To this end he has incorporated a number of unusual effects including whistling, aleatoric passages (musicians play at will), scraping of the bow across the strings, and prominent growls from the contrabassoon.

Spirit Trail was a 25th-anniversary commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which gave the first performance on April 13, 1994 with Mario Bernardi conducting.

The composer's note in the score reads: “In a book entitled Songlines, the British writer Bruce Chatwin described the manner in which the Aborigines of Australia created ‘maps' of the continent in song. Although I know of no such practice in North America, I began to wonder what ‘voices' we might hear if we listened imaginatively to the landscape. And, if we heard the ‘songs,' would we know where we were.

Spirit Trail is an imaginary musical journey through the prairies. Beginning with an evocation of snowdrifts and grasswaves, it moves through states of turmoil to quiescence.”

Prior to the premiere performance in Ottawa, Bell made the following remarks from the stage - “a road map, or maybe I should say trail guide,” to the piece, as he put it:

“The piece begins rather ferociously, but then it immediately settles into a serene sound. I think you'll recognize it because the people of Ottawa understand what the sound of wind passing over snow is like. That we share [with the prairies] at least. Beneath that is the sound of the contrabassoon, which you'll hear a lot of this evening. It starts very low and resembles a sound emerging from the bowels of the earth or the bowels of some great beast.

“After that is a section that presents the main thematic material of the piece. You'll hear the upper strings in an undulating quality beneath which there is a very vigorous cello line. Horn and trumpet create a serene horizon. … [Then] things get very, very ferocious and vigorous, and wind up in a climactic section where you may think that in fact the orchestra falling apart. They are, but it's exactly what I want. They are all playing individually. This lasts for a short while and then we move to another climax where the timpani are beating rather loudly and then another climax where it [again] seems that the orchestra is falling apart. … The piece changes and becomes very serene and stays that way to the end.”


Born in Pietermaritzburg (near Durban), South Africa, December 8, 1936; now living in Edmonton

Atayoskewin is one of Forsyth's most frequently-played compositions, and for a good reason: it is a brilliantly scored, imaginative, highly enjoyable evocation of three aspects of the Albertan northland, music that could only have been written by a Canadian.

Forsyth composed his suite Atayoskewin (the Cree word for “sacred legend) in 1984 on commission from Shell Canada to mark the opening of its $1.4 billion Scotford refinery and petrochemical complex northwest of Edmonton. When the Edmonton Symphony under Uri Mayer first performed it on November 16th of that year, the critic of the Edmonton Journal wrote: “I concur with the consensus of audience opinion: gorgeous, wonderful … brilliantly depictive.” The composition won Forsyth the Juno Award for Best Classical Composition in 1987.

The composer explains what he attempted to portray in Atayoskewin: “The inspiration behind this title is something of a mood, a feeling that I had when I made my first-ever trip to northern Alberta during the winter. It was very cold, and I saw this barren land where the tar sands are being developed. It's a very forbidding land, but it has a kind of majesty which is unmistakable. It's a very quiet place, and the people who have lived there for so many centuries are a very quiet people, and it somehow is the influence of the place that they've lived in.”

Each of the three movements conjures up a mood or image. “The Spirits” opens with the captivating sound of woodwinds and mallet instruments reminiscent of a Balinese gamelan ensemble. The four-note motif featured in the slow introduction will pervade the entire movement in one form or another. A soaring flute solo over harp ostinato sets in motion the main section in which much of the writing features glistening, shimmering effects that reflect Forsyth's encounter with the “brilliant sunshine and crystalline air” of northern Alberta. Gentle, peaceful thoughts pervade “The Dream.” A repeated, four-note scale pattern in the strings supported by softly glowing chords in the trombones serve as the backdrop for another four-note motif making sporadic appearances in the woodwinds, an idea borrowed from the Fifth Symphony by another composer well familiar with northern climes and landscapes, Sibelius. Brass and percussion (especially timpani and xylophone) come to the fore in “The Dance,” full of spiky melodies, asymmetrical rhythms, pounding drums and exuberant spirits.

Credits and Copyright

  • Text asset: Claude Champagne, Symphonie Gaspésienne
    Copyright: 2010, Robert Markow
  • Text asset: Harry Somers, North Country
    Copyright: 2010, Robert Markow
  • Text asset: Norman Symonds, Three Atmospheres
    Copyright: 2010, Robert Markow
  • Text asset: Allan Gordon Bell, Spirit Trail
    Copyright: 2010, Robert Markow
  • Text asset: Malcolm Forsyth, Atayoskewin
    Copyright: 2010, Robert Markow
Virtual Museum of Canada

To access the Virtual Museum of Canada's complete digital learning resources and lesson plans, visit the VMC Teachers' Centre.