Clearly Canadian Choral Music


Recently I was visiting with some colleagues in the western US where we were discussing Canadian choral music and what makes it “clearly Canadian.” I had taken some musical examples, including some of Ruth Watson Henderson’s pieces, to share with them as they had not encountered a lot of Canadian music previously. Other composers whose scores I provided included Lydia Adams, Steven Chatman, Eleanor Daley, Matthew Emery, Imant Raminsh, R. Murray Schafer, Mark Sirett, Harry Somers, Nancy Telfer, and Healey Willan. We also talked about Canadian resources such as the Canadian Music Centre and various publishers as a means of exploring further musical examples. In addition, we did some listening to various Canadian choral ensembles: The Elmer Iseler Singers, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, the Ontario Youth Choir, MacMillan Singers from the University of Toronto, Exultate Chamber Singers, and the Fairlawn Avenue United Church Choir, among others. Part of the conversation involved observations about choral sound: how different is it from the sound of American choirs, for example? Is there a different choral aesthetic?

We heard generally a very clear tone from all the Canadian choirs, and listeners described the soprano tone in particular as having minimal vibrato. One of the questions raised was whether or not that might be an influence of British choirs on Canadian choral development. As a Canadian who has been educated and then worked in both countries, I suspect there is some truth in that. We agreed that the excellent tuning of the representative groups was related to timbral clarity.  We also talked about various choral traditions in the U.S.  One of the participants had attended St. Olaf College when the Williamsons were conducting, and she commented on how the sound there has become more varied since Anton Armstrong has taken over the program.

Ruth Watson Henderson’s writing was influenced by the sounds of the choirs she accompanied. Elmer Iseler preferred a very clear even tone, and Ruth’s Missa Brevis, which she wrote out of that aesthetic, demands that kind of simple focused sound that reveals all the dissonances with great clarity. Likewise, her treble writing for the Toronto Children’s Chorus reflected the tonal beauty and consistency that Jean Ashworth Bartle elicited through her teaching. 

In order to set a context for Canadian choral music, we looked at distinctive characteristics of this music, including use of folk materials (Ruth, for example, has arranged some Maritime folk songs for treble voices and Ontario folk songs for mixed voices); acknowledgement of the vastness of the land and of our First Nations heritage (Mark Sirett and R. Murray Schafer frequently reference this); and traditional roots in art music, both sacred and secular.  Much of Ruth’s music falls in this last category. 

As a church musician for many years, Ruth wrote a number of anthems and hymns; several of the latter are included in the United Church hymnbook. Her secular choral compositions frequently set poetry by Canadian poets. My colleagues recognized immediately how much text setting played a role in all the music examples we discussed.  And as we know, Ruth “didn’t want to be boring” so always honoured the text in imaginative ways.