Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Healey Willan's Inscribed Copy of John Coulter's Deirdre of the Sorrows*

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Healey Willan's Inscribed Copy of John Coulter's Deirdre of the Sorrows*

Article excerpt

The recent discovery of a small item of Canadiana is interesting not only for its musical importance but also for the human touch it reveals in one of the great composers of our musical past. The item in question is a copy of John Coulter's libretto Deirdre of the Sorrows (Toronto: Macmillan, 1944), signed by both Coulter and Healey Willan, and containing thirty-six musical excerpts from Willan's three-act opera of the same name, written out in the margins in the composer's neat hand.1 (See the illustration.) This was clearly a labour of love, and in fact Willan has written on the front flyleaf "For Corinne - who understands. - 31 :vii:45." However, inquiries concerning the identity of the mysterious Corinne have resulted only in a vague description of an attractive, somewhat plump, brunette English pianist who spent the war years in Toronto.2 It is also apuzzle how this inscribed libretto, if meant as a gift, ended up in Willan 's effects after his death. It was found there in 1968 by the composer's son Patrick, who kept it as a memento of his father. Thus it was separated from the rest of Willan's estate, the bulk of which is now at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. This annotated libretto was sold in late 1989 to a bookseller in Victoria, B.C., who brought it to the Vancouver Antique Book Fair in March 1990. The present author could not bear to abandon such a rare item to an unknown fate, and after much thought, purchased the book.

Willan's opera Deirdre of the Sorrows is of twofold significance: it was the first full-length Canadian opera commissioned by the CBC, and it was regarded by the composer himself as his most important work. The opera is based on an ancient Irish tale of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster and tells the legendary story of the tragic Deirdre - a subject particularly appropriate since both Coulter and Willan were of Irish extraction (transplanted to Toronto), with strong patriotic love for Britain, And this was wartime. As Coulter wrote in his memoirs:

We hoped... for some immemorial myth or fable, the outcry of the heart in turmoil with the passions of love and death, vulnerable heroic man against the implacable fates. This seemed to us the true domain of opera; at any rate it was the domain in which Healey' s musical imagination could roam with rewarding delight (Coulter 1980: 178).

Willan, in turn, was moved by Coulter's eloquent, poetic language, and would ask the poet to read his lines aloud so as to get the inflections right. He often stated that the words were so beautiful that the music wrote itself. In a radio talk about the opera, he testified to the power of the text as follows:

A story that northern bards have sung for nigh two thousand years ... of the willful and masterful King Conochar, of Cathva, the Druid High Priest, of the lovely Deirdre and the handsome Prince [Naisi], spies, fighters, keening women, love scene, intrigue, battle and death - until the shuttle's empty and the pattern finished in the figured web the gods were weaving.' What more ingredients could the heart of poet or composer desire? John Coulter has taken all these characters and incidents, and like a skillful chess player, has made his moves with unerring and ominous precision until Cathva's great outburst 'The gods have spoken!' closes the story (Willan 1951).

Theirs was a classic collaboration!

The opera was composed between September 1943 and May 1945 and received its radio première on April 20, 1946, with Ettore Mazzoleni conducting and Frances James singing the title role. A slightly revised version was broadcast by the CBC Opera Company on October 10, 1951, with Geoffrey Waddington conducting. Extensive revisions were undertaken in 1962 and 1964-65 to create a stage version of the opera, renamed Deirdre: the original long passages for bard-narrator were cut, new orchestral interludes were written to accompany scene changes, and much of the music was recomposed to suit the new, shortened rendition of the text. …

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