Six Canadian Composers You Should Know

By Eatock, Colin | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Six Canadian Composers You Should Know

Eatock, Colin, Queen's Quarterly

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 works come out that way."

To be sure, her music lacks the aggressiveness of modernism, but there's an underlying strength in her works, which comes from a thorough knowledge of classical form and a firm sense of organic inevitability. Melodies are well shaped and balanced, crescendos are carefully prepared and built up: there's nothing about her music that seems out of place. This is craft raised to a level where it becomes enfolded in unconscious expression.

There are a few CDs currently available that are entirely devoted to the works of Coulthard. One can be found in Ovation Vol. 1, a fivedisc box of music by Canadian composers issued by CBC Records (PSCD 2026-5), back in the days when the CBC had a record label. There are several orchestral compositions, including the Introduction and Three Folksongs and Quebec May (with choir): both lush and lyrical works, with pastoral Appalachian Spring-like touches. (Aaron Copland was yet another of her teachers.) A special treat is Spring Rhapsody, a song-cycle composed for the late Maureen Forrester, with piano. And the disc also includes a lovely solo harp piece, Of Fields and Forests.

As well, there's a two-disc set of Coulthard that's been issued by the Canadian Music Centre, on the Centrediscs Label (Canadian Composers Portraits:Jean Coulthard, CMCCD 8202). It gives a slightly different impression of this composer. …

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