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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 3 November 2015

Canadian Art Song: Reflecting the Nature of our Diversity

by Michèle Duguay and Kiersten van Vliet / November 1, 2015

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As La Scena Musicale continues to celebrate the art song in our 20th anniversary season with the Next Great Art Song Competition, we have decided this month to highlight some of the English-language Canadian art songs that may not make the top-ten list of great art songs due to their relative obscurity in the performance canon. We know and love German lied, French mélodie, and American song, but what about that of our native land? Surely Calixa Lavallée isn’t the only Canadian who has composed art songs!

Plumbing the depths of the Canadian Music Centre’s online archives – which preserve and promote the works of Canadian composers – we discovered a veritable wealth of songs, many by celebrated and distinguished composers. Unlike other national styles of art song, the Canadian sort does not seem to have a unifying style or school of composition. Canada’s art reflects the nature of our diversity.

This eclecticism is what makes Canadian music so exciting. With the breakdown of traditional concert forms and tonality in the 20th century, there is an even greater variance in the genre in terms of harmonic language, rhythmic structure, instrumentation, and the structure of the poetry itself.

If Canadian art songs are varied compositionally, we found that compositions in the genre are often thematically united by the desolate Canadian landscape. With winter right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to celebrate the season by highlighting several songs and song cycles to do with snow. The songs examined in this article are only in English, but we will deal with French art songs and other defining features of Canadian song in upcoming articles.

The first of the three art song cycles we examined is by John Gordon Armstrong. Born in Toronto in 1952, Armstrong is a current professor of composition at the University of Ottawa. His song cycle for soprano and piano, Hail (2003), was commissioned by Doreen Taylor-Claxton for her Canadian Art Song project, an effort to unite Canadian composers and poets. Claxton herself and Valerie Dueck premiered the work in August 2005 at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. A recording was made of their collaboration entitled Hail: Canadian Art Song (CanSona Arts Media, 2006).

The cycle is comprised of a series of 14-word sonnets by Seymour Mayne (b. 1944), who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa. Word sonnets are a variation of the traditional sonnet form, in which there are 14 verses of one word each. This makes for only 196 words, as well as a steep compositional challenge. Armstrong explains that while some of the songs are miniatures and more direct settings of the text, such as “Hail”, which is only 9 measures long, others like “Wind” are expanded to a more standard length.


Hail peppered the air like seed as you were lowered below the frost line.


From behind the maple
From behind the maple
The sun flaps its blinding plumage
The sun flaps its blinding plumage
Without a waking cry!

In each song, the piano accompaniment plays a crucial role in depicting the character of the different elements. “Hail” features short disjointed staccato notes in the piano, starting from very high and quickly reaching the lower register. This alludes not only to falling hail, but also to the body that is lowered into the ground. The piano drops out halfway through the song, leaving the soprano to sing mournfully and softly by herself.


Cold morning, winter’s reconnaissance scouts out the terrain for a sortie of sudden snow.

The penultimate song, “Frost”, begins with dissonant chords in the upper register of the piano and a rising minor sixth in the soprano. Slow and pianissimo, the opening expresses waking up to a cold morning, when everything is frozen and cold. At the line “a sortie of sudden snow”, the piano texture abruptly changes to a quick, pedalled chromatic descent, illustrating the falling snow.
Five Snow Songs, another song cycle evocative of our long and frosty winters is by David S. Fawcett (b. 1952). Fawcett, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, used poetry by Confederation Poet Archibald Lampman (1861-1899), who worked in the Ottawa region and often wrote about the seasons. Fawcett states that for a long time he has been drawn to Lampman’s portraits of Canadian landscape.


White are the far-off plains, and white
The fading forests grow;
The wind dies out along the height,
And denser still the snow,
A gathering weight on roof and tree,
Falls down scarce audibly.

The road before me smoothes and fills
Apace, and all about
The fences dwindle, and the hills
Are blotted slowly out,
The naked trees loom spectrally
Into the dim white sky.

The meadows and far-sheeted streams
Lie still without a sound;
Like some soft minister of dreams
The snow-fall hoods me round;
In wood and water, earth and air,
A silence everywhere.

The evening deepens, and the gray
Folds closer earth and sky;
The world seems shrouded far away;
Its noises sleep, and I,
As secret as yon buried stream,
Plod dumbly on, and dream.

The five poems of the song cycle survey different aspects of the Canadian woodland winter. Soon to be released is a recording of Five Snow Songs performed by baritone Reid Spencer. Though “Snow”, the second song in the cycle from Lampman’s Lyrics of Earth, describes silence, Fawcett employs a light ostinato accompaniment in the piano, where each hand has rhythmic independence. The piano accompaniment progressively moving towards the lower register depicts the snow falling and accumulating on the ground.

A central figure in Canadian music, Violet Archer (1913-2000) wrote several works that were inspired by the Canadian landscape. Commissioned in 1996 by Suzanne Summerville for the 4th Festival of Women Composers, Songs of North is a cycle of five songs with poetry by Alaskan poet Lisa Harbo. Though the focus of the text is on the harshness and decay of winter, the cycle itself depicts the endless rotation of the seasons.

“Seasons of the North”

Grand and quiet distinctness
Winter of Night
Summer of Day
Framed by the rapid merging between times
Of Change
The shift in sun’s dominion
The blurring
Spring of Dawn
Fall of Shadows
Vast enough.
All Four seasons of one North.

“Seasons of the North”, the opening song, evokes the vastness of the northern landscape. The constant time signature changes coupled with the unusual harmonic progressions with no clear tonal centre give a sense of the borderlessness and endlessness of the North.

“O Kingdom of Summer”

Where did the sun go
When the light ran back
March was brilliant, clear and fresh,
Light glittering, snow sparkling in glints,
A prism of bright white,
To this Northern Place. 

This is the center:
South of us
East of us
North of us
West of us
This is where we begin

The last song, “O Kingdom of Summer”, bespeaks of the promise of the warmer seasons. It stands out from the previous songs in the cycle as Archer uses a bright D Major melody in the opening rather than ambiguous chord clusters. As the text describes the directions relative to the centrality of the North, Archer explores different key areas, but the piece ends resolutely on D. The cycle affirms that Canada, this Northern Place, is the center of our identity. The varied ways in which we humbly articulate our identities speak not of an uncertainty of direction, but of quiescent possibilities.  

Canadian Art Song Project

Formed in 2011 by Lawrence Wiliford and Steven Philcox, the objective of the Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) is to promote Canadian composers by reviving existing art songs and commissioning new works. More than a vehicle to promote Canadian artists and composers, the project seeks to underscore the enduring relevance of the Canadian art song for performers and audiences alike.

Wiliford and Philcox are both celebrated Canadian musicians, active in the performance of art song. Philcox, on faculty of the University of Toronto, is known for his collaborative work, while Wiliford is an acclaimed tenor, specializing in J.S. Bach and other composers of the Baroque period. Through the CASP, they have commissioned new works by Brian Current, Marjan Mozetich, Norbert Palej, James Rolfe, Ana Sokolović, and Peter Tiefenbach.

The CASP, with the assistance of the Canadian Music Centre, also creates commercial recordings of Canadian songs and is currently working on new editions of art song scores by significant Canadian composers. Its latest, Sewing the Earthworm, released this past April, is a commissioned work by Brian Harman with text by David Brock. Philcox and soprano Carla Huhtanen are featured in this recording.

The 2015-16 Canadian Art Song Project Recital Series represents the next stage in its artistic vision. In addition to its annual free Celebration of Canadian Art Song recital, the CASP is presenting two intimate recitals of Canadian, American and European song. These are ticketed events presenting distinguished Canadian musicians. The first recital, The Living Spectacle, features a new song cycle of the same name by Erik Ross, along with works by Harman, Richard Strauss, and Libby Larsen. The recital is presented by sopranos Ambur Braid and Carla Huhtanen, pianist Steven Philcox, and dancer Jennifer Nichols.

In Concert: The Living Spectacle, Saturday, November 7, 2015, 7:30pm, The Extension Room, 30 Eastern Ave, Toronto. www.canadianartsongproject.ca.
On disc: Brian Harman: Sewing the Earthworm (Centretracks, 2015); Holman: Ash Roses (Centretracks, 2014)

Be sure to have your say by participating in the Great Art Song Challenge. Vote for your favourite three art songs at www.nextgreatartsong.com or by emailing greatartsong@lascena.org.

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