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Two Etudes for Strings (1946)

Portrait of composer Ridout, Godfrey

Ridout, Godfrey

May 06, 1918 - Nov 24, 1984

Overview

These two short pieces totaling barely eight minutes demonstrate what “just strings” can do when the composer knows how to exploit the sound of a full string orchestra. They are one of the most frequently played compositions for string orchestra written by a Canadian. Learn more

Biography

Born in Toronto, May 6, 1918;
died in Toronto, November 24, 1984

Although the name Godfrey Ridout is known throughout musical circles across Canada, it is Toronto that will always be most closely associated with this “conservative traditionalist” composer. He was born there (a street in that city is named after one of his ancestors), studied at the Toronto Conservatory (now the Royal Conservatory), taught at the Conservatory from 1940 and at the University of Toronto from 1948, became actively involved with the Eaton Operatic Society and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society (Toronto branch), and wrote program notes for the Toronto Symphony from 1973 until just before his death from cancer in 1984.  

First success

Ridout’s first big success as a composer came in 1938 with his Ballade for Viola and String Orchestra. Written as a youth of twenty, it earned him a scholarship to study with Healey Willan. William Primrose, one of the world’s most famous violists, took up its cause and promoted it on both sides of the Atlantic. Other violists followed suit. 

His music

Over the years Ridout composed numerous drama scores for CBC Radio and film scores for the National Film Board. By the time of his death, choral, chamber and orchestral music had come to dominate his catalogue. Of these, it is the short orchestral works by which Ridout is best known, Fall Fair among them. (This was a CBC commission for a United Nations concert in New York.) Many regard his three Cantiones mysticae for chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists as his finest music. Leopold Stokowski conducted the first of these in Carnegie Hall in 1953. A number of Ridout’s works show his enthusiasm for music of Victorian and Edwardian England, particularly in the era’s love of ceremony and pageantry. Thus, we find in his catalogue works like Festal Overture, Jubilee, Music for a Young Prince (composed for the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, and written with young Prince Charles in mind), and A Birthday Celebration. The influence of several prominent British composers seeps in, particularly Holst and Elgar.

Stylistic observations

Harvey Olnick, writing in the Encyclopedia of Canadian Music, has noted Ridout’s wide knowledge of the historical repertory. “He could write occasionally in the serial manner without ‘sounding’ serial.’ He could hold on to rhythmic patterns with almost Baroque tenacity. He could … produce stylistic parodies of unerring accuracy and telling wit. …His music, though intensely felt, is prevailingly sunny and affirmative; it eschews the ‘doom and gloom’ manner and self-conscious profundity of much twentieth-century concert fare. Ridout liked fun in music and could not easily resist concluding a work with a ‘good tune.’”

Innovator or traditionalist?

Olnick also sees in Ridout a composer so committed to sustaining an older style shunned by most of his colleagues at the time that this made him worthy of being regarded as something of an innovator: “He saw no need to strive for ever-new styles, or for a progress through styles, or for the role of musical innovator; style for him was a means of communication, not the ‘message’ itself. In this aloofness from contemporary conformity, Ridout may be perceived to be more original than many innovators and one of the determined communicators of his day.”

An important reconstruction

One of Ridout’s most important accomplishments was the reconstruction of the orchestral score for Canada’s – and quite possibly North America’s – first opera, Colas et Colinette, composed by Joseph Quesnel in 1790, which means it even predated Mozart’s last operas! Ridout had only a vocal score and a second violin part to work from, a feat equivalent to reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton from just a skull and a femur. Ridout even invented the entire overture from scratch. He also conducted the first performance, in costume but without staging, in 1963.

Concert Program Notes

Godfrey Ridout: Born in Toronto, May 6, 1918; died in Toronto, November 24, 1984

The composer relates:

“Many years ago, Harold Schonberg was conducting a series of string orchestra concerts for the CBC, and he put a very youthful work of mine on, the Ballade for Viola and String Orchestra, which I wrote in 1938 when I was just 20 years old. That Ballade had turned into an “Open Seasame” for me – William Primrose and many others had played it – so at the end of that broadcast, Schonberg said to me that if I were to write another piece later on that same summer season, he would play it. I had nothing else to do, so that’s how the Two Etudes got composed. They were first performed that summer of 1946 and thereafter went through quite a sequence of performances.”

In 1951, at the suggestion of Sir Ernest MacMillan, Ridout rewrote the quite ending of the second Etude, which now ends with fireworks and zeal. The Two Etudes have been performed all over Europe and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. The first, a sort of dark meditation, begins quietly, rises to two brief and turbulent climaxes, then subsides into silence. An unsettled air hangs over the music. The second Etude breathes tremendous energy and surging power, with the weight of a full string orchestra showing impressive strength.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1946

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The famous Canadian schooner Bluenose strikes a reef off Haiti and is wrecked.
  • The government creates the Atomic Energy Control Board to control the development of nuclear energy in Canada.
  • The Canadian dollar stands at parity with the U.S. dollar.
  • Prime Minister Mackenzie appoints a Royal Commission to investigate presence of Russian spies in Canada.
  • Viola Desmond challenges the racial segregation laws by sitting in the “Whites Only” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People paid the $20 fine and made a national issue of it.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • A boom in post-WWII development begins with road development. With increasing efficiency and improving technology, road builders construct highways and streets to accommodate automotive traffic. It affects every facet of economic and social life in Canada and around the world.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • Les Automatistes, six Montreal Surrealist artists led by Paul-Émile Borduas, hold an exhibition in New York City, followed by one in Montreal. This is the first exhibit by a group of abstract painters in Canada.
  • Sunburst, the first novel by Phyllis Gotlieb, is published. It is one of the first important works of Canadian science fiction. In 2001, a Sunburst Award would be established in her honor.
  • Artist Alexander Colville, previously Canada’s official war artist, completes his painting Infantry Near Nijmegen, Holland.
  • Canada’s first drive-in movie theater opens in Hamilton, Ontario.