Concert Program Notes


Born in Val d'Or (Abitibi), May 21, 1957; now living in San Francisco

Songs for an Acrobat may best be approached with this observation from the composer in mind: “In the poems [which she sets in the composition], there are many instances where the challenges of life, illness, loss are conjured through a lost of balance. I think we all need to become ‘Acrobats' to juggle the difficulties that life brings on.”

Songs for an Acrobat was commissioned by the National Arts Centre. On May 3, 1995, Trevor Pinnock, then the NAC Orchestra's Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, led the first performance there with baritone Kevin McMillan as soloist. The songs were composed with his voice in mind.

The poems Bouchard set are by Maurice Tourigny (1954-1999), who was born in Quebec City but spent much of his life in New York. The work is dedicated to Tourigny, “my dear friend, who never stops being a source of inspiration in this great adventure that is life.” The composer has stated that “there is not a single moment in Songs for an Acrobat that is not influenced by the text. Yet the music is not conceived simply to support the libretto, but rather to give the words another life in this multi-dimensional space that is music.” As for the title, Bouchard says that “in the poems, there are many instances where the challenges of life, illness, loss are conjured through a lost of balance. I think we all need to become ‘Acrobats' to juggle the difficulties that life brings on.” For the world premiere in 1995, the poet had these words to say about Songs for an Acrobat:

“Disorder is frightening, but it harbors the elements of reconstruction. Everyone tries to emerge from the storm of disorder and its tides of contradictions, but nothing is ever assured. There is no guaranteed rescue. By confronting each fear and the daily doubts and anxieties, a new understanding of time reveals itself.

Songs for an Acrobat is a trajectory, an itinerary of mourning, a journey through the night, a rediscovery of simple pleasures. Songs for an Acrobat is a celebration of love.”


Born in Sarnia, Ontario, July 18, 1933; now living in Indian River, Ontario

Over the years, the National Arts Centre Orchestra has performed the music of R. Murray Schafer on more than thirty occasions, beginning in 1973 (only the fourth year of the Orchestra's existence) when it commissioned East. Since then, it has commissioned four additional works: Cortège (1977), The Garden of the Heart (1981), Gitanjali (1992) and Dream-E-Scape (2009). In July, 2008, the NAC honored the composer with a “Schafer at 75” celebration of his lifetime achievement.

Schafer is one of Canada's most gifted, most articulate, most provocative, most eclectic and most performed composers. There is no such thing as a “typical” work by Schafer. His compositions often result from special explorations into the worlds of sound, sonics, language, philosophy, psychology, mythology, theater, ritual, or any combination thereof. Even audience participation is not unknown. His compositions can range from a modest four-minute Untitled Composition for Orchestra to an all-night ritual involving the five senses (Ra). Schafer also tends to write for unusual and unorthodox combinations: harp and string quartet (Theseus) or twelve trombones (Music for Wilderness Lake), to cite just two cases. One of the most significant aspects of Schafer's wide-ranging catalogue is the series of string quartets he has been producing since 1970. As of 2009, he was up to eleven, making him the composer of string quartets in Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Schafer is widely-known, both throughout Canada and abroad, as an environmentalist, educator and writer. He has some twenty literary works to his credit, of which E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music and The Tuning of the World are especially important. As for his musical training, Schafer is largely self-taught, having been dismissed from the University of Toronto in his first year. He acknowledges influence from John Weinzweig and Greta Kraus, and intellectual stimulation from Marshall McLuhan.

Schafer wrote his monodrama Adieu Robert Schumann in 1976 for the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester, who gave the first performance with the NAC Orchestra, Mario Bernardi conducting, on March 14, 1978. Brian Macdonald later choreographed the work for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens under the same title. Schafer describes his composition as follows:

“This work is concerned with the last days of Robert Schumann from the time of his first hallucinations until his death in the Endenich Asylum in 1856. The narrator is Clara Schumann, his wife, and the text consists of freely adapted selections from her diaries. Passages of many of Schumann's own compositions are incorporated into the work, in particular, sections of several of his Lieder as well as fragments from the piano pieces Carnaval and Kreisleriana. As is well known, Schumann delighted in evoking specific moods and characters in music, and the quotations have been introduced to suggest the conflicts in his mind during the days of his final collapse. There are also signature motifs: C-A for Clara and Bb-E for Robert – another device of which Schumann was particularly fond. The backstage piano piece in the middle of the work is the melody Schumann wrote down the night of his first dramatic hallucination, the melody he claimed was dictated to him by angels. The song which opens and closes the composition, Dein Angesicht, was one of Schumann's last.” (Note: Schumann wrote this song in 1840 but it was not published until late in his life.)


Born in Toronto, May 9, 1939; now living in Montreal

Harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, bells, flutes, piccolo and trumpet are the featured instruments used to create a twelve-minute soundscape that sparkles, shimmers, glistens and dazzles in a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of colors and textures that interact with the voice.

Bruce Mather often combines his two great passions, music and fine wines, in compositions inspired by the drink. His works, mostly for chamber ensemble, bear titles of famous wines like Yquem, Sassicaia, Clos de Vougeot, Ausone, Barbaresco, Musigny, Vouvray, Barolo, and, most recently (2009), Pommard for four cellos. In recognition of Mather's deep interest in this subject, he was initiated into the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin at the Château de Clos de Vougeot in 1987.

Mather spent his sabbatical year from McGill (1975-76) in France, where he composed two important works, Au Château de Pompairain and Musique pour Champigny. The former, commissioned by the National Arts Centre, takes its name from the château near Portiers, owned by a Montreal doctor, where the composer was staying at the time. Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Mailing and the NAC Orchestra gave the first performance on May 4, 1977 conducted by Mario Bernardi. The ecstatic, rhapsodic vocal contribution is prominent throughout but textless. Harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, bells, flutes, piccolo and trumpet are the featured instruments used to create a twelve-minute soundscape that sparkles, shimmers, glistens and dazzles in a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of colors and textures that interact with the voice. The composer notes that “in the first and third sections of this three-part work, the vocal line is predominant. In the central section, the voice part, formed mainly by long sustained notes, is enveloped by the full orchestra, which creates a quiet ‘forest' of sound. Each instrument or group of instruments repeats its own part several times. As the length of each part is different, the resultant music changes constantly.”


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

When Harry Somers died in 1999 at the age of 74, he had for nearly half a century been one of the leading figures in this country's musical life and one of its few to achieve international recognition. In 1972 he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, and later received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Ottawa, Toronto and York. His life and music were the subject of the first major study of a Canadian composer, written by Brian Cherney and published in 1975. Somers' three-act opera Louis Riel, commissioned for Canada's centennial year (1967), is widely regarded as the Canadian opera. It was first performed in Toronto in 1967, then revived in 1975 as part of a special Canadian festival held in Washington, D.C. for the American bicentennial festivities. Following Somers' death, composer and host of CBC's Two New Hours Larry Lake wrote that “he left Canada, and the world of music, an inestimable legacy of some of the most original and dramatically powerful scores of the century. His work has embodied Canadian music for the last half century and is truly a major part of Canada's artistic heritage.”

Somers' style has absorbed many and varied influences, from Gregorian chant and Baroque counterpoint to Bartók and twelve-tone procedures. Among his best-known works are the Picasso Suite, North Country Suite (both for orchestra), Five Songs from the Newfoundland Outports and the Five Songs for Dark Voice.

The Five Songs for Dark Voice were commissioned by the 1956 Stratford Music Festival and composed for Maureen Forrester, who sang the first performance there on August 11. The poetry Somers set was written expressly for the occasion and for Maureen Forrester's unique voice. The poet, Michael Fram, stated that “my most vivid recollection is of how deeply I was affected during the composition of this work by the quality of her voice. The emotions released in me seemed to find their inevitable expression.”

Like so many others, Harry Somers was profoundly moved by the way Gustav Mahler wrote for the voice as well as by the warm, rich, dark timbre of Forrester's voice, so appropriate for many of Mahler's vocal works. Somers acknowledged the influence of Mahler in his “Dark Songs,” written in what he called a neo-romantic style. “I felt that this style of writing was the one through which I could do greatest justice to Miss Forrester's voice and art,” he wrote, “and to Mr. Fram's beautiful imagery and his meaningful symbols of human feelings.” To critic Tamara Bernstein, Somers' spare settings of the poems “use Toronto's urban landscape as a metaphor for alienation and the search for compassion.” Somers further describes the Dark Songs as taking “the form of a condensed symphony, made up of five complete but concise movements in cyclical form. … The orchestra is treated as a chamber ensemble, which lends strength to the concept of a genuine chamber symphony with obbligato voice.”


Born in Montreal, April 14, 1948; died in Paris, March 12, 1983

When Quebec composer Claude Vivier was murdered in his Paris apartment at the age of 34, he was already highly regarded as one of Canada's most important composers. Since that time – more than a quarter of a century ago – Vivier's reputation has taken on almost mythic proportions, and his music continues to be performed with a regularity seldom seen in contemporary composers. Following the announcement of Vivier's death, critic and musicologist Harry Halbreich wrote in Harmonie-Panorama Musique that “his music really resembles no other, and he puts himself right on the fringe of all trends. His music, of a direct and disruptive expression, could bewilder only those hard-hearted people who are unfit to categorize this independent man of genius. Claude Vivier found what so many others have sought for, and still seek: the secret of a truly new simplicity.”

Vivier studied in Montreal, then in Holland, France and Germany. A deep affection for Asian cultures led him to an extended stay in Bali, whose music influenced his own. A fascination with plainchant deriving from his Catholic upbringing and an abiding concern with death and immortality also colored his music. At the time of his own death he was writing a choral piece called Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”) In the preface to the published score of Lonely Child, Jaco Mijnheer writes: “The music of Claude Vivier is a reflection of his personal life. … Both directly and indirectly, the themes of his compositions were inspired by his unknown family origins, his search for his mother, his religious vocation, his homosexuality and even his premature death. The 49 works composed during his brief career comprise the impressive legacy of an individual as passionate about life as he was about music.”

Vivier composed Lonely Child in 1980. Serge Garant conducted the premiere the following year with the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra and soprano Marie-Danielle Parent. The score is dedicated to the singer Louise André, a teacher at the Université de Montréal. Vivier wrote the instrumental component first, then superimposed the text, which is mostly in French but incorporates also words from the composer's own invented language derived from Malaysian and other languages Vivier spoke. Mijnheer describes Lonely Child as “a tale written to a solitary child: through his music, Vivier the orphan attempts ‘to reach this voice of the lonely child desiring to embrace the world with naïve love – this voice that all hear and want to dwell in forever.'” The text of Lonely Child begins: “Beauteous child of light, sleep … forever sleep,” and ends: “Beyond time, my child appears, the stars in the sky are shining for you, Tazio, and will love you forever and ever.”

Credits and Copyright

  • Text Asset: Early Canadian Orchestral Music
    2010, Dr. Elaine Keillor
  • Text Asset: Linda Bouchard, Songs for an Acrobat
    Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: R. Murray Schafer, Adieu Robert Schumann
    Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Bruce Mather, Au Château de Pompairain
    Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Harry Somers, Five Songs for Dark Voice
    Robert Markow
  • Text Asset: Claude Vivier, Lonely Child
    Robert Markow
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