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Five Songs for Dark Voice (1956)

  • Composer: Somers, Harry
  • Conductor: Bernardi, Mario
  • Soloist(s): Forrester, Maureen (contralto)
  • Performance Date: 1970-01-01
Portrait of composer Somers, Harry

Somers, Harry

Sep 11, 1925 - Mar 09, 1999

Overview

This short cycle of five connected songs is notable both for the austerity and darkness of mood and for the timbre of voice for which it was specifically written. Learn more

Music Connection

NAC Canadian Orchestral Composers: Power of the Voice

Writing for the human voice offers the orchestral composer a unique set of opportunities and challenges, as sample works by Canadians Linda Bouchard, Bruce Mather, R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers and Claude Vivier will demonstrate. Learn more

Biography

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

“He had a creative mind that never stopped.” (fellow composer John Weinzweig, one of Somers’ teachers)

Until his death in 1999, Harry Somers had been for many years one of the leading figures in the musical life of Canada and one of the few composes in this country to achieve international recognition. From the age of about 35, Somers made his living almost exclusively as a composer, a luxury granted to very few. Considering that less than ten years earlier he was driving a cab to make ends meet, his achievement is all the more impressive. 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.

A late starter

Unlike many great and famous composers, Somers had no idea he was destined for a life in music until he was in his teens. For him it happened suddenly – something of an epiphany - while he was vacationing at Lake Ahmic in Ontario in August of 1939. Family friends exposed him to some music that had a profound effect on him, and he resolved from that moment onward to make a serious study of the subject. He never looked back or wavered in his determination, and he eventually realized his goal, though the path was not easy. Not until he was in his mid-thirties could he assert that composing alone was paying the bills.

Influences

Somers did his professional training at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and claimed that John Weinzweig had the most influence on his own musical development, particularly in the use of long, severe melodic lines, taut rhythms, a sense of urgency and frequent use of the twelve-tone idiom. Other composers have exerted influence as well - Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio among them - but Somers’ music never sounds like theirs; it is always bears the stamp of his own musical personality. Even Gregorian chant and Baroque counterpoint worked their way into his scores. “Polished, well-balanced, sonorous, elegant in detail and solid in design” are the terms used to describe his music in the PRO brochure on this composer.

Three types of composition

Here’s how Somers describes his work: “Over the years, I’ve worked consistently on three different levels with three different approaches to composition. On one level, my approach has been what I call ‘community music,’ or ‘music for use.’ For example, music for amateurs and music for school use. On a second level, I’ve created ‘functional music,’ in which the specific sense: music for television, films and theater, where the composition has to work in company with another medium and serve the demands of that medium. On a third level, I have created without consideration for any limitations, sometimes completely experimentally, sometimes extending the line of a particular direction on which I had been working through a series of works.

“In short, the first two levels relate directly to the environment and society, in the broad sense, in which I live at the moment, and in which I function as a craftsman. The third relates to a more restricted audience (though I’m not convinced it need be so) and my personal development as an artist.”

Honors

At a relatively early age, Somers had already accrued honorary doctorates from the University of Ottawa, York University (both in 1975) and the University of Toronto (1976). In 1972, at the age of 47, he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, only the second composer to achieve this honor (Healy Willan was the first).

Louis Riel

No account of Harry Somers would be complete without mention of his opera Louis Riel. It remains, more than forty years after it was first performed, the Canadian opera, much as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov is the Russian opera and Copland’s Tender Land is the American opera. Not only is Louis Riel derived from events related to the building of the Canadian nation, its libretto contains texts in four languages (English, French, Cree and Latin), richly underscoring the country’s vital spirit of multiculturalism that endures to this day. That the opera was commissioned for Canada’s centennial year, 1967, gave it an additional cachet of national importance. The Canadian Opera Company performed the opera in Toronto and Montreal that year. When the United States celebrated its bicentennial a few years later, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra served as the instrumental component at a performance in Washington, D.C. It was the first Canadian opera ever presented at the Kennedy Center and the first full-length Canadian opera ever performed outside of Canada.

Other music

In addition to Louis Riel, Somers wrote for the stage a short opera (The Fool), music for a mime (The Merman of Orford) and a children’s opera (A Midwinter Night’s Dream). Many of his best-known compositions are for orchestra, including North Country, the Picasso Suite and Lyric. His Five Songs for Dark Voice for contralto and orchestra and Five Songs of the Newfoundland Outports for a cappella chorus rank among the most frequently performed Canadian compositions. Somers himself considered the Kyrie 1972 to be one of his finest works, which he composed while living in Rome, a city that left a powerful impression on him with its rich sense of history and religious associations. William Littler, writing in the Toronto Star, ventured that Music for Solo Violin, composed for the international celebrity Yehudi Menuhin in 1974, was “probably one of the finest compositions for a string instrument ever written in this country.” Five piano sonatas, four concertos (three of them for piano), three string quartets, two violin sonatas, one woodwind quintet and much vocal and choral music are also found in Somers’ large catalogue.

Tributes

One of the finest tributes to Harry Somers following his death came from his good friend conductor Victor Feldbrill: “Harry was lean, tall, controlled, but with a storm brewing underneath him. The music and the person were so much one. Only the great have that.” Larry Lake, composer and host of CBC’s Two New Hours, wrote that Somers “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.”

Concert Program Notes

Harry Somers: 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.”

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1956

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The controversial bill to create the Trans Canada Pipeline is introduced in the House of Commons.
  • Saskatchewan election: Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation wins a fourth consecutive majority.
  • The Trades and Labor Congress of Canada merges with the Canadian Congress of Labour to form the Canadian Labour Congress.
  • Japan admitted to United Nations.
  • 96 U.S. Congressmen sign the Southern Manifesto, a protest against the 1954 Supreme Court ruling desegregating public education.
  • The Suez Crisis – The United Kingdom and France begin bombing Egypt to force the reopening of the Suez Canal.
  • Lester B. Pearson proposes a successful resolution to the Suez Crisis. This will win him the Nobel Peace Prize next year.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • The Alexander Graham Bell Museum is dedicated in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
  • The first transatlantic telephone cable goes into operation (Newfoundland-Scotland).
  • Winnipeg connects to TransCanada Telephone System's microwave radio relay via MTS, bringing same day programming from CBC Television.
  • Videotape is introduced by Ampex. It is the demonstration of the first practical and commercially successful videotape format known as 2" Quadruplex.
  • The hard disk drive is invented by an IBM team led by Reynold B. Johnson.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • Pianist Glenn Gould performs in the Soviet Union.
  • Canada wins six medals, including two gold, at the Olympic Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia.
  • Jean-Paul Lemieux paints Le Visiteur du soir.
  • Paul-Emile Borduas finishes his painting Le Chant de la Pierre.
  • Pierre Berton publishes his first book, The Mysterious North, an account of his travels in Canada’s northland. It wins the Governor-General’s Award.
  • Farley Mowat publishes his classic adventure story for young adults, Lost in the Barrens.
  • Painters Eleven participate in the 20th annual exhibition of American Abstract Artists in New York, generating considerable national attention.
  • Fernand Leduc becomes first president of the Association des artistes non-figuratifs de Montréal.
  • The Northwest Territories and the Yukon are officially granted their coats of arms.
  • The National Film Board's move from Ottawa to Montreal boosts production of French language films.
  • Elvis Presley enters the United States music charts for the first time, with Heartbreak Hotel.

Music Connection

Harry Somers wrote Five Songs for Dark Voice in collaboration with writer Michael Fram. The work was commissioned by the Stratford Festival in 1956 for a young Maureen Forrester. The five songs flow together to describe human isolation within a bleakly described city. Fram and Somers were known to work collaboratively together, going back and forth with in the development of the music and lyrics. Maureen Forrester describes the composer’s choice as “Most alto works are – as the title of Harry Somer’s cycle for me puts it – dark songs for the dark voice. Singers see in colours and they can plan the shading they want.”

The human voice is the most immediate instrument of all. It is primal, personal and direct with no intermediary between the singer and the listener. Composing for voice and orchestra offers a rich set of opportunities and challenges, as selected works by Canadians Linda Bouchard, Bruce Mather, R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, and Claude Vivier demonstrate.

Power of the Voice explores how orchestral composers work with the human voice, the various ways they make use of text and narrative, and the impact the choice of vocal range and colour makes. The compositions studied in Power of the Voice employ a number of composing strategies such as signature motives, use of primary source documents for text, and sampling, to name a few. Students consider how a composer chooses text and what the role of text is in composing for voice and orchestra.

Learn more