Over the years, Canadian "classical" music has acquired an unfortunate reputation. It's boring. It's ugly. It's incomprehensible. Alas, there's some truth in this--and I'm certainly not writing in defence of all Canadian music. Rather, what I want to do here is undertake a little haystack sifting, to extract a few precious needles: Canadian composers who have succeeded in creating beautiful, fascinating, and moving works. These are composers who deserve to be known, heard, and admired by audiences.
I'VE chosen six composers. They are men and women, anglophone and francophone, and they represent a wide range of styles and aesthetic positions. However, they all have one thing in common: they are deceased. While dead composers often fall into obscurity (and that is often as it should be), I'm hoping that my selected six will flourish in their musical afterlives. Canadians should know that this country is slowly but surely developing a rich and valuable classical music heritage. And because they've all been recorded on CDs, their music can be heard anywhere, anytime, not just in rare live performances.
The composers (in alphabetical order) are Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hetu, Colin McPhee, Ann Southam, Claude Vivier, and Healey Willan. Some readers may notice the conspicuous absence of several important Canadian composers who enjoyed prominent and productive careers. But an "important" composer isn't always a good one, and my list is entirely subjective. I'm indulging my own personal tastes but I'm also trying to be helpful. If it's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, let's light half a dozen candles.
JEAN COULTHARD was born in Vancouver in 1908, and passed away there in 2000. For two years she studied at London's Royal College of Music, where her instructors included Ralph Vaughan Williams. The experience left an English stamp on her music: a sense of propriety and poise, and a penchant for a kind of loose tonality that's often called "modal." In terms of her musical influences, Bartok (with whom she studied briefly) was about as modern as she got--and for this reason she didn't really fit in with some of her modernist colleagues at the University of British Columbia.
Yet if she was regarded as hopelessly conservative, she wasn't about to deviate from her core values. "I've never made a direct effort to change my style," she told a journalist in 1989. "I've always tried to write what I call 'naturally,' in the natural way I feel. I think one's best …