Victor Feldbrill (1924–2020)

Victor Feldbrill (1924–2020)

The eminent Canadian musician Victor Feldbrill died in Toronto on June 17, 2020 at the age of 96. He is remembered by generations of Canadian music lovers for his outstanding services to music in Canada, which stretched over a period of some 75 years. A dedicated orchestra builder, he devoted much of his professional energy to educating young musicians in Canada and Japan, and led professional orchestras around the world as a guest conductor.

Victor Feldbrill conducts the Toronto Symphony in Nathan Phillips Square, 1976. Photo by Reg Innell from the Toronto Star Archives, Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library.

Feldbrill was born in Toronto on April 4, 1924 to Nathan Feldbrill and Helen Lederman, Jewish immigrants who had arrived in Toronto in 1920 from their native Poland. The family later grew to include two daughters, Ruth and Eileen.

Feldbrill’s initiation to music making came at the age of nine with the family’s purchase of a violin for him, which led to lessons with Sigmund Steinberg, a member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with whom he studied from 1936 to 1943.

When Feldbrill began secondary school studies at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate in 1937, he had already amassed valuable orchestral experience; he had formed a string ensemble at King Edward primary school and had played with the Toronto Secondary Schools Symphony Orchestra. Harbord was renowned for its music program and for the achievements of its students, many of them Jewish like Feldbrill; recent alumni of the school included the composers Louis Applebaum and John Weinzweig. Feldbrill immediately integrated into this milieu, becoming the concertmaster of the school orchestra in Grade 9 at the age of 13. He was also given the chance to conduct the orchestra on occasion. His interest in conducting was furthered by encouragement from Ernest MacMillan and lessons with Ettore Mazzoleni.

Aviva, Zelda, and Debbi Feldbrill, 1964. U of Manitoba Digital Collections

While still at Harbord, Feldbrill made his local conducting debut on February 25, 1943 with the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which had been founded in 1934 by his friend and mentor John Weinzweig. A month later he appeared as a conductor with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the waltz Artist’s Life by Johann Strauss II. It was while he was a student at Harbord that Feldbrill met Zelda Mann (1925–1995), whom he would marry on December 30, 1945. The couple had two daughters, Deborah and Aviva, and remained committed partners in life until Zelda’s death in 1995.

After graduating from Harbord, Feldbrill joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a violinist for the Meet the Navy show in 1943. This was a musical revue that played for enlisted servicemen and civilians across Canada and then travelled to the United Kingdom in 1944 and to Europe in June 1945. The quality of the show was outstanding, and it gave command performances for Prime Minister Mackenzie King in Canada and the British royal family in the UK. Feldbrill took advantage of his time in the UK to sit in on rehearsals of several professional orchestras. He also met many leading British musicians and had lessons with Herbert Howells (harmony) and Ernest Read (conducting).

Poster for the 1946 British film of Meet the Navy. Source: IMDB

Returning to Canada after Meet the Navy disbanded, Feldbrill began studies on a Department of Veteran Affairs grant in the Artist Diploma program at the Toronto Conservatory (renamed the Royal Conservatory in 1947), studying violin with Kathleen Parlow, an eminent Canadian violin soloist and former pupil of Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg. His fellow students at the time included John Beckwith, Harry Freedman, and Harry Somers. Graduating in 1949, Feldbrill joined the first violin section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; he also conducted pops and children’s concerts with the orchestra. He took every opportunity to further his conducting studies, travelling to Tanglewood (for lessons with Robert Shaw, 1947); Maine (Pierre Monteux, 1949 and 1950); Hilversum, Netherlands (Willem van Otterloo, 1956); and Salzburg (Meinhard von Zallinger, 1956).

In addition to his work with the TSO, Feldbrill enjoyed conducting opportunities with CBC orchestras, including the flagship CBC Symphony Orchestra in Toronto, on both radio and television. From 1957 until the 1980s he made regular guest appearances in the UK with various BBC orchestras, often introducing Canadian works in his programs there.

In 1956 Feldbrill resigned his position as a violinist with the Toronto Symphony to devote himself to a full-time conducting career. It was a brave move, especially considering that he did not have a permanent position with an orchestra at the time. After a year as an assistant conductor with the Toronto Symphony (1956–57), he took over the reins of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1958 as the ensemble’s second music director, succeeding Walter Kaufmann, who had led the group for ten years. Under Feldbrill the orchestra expanded in size and became a full-time professional organization; at the end of his tenure it moved into the newly built Centennial Concert Hall, which remains its main concert venue.

WSO Live CD of Victor Feldbrill conducting Glenn Gould and the Winnipeg SO in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor by Brahms on October 8, 1959

Among the many eminent guest soloists that Feldbrill worked with in Winnipeg was Glenn Gould, who played his first Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor there in October 1959. The performance was released on the WSO Live label in 2012 to mark the orchestra’s 65th anniversary (it had earlier been released on the West Hill Radio Archives label in 2011). Feldbrill gave the first performances of many Canadian compositions in Winnipeg, reflecting his life-long dedication to the work of Canadian composers. In 1967 he was awarded the Canadian Music Citation from the Canadian League of Composers in recognition of his efforts in promoting Canadian music. Feldbrill returned to conduct the Winnipeg SO in March 2004 to mark his 80th birthday, and again in 2017, at the age of 93, for the opening concert of the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season. He was also a special guest conductor with the Toronto Symphony in January 2017, in a concert marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

During the Winnipeg years, Feldbrill maintained a busy schedule of guest appearances across Canada and abroad. He conducted the first performances of the Harry Somers / Mavor Moore opera Louis Riel for the Canadian Opera Company in 1967, as well as revivals in 1968, 1969 (for CBC TV), and 1975 (in Washington, DC). (He also led the premieres of the Somers operas The Fool in 1956 and Serinette in 1990). He conducted orchestras in the Soviet Union in 1963 and in December 1966 and January 1967, introducing Canadian works such as Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope and Weinzweig’s Symphonic Ode to audiences behind the Iron Curtain.

Upon finishing his contract in Winnipeg, Feldbrill returned to his hometown to become the conductor of the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1968. He would remain on staff at the University of Toronto until 1982, returning numerous times thereafter as a guest conductor; his last appearance was in April 2013, just after his 89th birthday, during his term as the Wilma and Clifford Smith Visitor in Music at the university. In addition to leading the UTSO in the great works of the standard orchestral repertoire, Feldbrill introduced much Canadian music to his young charges. To mark the end of his 14-year stint with the university, Feldbrill led the UTSO in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in 1982. [The last 16 minutes of that performance can be heard online here.] The program on that occasion noted that 166 musicians who had played under Feldbrill in the UTSO went on to professional careers as orchestral players, and it listed 122 different works by 59 composers that he had programmed, including four world premieres and four Canadian premieres.

Victor Feldbrill leading a UTSO rehearsal, early 1970s.

Feldbrill’s work with young musicians included appearances on many occasions with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada between 1960 and 1975, and serving as the founding music director of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra from 1974 to 1978. He worked with young orchestral musicians at the Banff Centre, the Vancouver Academy of Music, and during summer workshops in the Czech Republic. During the 1980s he devoted much energy to training young orchestral musicians and aspiring conductors in Japan at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he was on faculty from 1981 to 1987 and led the university’s Geidai Philharmonia Orchestra. That appointment led to many further guest conducting appearances in Japan, China, and elsewhere in the Far East.

A recurring role that Feldbrill played throughout his career was rescuer of orchestras in need. An early example was when at short notice he was named the resident conductor of the Toronto Symphony upon the unexpected death of its music director, Karl Ančerl, in 1973. In 1979 he stepped in to lead Ontario’s London Symphony Orchestra, which was experiencing one of its periodic financial and artistic crises at the time. He served for two years as acting music director, reviving the orchestra’s morale and finances. A decade later he stepped in under very similar circumstances to help out the Hamilton Philharmonic, first as interim music adviser and then as music director. For the National Arts Centre Orchestra, he led a 1992 Canadian tour of 32 cities to mark the 125th anniversary of Confederation.

After the death of his wife Zelda in 1995, Feldbrill found consolation in a relationship with Mae Bernstein, a widow and amateur violinist who would be his devoted companion for the last 24 years of his life. They divided their time between residences in Toronto, New York, and Florida. Feldbrill continued to conduct on a reduced and more leisurely scale with amateur groups in Florida and Canada, mixed in with occasional guest appearances with professional orchestras.

Over the years Feldbrill received a long list of honours and awards, including Captain of the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt (1968), Honorary Fellow of the Royal Hamilton College of Music (1978), the inaugural Roy Thomson Hall Award (1985), investiture as an Officer of the Order of Canada (1986), an honorary LLD from Brock University (1991), appointment to the Order of Ontario (1999), Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), Ambassador of the Canadian Music Centre (2009), Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), Honorary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music (2014), winner of the Sir Ernest MacMillan Memorial Award (2014) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Toronto Musicians Association (2014). A biography by Walter Pitman, Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire, appeared in 2010 from Dundurn Press.

During his 75-year career, Feldbrill achieved prominence as a violinist, a conductor and orchestra builder, a promoter of Canadian music, and a superlative educator of young musicians. He retained an infectious enthusiasm for and commitment to music until his final days. His many contributions to Canadian music are unparalleled and will always be remembered. He is survived by his companion Mae Bernstein, his sister Eileen Cohen and her husband Mel, his two daughters Debbi Ross and Aviva Koffman and their husbands, and by six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Victor Feldbrill as assistant conductor of the Toronto Symphony in 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1569, File 37, Item 3
Initiatives in Support of BIPOC Artists and Scholars

Initiatives in Support of BIPOC Artists and Scholars

In response to demonstrations against ongoing police brutality, racism, and other forms of systemic oppression of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] communities in North America, the University of Toronto has launched several initiatives:

In a recent statement, Don McLean, the current Dean of the Faculty of Music, noted some of the anti-racism initiatives that the Faculty of Music has undertaken, but admitted that “we must do much better going forward”. The Dean’s statement was in response to an impassioned and eloquent Call to Action letter that was signed by 372 alumni of the Faculty of Music. This is an issue that will elicit both bottom up and top down responses. Every one of us in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music community is responsible for reflecting upon how we can do our part to address past injustices and help to make the Faculty of Music an equitable, diverse, and welcoming community now and into the future. As the Director of the Institute for Music in Canada, I will continue to think about ways to contribute to this ongoing process of redress and reconciliation. The following initiatives are a starting point:

The mission statement of the IMC to date has been “Promoting, supporting, and producing scholarship in all areas of Canadian music studies.” The mission statement has now been changed to: “Promoting, supporting, and producing research and creativity in all areas of Canadian music studies by an inclusive and diverse representation of Canadian scholars and musicians, including historically underrepresented voices.”

The IMC will fund two annual $2,500 awards for research or creative projects involving music and the BIPOC community in Canada. One award will be for a research or creative project that has as its subject any aspect of the contributions of the BIPOC community to music in Canada. The other award will be for a BIPOC researcher or creative artist who is working on any project related to music in Canada. There is no deadline for applying for this award; for further details, write to me at robin.elliott@utoronto.ca. In addition to the monetary award, the IMC will assist in the research and/or creative process and in the communication of results arising from the funded project. Winners of the award will have the opportunity to present a lecture, concert, or other public event at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music in connection with their research or creative project.

As the Director of the IMC I undertake to make equity and diversity central to all IMC activities, and will work with others to share ideas about best practices regarding these issues at the Faculty of Music. I will invite BIPOC speakers to share their experiences, expertise, and viewpoints with the Faculty of Music community.

I invite feedback on any aspect of these initiatives via email to robin.elliott@utoronto.ca.

 

Parsifal and Canada

Parsifal and Canada

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Update on June 22, 2020: The COC announced today the cancellation of its Fall 2020 season due to the pandemic, and the postponement of its performances of Parsifal for two years:

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In the autumn of 2020 the Canadian Opera Company plans to perform Parsifal, which has not been staged in Toronto for 115 years. Inspired by this singular occasion, I decided to research the history of Parsifal performances and reception in Canada. Parsifal has not been seen very often in Canada—once in Toronto and three times in Montreal, for a total of 14 performances—but it has had a big impact on musical life here in other ways, especially early in the 20th century. This research project mushroomed into a document of over 14,000 words and an accompanying compilation of documentary sources that runs to 38 pages. These are available as PDF files by clicking here (the article) and here (the documentary sources). This website post provides a brief summary of this research.

Syndicated report about the premiere of Parsifal that appeared in the Toronto Globe on 27 July 1882, p. 3 (the day after the premiere).

The premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 was the subject of extensive coverage in Canadian newspapers, attesting to the fame that Wagner had attained in North America during his lifetime. Wagner wanted Parsifal to be given only at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, and after his death in 1883 his wish was strengthened by the force of law with the adoption of the Berne Convention copyright agreement in 1886. However, only staged performances were covered by copyright protection; excerpts from the work quickly entered the repertoire of orchestras, soloists, and choral groups in Canada, as elsewhere, and all manner of adaptations of both the music and the drama flourished as well.

Parsifal excerpts and adaptations

Ad from Montréal La Patrie, 23 June 1884, p. 2 for concerts conducted by Theodore Thomas featuring three singers from the Bayreuth premiere of Parsifal.

Toronto first heard the Prelude from Parsifal just four months after the Bayreuth premiere of the work, when it was played by the (Leopold) Damrosch Symphony Society from New York in a concert given in the pavilion of the Horticultural Gardens (now the Allan Gardens) on 1 December 1882. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, excerpts from Parsifal were presented in Canada by visiting US orchestras led by Walter Damrosch (Leopold’s son), Emil Paur, Anton Seidl (who had assisted Wagner in preparing the premiere of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth), and Theodore Thomas, among others. Thomas presented a series of five concerts in Montreal in June 1884 that included many Wagner excerpts; although nothing from Parsifal was programmed, the concerts featured three singers who had premiered leading roles in Parsifal at Bayreuth just two years earlier: Hermann Winkelmann (Parsifal), Amalie Materna (Kundry), and Emil Scaria (Gurnemanz). The Montreal composer Guillaume Couture reviewed the concerts with great enthusiasm and wrote a series of three articles about Wagner to acquaint local audiences with the composer. Twenty years later, Walter Damrosch brought a touring program of extensive selections from Parsifal in concert form to Toronto, given in Massey Hall on 5 April 1904. In addition to conducting the excerpts, Damrosch gave explanatory comments to link the scenes together and illustrated the principal leitmotifs on the piano. The cast included the Quebec baritone Francis Archambault as Amfortas.

Ad in Toronto Globe, 5 April 1904, p. 2 for touring concert of extensive Parsifal excerpts under the conductor Walter Damrosch.
Sousa brings music from Parsifal to Ottawa in 1899 in a mixed program featuring a recent popular song and Sousa marches as well.

While these orchestral visits were mostly confined to Toronto and Montreal, visiting concert bands under leaders such as Giuseppe Creatore, John Duss, Frederick Neil Innes, and John Philip Sousa toured to smaller centres as well, and brought Parsifal excerpts to audiences across Canada, from Ottawa to Vancouver, in the period between the late 19th century and World War I. Arrangements of music from Parsifal were soon being performed by choirs in concerts and in Sunday church services, by organists and pianists in recitals, and by amateurs at home. Canadian and visiting musicians lectured about Wagner and Parsifal, often for women’s musical clubs, illustrating their talks on the piano, or sometimes with the help of the Aeolian Orchestrelle, a self-playing reed organ.

[L] An ad from the Toronto Globe, 26 Jan. 1904, p. 2 for Parsifal excerpts for the pianola (a player piano); and [R] just three days later, across the country an ad from the Victoria Daily Times, 29 Jan. 1904, p. 5 offers Parsifal excerpts arranged for piano. Parsifal was everywhere in Canada early in the 20th century.
Vancouver Daily Province, 12 July 1913, p. 18; Mario Caserini’s silent film of Parsifal was 50 minutes long but “Bigger and better than the Stage Production”.

Numerous spoken play versions of Parsifal criss-crossed North America. A certain Bruce Gordon Kingsley even offered a one-man show version of the work, in which he related the story, played excerpts on the piano, and unveiled nearly 100 paintings of the drama. The Victoria Daily Times (7 June 1913, p. 5) improbably claimed in 1913 that Kingsley’s performance “is conceded by both public and critics to equal the grand opera rendition itself”. The 50-person Martin & Emery company toured its four-hour stage play version of Parsifal in 1906 and 1908, with many stops in Canada. Parsifal was also made into a silent film twice, by the US director Edwin S. Porter in 1904, and then by the Italian Mario Caserini in 1913.

New Westminster, BC Daily News, 14 Oct. 1906, p. 2; not Wagner’s Parsifal in English at the Westminster Opera House, but a play adapted by Wm. Lynch Roberts.

The Prelude and Good Friday music from Parsifal in time became standard repertoire items for orchestras across Canada, and other excerpts were also heard on occasion. Frank Welsman’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra gave Act 1, scene 2 of Parsifal in Massey Hall on 19 January 1910 with the National Chorus (trained by Albert Ham). In Winnipeg, local performers mounted excerpts from Parsifal in 1925 (the Grail Scene, conducted by Arthur Egerton), 1931 (Good Friday Music), and 1934 (a choral excerpt). Luigi von Kunits led the Toronto Symphony and two vocal soloists in three excerpts from Lohengrin and six excerpts from Parsifal in a performance in 1930 that was heard from coast to coast in Canada on the CNR radio network. The Vancouver Symphony Society performed the Prelude from Parsifal for the first time on 3 February 1935 under Allard de Ridder, and repeated it later that same year. Extensive excerpts from Parsifal under the Montreal-born conductor Wilfrid Pelletier were heard in the closing event of the Montreal Music Festival on 3 June 1938; the concert included the start and finish of Act 1 and all of Act 3. Concert versions of Act 2 from Parsifal have been given by the Kitchener-Waterloo SO in 1988 with Jon Vickers (in his last public performance ever) as Parsifal, Gail Gilmore as Kundry, and Claude Corbeil as Klingsor; and also by the Montreal SO in 1991 with Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal, Jessye Norman as Kundry, and Oskar Hillebrandt as Klingsor.

Ad from Montreal Gazette, 2 Feb. 1991, p. 48; Norman had not sung Kundry before, but made her stage debut in the role at the Metropolitan Opera the next month, on 14 March 1991.

Parsifal on stage

The prohibition on stage performances of Parsifal applied to those countries that were signatories to the Berne Convention. The USA did not join the Berne Convention until 1988, and so was not bound by the Parsifal ban. Excitement about Parsifal rose to a fever pitch in North America with the publicity surrounding the first Metropolitan Opera production of the opera, which opened on Christmas Eve, 1904 at 3:00 pm. A legal case had been brought by Cosima and Siegfried Wagner to halt the Met production, but it was unsuccessful. Newspapers across Canada reported on the legal proceedings at length, and on the Met production. In the wake of the huge interest in Parsifal that the Met production generated, a US impresario named Henry W. Savage took a touring production of Parsifal on the road to 45 cities during the 1904–05 season, including stops in Toronto and Montreal in April 1905. The 200-member Savage company production was closely modelled on the original Bayreuth staging, except that the work was sung in English. An idea of the look of the production can be gleaned from various widely circulated illustrations of it (see below). The Toronto reviews of the Savage company production singled out the “Canadian” tenor Francis Maclennan, who sang Parsifal, for praise; he was born in Michigan, but had moved to Collingwood with his parents, and  reviews in Canadian newspapers of his performances throughout his career consistently claimed him as a Canadian. His wife was the eminent soprano Florence Easton, who was born in England but raised in Toronto, and was later to become a famous Kundry.

Klingsor’s Castle (Act 2) from the Savage company touring production of Parsifal, 1904–05, as depicted on a contemporary postcard (author’s collection).
The Grail Temple (Act 3) from the Savage company touring production of Parsifal, 1904–05; illustration from the Montreal illustrated weekly magazine Album universel, 13 mai 1905, p. 6
Ad from Montreal Gazette, 3 March 1954, p. 12

Toronto has not seen another staging, or indeed a complete live performance, of Parsifal since the Savage company left town in April 1905. Montreal, however, had the opportunity to see it again in 1954, sung in German this time, performed by a local orchestra and chorus, with the Canadian baritone Napoléon Bisson as Klingsor, and the other major roles taken by soloists brought in with the cooperation of the Metropolitan Opera: Ramon Vinay (Parsifal), Rose Bampton (a last-minute replacement for Doris Doree as Kundry), Martial Singher (Amfortas), and Dezső Ernster (Gurnemanz). The five performances were conducted by Charles Houdret, a Belgian musician who had recently moved to Montreal. The production was modelled on the New Bayreuth aesthetic, with a mostly bare stage and scenic effects created by lighting. The staging enjoyed the twin benefits of being both au courant and inexpensive to mount.

A complete concert performance of Parsifal was given on 6 August 2017, as the closing event of the 40th Lanaudière Festival just north of Montreal, led by the Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguin. It was a trial run for him, before conducting in 2018 the Metropolitan Opera production by the Canadian creative team of François Girard (director) and Michael Levine (set designer), the same staging which the COC plans to mount in the fall of 2020.

Some Canadian singers and their Parsifal roles

Edward Johnson as Parsifal in Act 3, signed photo (author’s collection). The signature reads “Edoardo Di Giovanni,” the Italian translation of Johnson’s name, and his stage name during his career in Italy.

A number of Canadian opera singers have excelled in international performances of some of the leading roles in Parsifal. Notable Canadian Parsifals have included Edward Johnson (the first to sing the role at La Scala), Paul Frey, Ben Heppner, and most famously Jon Vickers, who sang the role at Bayreuth, Chicago, Covent Garden, Geneva, the Met, Paris, and Vienna. Two who have sung Kundry are Florence Easton (at the Met in the 1920s, in both English and German) and Odette de Foras (at Covent Garden in 1931, during her brief career). The baritone Morley Meredith from Winnipeg sang Klingsor at the Met 22 times during his long career there, and the bass Robert Pomakov from Toronto is set to make his debut in that role in the COC production. Three Canadians have sung Amfortas: Brett Polegato made his role debut in the 2017 Lanaudière concert performance; Gerald Finley has sung it at Covent Garden, Vienna, and in concert with the Berlin Philharmonic; and George London, one of the greatest interpreters of the role, sang it at the first Bayreuth production after World War II in 1951, and on many other occasions both there and at the Met.

Canadian scholarship on Parsifal

Father M. Owen Lee (1930–2019); read Iain Scott’s lovely tribute to Father Lee here.

Canadian scholars have written about Parsifal with eloquence and insight. One of the best short introductions to the work is by Father M. Owen Lee, who often gave intermission talks during Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. One such talk on Parsifal was later published in his book First Intermissions (1995) and then in expanded form in The Olive-Tree Bed and Other Quests (1997). The eminent literary scholar Northrop Frye gave an insightful talk on Parsifal for the Toronto Wagner Society in 1982, published as Chapter 27 in his Complete Works, vol. 17. William Blissett, Linda and Michael Hutcheon, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez have all written imaginative articles or book chapters about Parsifal. The Canadian-American musicologist William Kinderman is the author of the most in-depth study in English, the book Parsifal (Oxford UP, 2013), and with his wife Katherine R. Syer he also co-edited A Companion to Wagner’s Parsifal (Camden House, 2005), a book of nine essays about the work.

The Vancouver conceptual artist and musician Rodney Graham (b. 1949) created a series of art works inspired by Parsifal that are in the Tate collection and are well worth a look online here. And finally, to end on a note of levity to offset the serious nature of Parsifal, here is a poem by Healey Willan, from the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Monthly Letter (Feb. 1962): p. 4.

Though Liszt and Wagner ne’er excelled
In writing oratorios,
They both achieved real eminence,
When young, as gay Lotharios.

But later on, to make amends
For doings somewhat shabby,
Wagner wrote his Parsifal
And Liszt became an Abbé.

European Refugee Musicians in Canada, 1937 to 1950

European Refugee Musicians in Canada, 1937 to 1950

Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many (UTP 1982/2012)

The 75th anniversary of the end of the European campaign of World War II is a good time to reflect on the contributions to music in Canada of musicians who arrived between 1937 and 1950 as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. The total number of those who were admitted from Europe during that time was small—not many musicians managed to navigate Canada’s restrictive immigration policies to find safe haven here. Abella and Troper have shown in detail in their book None Is Too Many the obstacles to Jewish immigration that were in place at the time, as well as the anti-Semitism that was rife in the country, up to and including the highest political and civil service offices. Despite such formidable hurdles, dozens of Jewish musicians (as well as some non-Jewish musicians who left for moral and/or political reasons) did manage to escape Europe and arrive in Canada, and went on to enjoy important professional careers in music over many decades, from the time of their arrival until well into the twenty-first century.

Background and Context

Eric Koch, Deemed Suspect (1980)

Between 1937 and 1950, ca. 65 refugee musicians from Europe immigrated to Canada. The vast majority came only after 1948, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King in his final year in office slowly began to ease the restrictive immigration laws that had been in place up to that time. The routes that these musicians travelled to arrive in Canada were as varied as their musical interests. A small number arrived directly from Europe; others followed a more indirect path—typically via Britain or the USA, but also from Shanghai (whose sector for stateless refugees provided safe haven for thousands of Jews during the war), Palestine, and other places to which Jews had fled during the Nazi era. Quite a few arrived as interned enemy aliens; they were arrested in Britain, shipped to Canada in 1940 to be placed in prison camps, but then chose to stay on in Canada after their release, as described by the late Eric Koch (1919–2018) in his book Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder. Some of the musicians had received advanced training in elite European music schools; others received much of their training only after arriving in Canada. These refugee musicians are of interest today not only because of the harrowing nature of their personal history and tortuous journeys to Canada, but also because collectively they made such a significant contribution to music in Canada during their careers in a wide variety of fields of activity, ranging from concert management to music scholarship. Collectively, they did quite remarkable work in fostering the spread of European classical music culture in Canada, but they were also involved in the growth of other fields such as Canadian music studies and ethnomusicology.

One prior source attempted to tell the story of these musicians in detail: Paul Helmer’s Growing with Canada. Helmer is a musicologist and professional pianist who taught at McGill University from 1972 to 2002. His specialization as a musicologist was medieval music; this book resulted from a late-career project to document the experiences of European émigré musicians in Canada, many of them his teachers, colleagues, and friends. His book examines the contributions to the musical life of Canada by 123 people exiled from Nazi and Communist regimes in central Europe between 1933 and 1948, who arrived in Canada between 1937 and 1965. These men and women made important and lasting contributions to the growth and development of Canada’s musical life through diverse musical activities, including performance, education, composition, administration, scholarship, and patronage.

Paul Helmer, Growing with Canada (MQUP, 2009)

The life and work of some of these émigrés has been the subject of previous research, commentary and analysis in monographs and other writings, but most of the figures discussed by Helmer are little known and many had not been written about before at all. The United States attracted famous émigré musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, and Béla Bartók, whose contributions to the musical life of their adopted country is the subject of an extensive and steadily growing scholarly literature. Canada was much more restrictive than the United States in its immigration policies during most of the period under consideration here (the reasons for this are described in painful detail in None Is Too Many). As a result, far fewer exiled musicians found a home in Canada than in the United States, and none of those who did so are internationally renowned. Nevertheless, these refugee musicians did have a profound and lasting impact on the musical life of their adopted country in many areas.

Helmer did archival research and conducted interviews with many of the people that he discusses in his book. It was timely that he took up the project when he did, as all the musicians whom he interviewed have died in the interim. Helmer deposited recordings and transcripts of the interviews, and other primary and secondary research material for his book, in the Marvin Duchow Music Library at McGill University, where it is accessible to researchers. A description and finding aid are available online here.

The story of each refugee musician is singular and unique to that individual, but at the same time is only comprehensible within the framework of the bigger historical picture that unfolded during this time. Variable factors include the conditions of the subject’s pre-migration life (their age at the time of leaving their homeland, prior education and training, socio-economic status, severity of persecution and trauma), the circumstances of their transit (length/uncertainty of the travel, direct or indirect route, duration of time spent in intervening locales), and features related to the resettlement process (degree of economic success, relations with the host society, adaptation to new cultural surroundings). In considering European refugee musicians in Canada, all of these factors must be taken into consideration, on both individual and collective levels.

Many of the musicians who migrated from Nazi-occupied Europe to Canada between 1933 and 1950 enjoyed significant careers in music and exercised a profound impact on the cultural life of this country. As a brief sample, here are a dozen snapshots of refugee musicians and their contributions to four areas of musical activity in Canada: composition, education, performance, and scholarship.

Composition

The composers Istvan Anhalt, Otto Joachim, and Oskar Morawetz received their early musical training in central Europe and arrived in Canada in the 1940s. Morawetz migrated to Toronto in 1940 to join his parents, whereas Anhalt and Joachim came on their own to Montreal in 1949.

Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007)

Oskar Morawetz was born in Czechoslovakia and studied music in Prague, Vienna, and Paris. With abundant musical talent but no academic credentials, he enrolled in music studies at the University of Toronto and completed a BMus in 1944 and a doctorate in music in 1953. He had a lengthy career as a professor at the University of Toronto and as a frequently commissioned and performed composer. His most popular works, including Memorial to Martin Luther King (1968) for cello and orchestra and From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970) for voice and orchestra, received numerous performances across Canada and internationally. Morawetz explored novel instrumental colours and new harmonic effects in his music, but nevertheless was regarded as a conservative composer by his contemporaries at a time when this was not a prized characteristic in the academic music circles in which he operated. Despite this fact, he enjoyed a lengthy and successful career from the mid-1940s until his creative activity was curtailed by depression and mental health problems in the mid-1990s; he passed away in 2007.

Istvan Anhalt (1919-2012)

In contrast to Morawetz, Anhalt and Joachim were two of the leading figures in avant-garde composition during the second half of the 20th century in Canada. Born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1919, Istvan Anhalt was conscripted into a Hungarian forced labour battalion, but managed to escape and live in hiding until the end of the war. He emigrated to Canada in 1949, making his home at first in Montreal, where he taught at McGill University until 1971, and then in Kingston, where he was a faculty member at Queen’s University until his retirement in 1984. He made use of modernist compositional techniques and media including dodecaphony, electronic music, and extended vocal techniques. Many of his most significant compositions are for orchestra, but he wrote in all of the major genres, from solo instrumental works to opera. From the mid-1970s onwards, he began to use more traditional compositional techniques, from which he fashioned an original, distinctive, and evocative idiom that was capable of expressing both musical logic and extra-musical ideas. Anhalt’s stature as a composer, together with a steadily growing body of scholarly work on his music, suggest that he will retain his place as an important voice in Canadian music of his era. In addition to his work as a composer, Anhalt had a lengthy and important career as a university professor and administrator, and he was known for his publications as an insightful and imaginative music theorist, especially for his writings on music for the human voice. He died in Kingston in 2012 at the age of 92, after being hospitalized for a year with cancer.

Otto Joachim (1910-2010)

Otto Joachim was a pioneer in electronic music in Canada, as well as a composer in more traditional media. He was also a fine professional violist, and later in life took up painting and sculpture. Born into a Jewish family in Düsseldorf, he studied music there and also in Cologne. In 1934, he fled Nazi Germany and spent the war years in Singapore and Shanghai. With the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Joachim and his brother Walter, a professional cellist, emigrated to Montreal. Walter and Otto enjoyed prominent careers as performers in the Montreal Symphony, McGill Chamber Orchestra, and Montreal String Quartet. As a composer, Otto Joachim was at the cutting edge of modernism in Canada. He was among the first to employ aleatoric and serial methods in his compositions, and in the mid-1950s he set up an electronic music studio in his home, the third such facility in Canada and the first private one. His long and varied career as a composer, performer, and teacher continued until shortly before his death at the age of 99 in 2010.

Education

 Helmut Blume (1914-1998)

Two of the most prominent figures in Canadian post-secondary music education in the second half of the twentieth century are Helmut Blume and Arnold Walter. Both men were educated in central Europe, including studies in Berlin during the interwar years. They left Berlin in the 1930s, mainly for political reasons, although Blume did have a Jewish grandmother and so, as he remarked sardonically to Paul Helmer, “according to the racial policies of the time, I was besudelt (polluted)” (Growing with Canada, p. 325 n. 48). Both men made their way to England and arrived in Canada within a few years of each other, Walter in 1937 to take up a teaching job in Toronto, and Blume in 1940 as an interned enemy alien.

Arnold Walter (1902-1973)

The two exerted a decisive influence on music education in Canada in the post-war years, Blume at McGill University and Walter at the University of Toronto. Each man helped to lead university music education in Canada away from an outmoded British system that was geared to training church organist/choirmasters, towards a modern synthesis of European and American systems. With their elite European upbringing and education, Blume and Walter decisively transformed their respective educational institutions, creating new professional standards that exerted an enormous influence on the musical life of Canada, an influence that continues to be felt today.

Emmy Heim (1916) by Oskar Kokoschka

In the field of vocal training, three refugee women musicians had an extraordinary influence on the musical education of young Canadian singers in the postwar era. Emmy Heim and Ruzena Herlinger both enjoyed leading professional careers as singers in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s. Heim associated with many of the leading composers, poets, and artists of the day (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hoffmannsthal, and Rilke were among her acquaintances; Kokoschka made a portrait of her in 1916 –see left) and she had many contemporary works in her repertoire. Herlinger commissioned and premiered Der Wein, a concert aria for soprano and orchestra by Alban Berg. Irene Jessner enjoyed a flourishing opera career in central Europe during the 1930s. All three women had fled Europe by 1938, and eventually ended up in Canada. Heim and Jessner became highly sought after vocal teachers in Toronto; Herlinger taught in Montreal. Heim’s pupils included Lois Marshall and Mary Morrison; Herlinger’s pupils included Joseph Rouleau and Huguette Tourangeau; Jessner’s pupils included Teresa Stratas and Mark DuBois. Collectively, these three women helped to establish Canada as a vocal powerhouse in the postwar musical world.

Performance

Eminent performers among this group of refugee musicians included the harpsichordist Greta Kraus and the pianist John Newmark. Kraus (whose portrait hangs in my office) studied at the Vienna Academy of Music with Heinrich Schenker (analysis) and Hans Weisse (piano). She arrived in Toronto in 1939 and her performances and broadcasts as a harpsichord soloist and continuo player, as well as a director of early music ensembles, made a decisive contribution to the appreciation of Baroque music in Canada. Newmark studied music in his native Bremen and also in Leipzig, and later settled in Berlin. While living in London in 1939 he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to Canada. After his release, he settled in Montreal and became a much in demand accompanist. He performed thousands of recitals in Canada and during lengthy tours abroad, working with hundreds of Canadian and international artists. He also made many recordings and was frequently heard on radio and television broadcasts.

Scholarship

Stolperstein for Helmut Kallmann’s father, Geisbergstraße 41, Berlin

Canadian music studies and ethnomusicology both benefitted from the contributions of refugee musicians. Helmut Kallmann was born into a Jewish family in Berlin and as a teenager he was sent to England in 1939 as part of the Kinder­transport program. Like Newmark and Blume, he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to prison camp in Canada. Upon his release in 1943, he enrolled in music studies at the University of Toronto, graduating with a BMus degree in 1949. During his long career in music librarianship, first with the CBC and later as the founding Head of the Music Division at Library and Archives Canada, he was a tireless champion of Canadian music studies. Ida Halpern completed a PhD in musicology at Univer­sity of Vienna in 1938 on Franz Schubert, and emigrated to Vancouver in 1939. In addition to teaching at University of British Columbia (including the first courses in ethnomusicology there) and fostering classical music performances, she recorded and documented some 500 songs of First Nations peoples. As Kenneth Chen notes, Halpern’s achievement in assembling one of the most extensive collections of First Nations music of the west coast is remarkable, especially considering “the technical, techno­logical, physical, sociocultural, historical, institutional, legal, attitudinal, and many other challenges she had to overcome in her fieldwork” (1995, p. 47).

Given the widespread contributions to music in Canada that these refugee musicians made, which the above description has only begun to document, research on this topic is sorely needed. The forthcoming European Refugee Musicians in Canada research project at the Institute for Music in Canada will engage with the wider debate on the flight of artists from Nazi-occupied Europe, and position that debate within Canadian intellectual history.

New Orford String Quartet Tenth Anniversary Recital

New Orford String Quartet Tenth Anniversary Recital

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2019: Beyond Borders
New Orford String Quartet Tenth Anniversary Concert
Walter Hall, University of Toronto
Friday, July 12th, 2019 at 7:30 pm


Program:

Joseph Haydn String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, no. 4
Christos Hatzis String Quartet No. 5 “The Transforming” (premiere)
Intermission
Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, no. 3
     encore: François Dompierre Par quatre chemins, IV “Pavane solitaire”

The New Orford String Quartet:
Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violins
Eric Nowlin, viola
Brian Manker, cello


An enthusiastic sold-out audience greeted the New Orford String Quartet with cheers and a rousing standing ovation at the conclusion of its tenth anniversary recital program. Jonathan Crow noted that the program was modelled on the quartet’s first public recital at the Orford Arts Centre in July 2009, which featured Haydn Op. 20, no. 2, Ernest MacMillan’s String Quartet, and Beethoven Op. 132 [i.e. Haydn Op. 20 – Canadian work – Beethoven].

Conventional wisdom has it that only full-time string quartet ensembles can reach the highest professional standards in this demanding medium. If that is the case, then the NOSQ is the exception that proves the rule. Despite the fact that the members all have full-time orchestral positions, the NOSQ upholds the very highest standards of string quartet performance. Wan and Crow alternate on first violin; in this case, Wan played first in the Haydn and Beethoven, while Crow took that role for the Hatzis. Each member of the quartet is a full and equal participant in creating the group’s beautiful collective sound, which ranges from the most delicate of whispers (a dynamic level often featured in the Hatzis work) to a full-on thunderous fortissimo (e.g. the glorious C-major excitement in the outer movements of Op. 59, no. 3).

Haydn’s six Op. 20 string quartets are the first collection of great works in the medium. (Hans Keller in his stimulating book The Great Haydn Quartets includes only Op. 9, no. 4 of the composer’s earlier quartets in his discussion of Haydn’s 45 masterpieces in this medium.) The Op. 20 works are very different in idiom from the later Haydn quartets, which only goes to show how far the composer travelled in this medium. The NOSQ perhaps chose Op. 20, no. 4 for this occasion to fit in with the Toronto Summer Music Festival theme “Beyond Borders,” given the references in the work to the Romani violin idiom, as explicitly stated by the tempo designation of the third movement, Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese (“in gypsy style”). The work gives each player opportunities to shine: the first violin dominates in the first movement, the theme and variations second movement features solos for each player, the trio of the third movement is a solo for cello, and all four players exchange rapid-fire motives in the Presto scherzando finale. It was a terrific work to show off the exceptional performance skills of each member of the NOSQ.

The longest work on the program, and the most demanding for both the performers and the audience, was the new quartet by Christos Hatzis. In his pre-concert lecture, Hatzis noted that a commission to write for the NOSQ was an invitation to include all manner of virtuosic string quartet writing, secure in the knowledge that the players would be up to the task. But he noted as well that he eschews “complexity for the sake of complexity,” and feels strongly that the music must always be expressive and convey content persuasively and meaningfully. In the case of this quartet, there is an extra-musical inspiration revolving around the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, completing what the composer calls a “psychological hermeneutic” begun in his String Quartet No. 4 “The Suffering” (which was premiered by the Penderecki String Quartet in 2018). Hatzis has provided a program note about the work on his website here, and a 23-page essay about it here.

Hermeneutics aside, the quartet is an engaging and varied work in three substantial movements. The NOSQ gave an entirely committed and persuasive reading of the quartet, which showcased the ensemble’s extraordinary musicianship and interpretive skills. Each movement featured varied expressive ideas, many of them extremely quiet in dynamics (and on numerous occasions, alas, all but obscured by audience coughs; good luck to the sound engineer who will be tasked with removing as much bothersome audience noise as possible from the broadcast recording of the work). The quartet incorporates a kind of late-Romantic tonality (at times bringing to mind the quartets of Janáček to this listener) and also a 24-note quarter-tone scale which was effectively employed by the composer and persuasively realized by the NOSQ. Hatzis managed to hold the audience’s attention continuously over the course of the 45-minute duration of the quartet, and both he and the performers received a warm ovation at the end.

The NOSQ have shown themselves to be outstanding performers of the Beethoven quartets on numerous occasions, and they certainly rose to the task of Op. 59 no. 3 beautifully for this tenth anniversary recital. The mysterious and still modern-sounding opening of the work, with its extraordinary meandering dissonances and hushed dynamics, was spellbinding, and the contrast with the ebullient Allegro vivace that follows was nothing short of stunning. Andrew Wan, whose superb recent recording of Beethoven’s Op. 30 violin sonatas has deservedly been getting frequent radio airplay, shone in the opening movement, which contains some of the most thrilling music in all of the Beethoven quartets.

Not even the NOSQ, unfortunately, could convince me of the merit of the middle two movements of the quartet, which for me mark the (rare) low-water mark in the Beethoven quartet repertoire. The second movement is plodding and dull, sounding like second-rate Mendelssohn avant la lettre, while the third movement aims for innocence but merely achieves mundanity. This is not to criticize the performance of those two movements by the NOSQ; they did what they could with the material. Beethoven was obviously saving his powers for the finale, a scintillating fugue that drives the players to the very limits of their abilities. Eric Nowlin got the movement going at a breathtaking pace, and as the others joined in one by one, the music built steadily in excitement. By the end, I am sure that the heart of pretty much everyone hearing the performance was racing as fast as the eighth notes in the music, and the audience leapt up as one to greet the quartet with cheers and sustained applause. The NOSQ obliged with an encore that contrasted completely with the fugal finale of Op. 59, no. 3: a languorous slow movement from a quartet by the Quebec composer François Dompierre, which the quartet has recorded on the Atma Classique label. The Dompierre brought the audience back to earth and restored heartbeats to a normal rate.

This was a recital to remember. If the rest of the Toronto Summer Music Festival lives up to these standards, audiences are in for a truly memorable few weeks of music making. Hats off to the Artistic Director, Jonathan Crow, for his vision, his leadership, and his incredible musicianship. To quote Honest Ed Mirvish, a talent like this comes along once in a lifetime, sometimes never! How lucky we are to have him in our midst here in Toronto.

Carl Morey (1934–2018)

Carl Morey (1934–2018)

The musicologist Carl Morey died on December 3, 2018 in Toronto at the age of 84. He served as the Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music and the Director of the Institute for Canadian Music from 1991 until his retirement in 2000. Obituaries are available online from the Faculty of Music website here, and from the U of T News website here.

On Thursday, 11 April 2019 in the lobby of the Edward Johnson Building from 4 to 6 pm, the Faculty of Music held a Tribute to Carl Morey to honour his memory, with speeches by friends and former colleagues, and musical performances. The program for the event is available here: PROG-Carl-Morey-tribute_Apr11.

Here are the opening remarks by Robin Elliott on that occasion:

My name is Robin Elliott and I have the honour of serving as the Jean A. Chalmers Chair of Canadian Music here at the University of Toronto. I inherited this chaired professorship from Carl Morey, who held it from 1991 until his retirement in 2000. There was talk at the time of Carl’s retirement about letting the Chalmers Chair lapse. Carl fought hard and prevented that from happening; Canadian music studies, and I personally, owe him a big debt of gratitude for that.

Carl supervised my PhD thesis The String Quartet in Canada, and I also took several courses with him during my graduate studies in musicology at the University of Toronto in the 1980s. These ranged widely, from medieval music notation, to Music in Paris at the turn of the 20th century – the latter course reflecting his deep and abiding love for the city of Paris, his home away from home. It may seem strange in retrospect that with three medievalists on staff at the Faculty of Music back then, it was Carl who taught the medieval music notation course. He was technically a Baroque specialist, having completed his PhD thesis at Indiana University in 1965 on the late operas of Alessandro Scarlatti – which reminds me, I also took a course on the Scarlatti operas with him. However, his musicological training was both broad and deep. He studied medieval music at Indiana University with Willi Apel, whose book The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900–1600 was the bible of early music notation in those days. Carl’s studies with Apel readily equipped him to explain the mysteries of ligatures, neumes, and mensural notation to graduate students.

When Carl was himself a graduate student in musicology in the 1960s, the field pretty much ended with Beethoven, chronologically speaking; more recent music was left to performers, music theorists, and sundry other musical enthusiasts, but was not thought to be a topic worthy of serious investigation by true scholars of music. And so Carl chose a Baroque topic for his research, but that is not where his true musical interests lay. He did love Baroque music, but his real passion was for the canonic operatic repertoire from Mozart to Richard Strauss. Eventually musicology caught up with Carl’s interests, and late in his career he was very pleased to be able to offer the Faculty’s first ever course on the Operas of Puccini, when Puccini had finally become a respectable topic for serious musical study.

Carl’s main contribution as a scholar was in the field of Canadian music studies – a field that is thousands of miles and hundreds of years distant from his own doctoral studies, but one that nevertheless became his abiding research interest. Carl really came into his own as a publishing scholar late in his career. In the last four years of his tenure at U of T, he published numerous articles, several editions of music by Glenn Gould, and no less than four books on Canadian music, including Opera Viva, the handsomely produced history of the Canadian Opera Company that he co-wrote with Ezra Schabas, combining his love of opera and music in Canada. The article on Carl in the first edition of Encyclopedia of Music in Canada states that he was at work on a history of music in Toronto. On numerous occasions, I heard him disavow that assertion; indeed, I am sure that more than once he said there was not a grain of truth in it. I was somewhat surprised then, to say the least, when not long before his death Carl turned over to me an extensive article – more like a short book really – that is a draft of his history of the beginnings of concert life in muddy York and Toronto. It is carefully researched, beautifully written, and meticulously detailed. On that same visit, I spoke to Carl about a beautiful manuscript that I had just been examining – it is a professional copyist’s full score of Ernest MacMillan’s choral/orchestral work England: An Ode. Carl knew the score well, of course, having been responsible for the revival of England in 1993, on the centennial of MacMillan’s birth. However, his own personal favorite musical manuscript was the holograph of the final scene from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. He showed me his copy of the beautiful facsimile reproduction of that manuscript, published in 1964 on the centennial of Strauss’s birth, and he spoke at length and with intimate knowledge about Strauss’s beautiful penmanship and the clinical precision with which this transcendently beautiful music is laid out on the page. I was deeply touched when Carl’s daughter Rachel presented me with that very publication after Carl’s death, as a bequest from Carl. When I opened the covers of it, I discovered that tucked inside was another gem, a reproduction of Strauss’s autograph manuscript of the song “Morgen,” which Strauss had presented as a wedding gift to his bride, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, in 1894. This is why our first musical performance for this tribute to Carl was Strauss’s heart-stoppingly beautiful song “Morgen,” performed for us by Monica Whicher and Steve Philcox.

Book Review

Book Review

Jane Cooper.The Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna. Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2017. 334 pp., ill.

ISBN 978-1-5255-1740-2 (hardcover, $26.49) / 978-1-5255-1741-9 (paperback, $15.49) / 978-1-5255-1742-6 (eBook, $9.99). All prices are quoted from the Friesen Press website as of 14 November 2018. The book is also available from Indigo and Amazon. The author’s website about the book, including a video trailer for it, is here, and there is an article about Cooper and the book on Ottawa’s artsfile website here.

Jane Cooper was intrigued by a passing reference in a letter written by her great-aunt in 1924 about Berta Crawford, an English opera singer in Warsaw. She googled the singer’s name and learned that she was actually Canadian, not English. Her curiosity piqued, Cooper embarked upon what turned out to be a six-year research project that has resulted in this meticulously detailed and gracefully written biography. Undaunted by a lack of interest in her book from traditional publishers, Cooper launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and then had the biography produced by Friesen Press, a self-publishing outfit based in Victoria, BC. The resulting book meets the very highest editorial and production standards and is a worthy addition to the not terribly extensive library of books about Canadian opera singers.

Bertha May Crawford was born in Elmvale, Ontario (ca. 135 km north of Toronto) in 1886, and died in Toronto in 1937 at the age of fifty. The limited horizons those bare facts suggest – a life lived within the confines of a small area of southern Ontario – could not be further from the truth. After lessons with Edward Schuch in Toronto, Crawford was trained in London and Milan. Her career as a professional singer began in Italy but blossomed in Poland, and subsequent travels took her across the Russian empire, from Finland to Vladivostok. In Italy she had changed her name to Berta de Giovanni as a secret nod to her father, whose name was John (Giovanni in Italian). But after leaving Italy for Eastern Europe she dropped the “de Giovanni” while keeping the Italianate spelling of her first name, so she was “Berta Crawford” in Europe but reverted to “Bertha Crawford” for concerts in North America. For most of her career she was based in Warsaw, where she was highly regarded for her appearances as a coloratura soprano in opera, in concert, and later on the radio. Her signature roles were Gilda in Rigoletto, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, and Violetta in La traviata.

Crawford enjoyed a lengthy professional and personal relationship with Zofia Alexandra de Słubicka (née Kosińska), a wealthy and widowed Polish aristocrat whom she met in London. The two were inseparable friends by the end of 1912, and remained so for the next eighteen years. They lived together in Warsaw – perhaps, Cooper speculates, in a Boston marriage – and experienced the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the creation of an independent Poland together, only to have a bitter falling out for unknown reasons in the early 1930s. After the break with her patroness and friend, Crawford returned to Toronto but died just three years later. Despite repeated attempts throughout her career, Crawford was unable to translate her successes in Poland and Russia into an international opera career. Aside from one appearance in a semi-professional production of Rigoletto in Washington, DC, she never sang in an opera production in North America. She did sing with orchestras and in solo recitals in Canada, and to a limited extent in the USA, but the “dream of the prima donna” eluded her on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The  Great Depression, followed by the break with Zofia, left Crawford all but destitute. At the time of her sudden death from pneumonia in Toronto her career was effectively over and she was living on the edge of poverty. Her life was memorialized in numerous obituaries, but after her death Crawford quickly faded from memory. There were no recordings to preserve her voice for posterity, and no pupils to keep the memory of her career alive. The entry on Crawford in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada reduced her life story to a mere four sentences. If Cooper’s curiosity had not been aroused, Crawford would remain all but unknown, the details of her life forgotten. But now Cooper has done a remarkable job of constructing a detailed narrative of Crawford’s life and career from countless bits and pieces of information that she unearthed in Canada, Poland, Russia, and online. In addition to this excellent biography, she has also contributed a fine Wikipedia entry on the singer.

Cooper presents two biographies within the covers of this one book. A factual biography unfolds chronologically in the course of the book’s fifteen chapters. There is a certain amount of conjecture, but it is always presented as such – the evidence of what happened is given first, followed by a number of possible interpretations, often presented as questions. Each chapter is followed by what Cooper labels an “entr’acte,” and these taken together comprise a second biography – or rather, a charming biographical novel. The entr’acte chapters consist of vignettes that illustrate important events in Crawford’s life. Each one was inspired by an actual historical artifact – a newspaper clipping, a photograph, and so on – but Cooper uses these concrete objects as springboards for her invention, presenting imagined conversations and richly detailed descriptions to provide a more rounded, if somewhat speculative, character portrait. In the wrong hands, this approach could have fallen flat, but happily Cooper is just as adept at historical fiction as she is at biography. The entr’acte chapters are entirely engaging and, to this ear at least, strike just the right tone. They capture the manners, customs, and conversational idioms of a bygone era without being at all contrived or awkward.

The extensive research that Cooper undertook is detailed in the acknowledgements, notes, archival sources, and bibliographical materials listed at the end of the book. She got in touch with Crawford’s living relatives, including a nephew, since deceased, who recalled having met Bertha, and others who had photos and clippings to share. Research trips to Poland and Russia resulted in many helpful contacts and unearthed further archival sources, and the Ancestry website proved useful in detailing not only Crawford’s family lineage but also her transatlantic crossings, thanks to that source’s extensive passenger records. Each phase of Crawford’s life and career, from her church choir positions in Toronto to her Polish radio performances, is presented in compelling and impressive detail. After a twenty-five year career as a policy analyst in Ottawa, Cooper has found a new calling as a Canadian music researcher. I look forward with keen anticipation to her next project, whatever it may be.

Zadie Smith on Justin Bieber

Zadie Smith on Justin Bieber

I have not read anything by Zadie Smith. Not White Teeth, not On Beauty, not even Swing Time. Those are all on my wish list, but I have such a backlog of great books on my wish list that I may not get around to Zadie Smith for quite a while. But when I noticed that her most recent book, an essay collection titled Feel Free (released on 29 Jan. 2018), includes an essay on Justin Bieber … well, that couldn’t wait. I’m not a Belieber – at least, I don’t think I am – but I have taught a class on Bieber in years past as part of a unit on celebrity culture in my Music in North America course. So, curious to see what the British celebrity author had to say about the Canadian celebrity musician, I put a hold on Feel Free via the Toronto Public Library online catalogue. However I was number 36 on the waitlist and I couldn’t wait for my number to come up – it might be weeks from now, by which time this would all be such old news. I had to read the essay on Justin Bieber now. So I parted with $18.07 and bought the eBook. Was it worth it? Was that one essay worth $18.07?

On the whole I would say that yes, the essay – titled “Meet Justin Bieber!” – was worth the price of admission to the book. To start with, it is a new essay that has not been published elsewhere, unlike most of the other essays in the book. So this is not recycled Zadie Smith, it is original material. More to the point, it is an entertaining yet also thought provoking article. It dates from around 2013 (Smith is a bit vague on that point) which makes it ancient history as far as Bieber’s life story is concerned, but there are timeless elements to it that render its date of origin a moot point. I think the essay was likely written sometime after January 2014, when Bieber was charged with DUI in Florida, a fact that is alluded to obliquely in the essay. A very brief postscript was added more recently, perhaps in 2016.

Smith begins by ruminating on what it must be like to be Justin Bieber: “What does it feel like? Does it still feel like being a person? If you met Justin Bieber, would he be able to tell you?” Side note: I have not met Justin Bieber, but one of the students in my class a couple of years ago went to high school with Bieber in Stratford, and did not have nice things to say about him. But high school was a long time ago in Bieber years. I’m sure that Bieber is a very different person nowadays. Maybe, as Smith intimates, he no longer even feels like he is a person. To anticipate the philosophical thrust of Smith’s essay, it is possible that Bieber has transcended the Heideggerian Dasein to become a hyperreal Baudrilliardian simulacrum, leaving behind the mundane day-to-day reality that the rest of us inhabit. Or maybe he is just bummed out by being stalked by freaks on the sidewalk and is hiding out in his basement.

In an attempt to answer her provocative questions, Smith engages in a little thought experiment: she imagines a meeting between Justin Bieber and Martin Buber. It is an exercise in the “random input” technique of lateral thinking that Edward de Bono developed in 1968: you are stuck for an idea, so you pick two words that have nothing in common, try to figure out how to relate them to one another, and watch the creative sparks fly. But this is not quite a textbook example of that process, as the names were not chosen entirely at random: Smith observes in a footnote that Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German name. [That name, incidentally, means “beaver,” a singularly appropriate moniker for a Canadian celebrity musician.] This similarity of names has not gone unnoticed on Twitter, where an account that goes by the handle of “Justin Buber” offers tweets that combine “the pop stylings of Justin Bieber with the existential wisdom of philosopher Martin Buber”; it features an avatar that photoshops Buber’s bushy beard onto Bieber’s boyish face.

One point of contact that Smith discovers between Buber and Bieber is relationships: Bieber sings about them, Buber ruminates about them. Bieber’s relationships revolve around adolescent heteronormative mating rituals; Buber’s revolve around God. Smith observes that personal relationships range from the casual contact of a fan meet-and-greet (“I just touched Justin Bieber!”) to a life-changing experience in which one’s deepest essence is altered by another, e.g. holding your newborn child and watching her open her eyes for the first time.

Smith riffs for a while on Buber’s I and Thou and the two types of relationship that it explores: I-It and I-Thou. The former Smith likens to the meet-and-greet, in which the celebrity (Bieber) is an object to be approached, touched, and narrated about (on social media, inevitably); as Smith observes, it is “As if he [Bieber] were not a person at all, but a mountain range they had just climbed.” The characteristic communication mode of an I-It relationship is monologic; Smith cites Bieber’s 2012 single “Boyfriend” (700 million views on YouTube to date) by way of example. In this song, Bieber (who was only 18 years old at the time) is not looking for Buber’s ideal “living mutual relation” with the anonymous girlfriend; he is talking at her rather than with her. An I-Thou relationship, on the other hand, is dialogic, and Socrates is the model: the subject is continually in communication with others, “Recognizing the reality of other people – and having them recognize the reality of you.” If only Bieber could be more like Socrates… But this type of deep, meaningful connection is difficult to maintain – rather like Bieber’s on-again, off-again relationship with Selena Gomez, Smith wryly observes. Fans of Bieber will be happy to see that in the brief postscript Smith finds evidence in the album Purpose (2015) that the singer is moving from the superficial I-It mode to the deeper and more intimate I-Thou. He may yet transcend his Dasein to reach a new level of existence. Ever better, if current reports are to be believed, he might get back together with Selena Gomez.

Book Review

Book Review

Mark Miller. Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend. Toronto: the author, 2017. 280 pp., ill.

ISBN 978-1-77302-561-2 (hardcover, $34.04) / 978-1-77302-559-9 (paperback, $20.96) / 978-1-77302-560-5 (eBook, $6.99). All prices are quoted from the Indigo website as of 24 November 2017; the book is also available for slightly less from Amazon. Two excerpts from the book are on the Point of Departure website here, and Mark Wigmore’s interview with Miller about the book is on the JAZZ.FM91 website here.

This is the eleventh book by Mark Miller, the foremost chronicler of the jazz scene in Canada. It marks his first entry into the brave new world of self-publishing, assisted by the Victoria, B.C. based outfit Tellwell Talent. Miller was responsible not only for writing the text but also for assembling the rest of the book, including the discography, bibliography, index, and the photos (many of them taken by Miller himself), while Tellwell produced the physical (and digital) copies of the book and looks after its distribution. The book was released in May 2017 and has garnered a lot of attention and laudatory reviews, e.g. by Stuart Broomer in The Whole Note, Marc Chénard in La scena musicale, Raul da Gama on JazzdaGama, Peter Hum in the Ottawa Citizen, Ian McGillis in the Montreal Gazette, and Michael Morse in CAML Review, among others; there is also a superb and insightful appraisal by Paul Wells in Literary Review of Canada. The high praise and widespread notice are notable for a self-published book, but also well deserved: this is a fascinating tale, beautifully told, and an important contribution to Canadian jazz history.

Miller first wrote about Ranger in Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), where Ranger shares a chapter with another Montreal-born jazz drummer, Guy Nadon, who died in 2016 at the age of 82; the chapter is aptly titled “Crazy”. That’s the word Ranger used to describe Nadon, meaning that he was singular, original, odd, and something of a rebel; the same could be said of Ranger himself. Ranger was seven years younger than Nadon, but his life ended earlier, and in a veil of mystery. Miller opens this book with Ranger’s enigmatic disappearance: “On or about November 2, 2000, Claude Ranger left his one-room apartment in a subsidized housing complex on 30th Avenue in Aldergrove [B.C.], never to return. He was 59. More than 16 years later, his fate is unknown; the investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in early 2001 remains open” [p. 15]. At the end of the book, the narrative comes full circle with a return to the puzzling conclusion of Ranger’s life story: “The first days of November, overcast and cool, found Ranger once more in distress. His response to situations that were beyond bearing had always been to walk away. And so it was again” [p. 236]. In between these bookends, the story of Ranger’s life story unfolds, and in Miller’s hands it makes for compelling reading.

Miller deftly combines cogent summaries of international jazz idioms that were prevalent during Ranger’s career with insightful commentaries on the particular qualities of the local jazz scenes in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, where the vast majority of Ranger’s performances took place. Ranger was based in Montreal until 1972, Toronto from 1972 to 1987, and finally Vancouver from 1987 on. He made only one trip to Europe, when he appeared with the Don Thompson quartet in the Netherlands in 1978, and there were only a few trips to the USA. His belated New York debut did not take place until 1990, when he was already 49 years old. There was a disastrous trip to Australia with the Moe Koffman Quintet in 1980. Miller’s account of the fiasco in Australia is characteristic of what makes him a great jazz historian. Multiple conflicting stories of what went wrong during the Australian trip and the circumstances under which Ranger quit the tour are in circulation; Miller deftly sifts the tall tales from the more reliable reports of those who were actually present, but notes that “even their versions of events differ from one another” [p. 133]. His patience and astuteness in piecing together this story are characteristic of his work on the book as a whole. Miller draws on three interviews he did with Ranger himself, one in 1978 and two in 1981, as well as interviews with over 100 other people. He neatly weaves in the voices and opinions of these many people who worked with, listened to, or studied with Ranger. Though not much inclined to teaching, Ranger did create a book of drum exercises (never published, but circulated widely), and via short casual lessons he left an imprint on the two finest Canadian jazz drummers of the next generation, Nick Fraser (in Ottawa) and Dylan van der Schyff (in Vancouver).

Ranger was born in Montreal in 1941 and took up the drums at the age of 13; he was already playing professionally by 1959 at the age of 18. He studied music theory with a Montreal violinist named Frank Mella (who is otherwise unknown to me). Another big influence was Brian Barley, a classically trained clarinet player who turned to jazz and played tenor sax and bass clarinet in a trio with Ranger and the bass player Michel Donato. The trio configuration suited Ranger well as, like Ornette Coleman, he didn’t like to play in ensembles that featured a pianist. Barley’s playing in turn was influenced by Sonny Rollins, but he also introduced Ranger to the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel via recordings. Tragically, Barley died at the age of 28. But Donato and Ranger subsequently played in a trio with Rollins himself, in a Toronto gig that Ranger identified as one of the highlights of his career [p. 91].

One of the many great strengths of this book is Miller’s knack for evoking in words the essential qualities of music in performance. Here is his take on Ranger’s own composition Le Pingouin (The Penguin): “[it is] a variant blues whose descending, chromatic four-note bass vamp evoked a penguin’s waddle, with a rather jolly melody on top to heighten the comic effect and a series of short single-note glisses to suggest, perhaps, slips and slides on ice … Twice in the 10-minute performance … he played at length off that brief bass vamp, setting out a deft pattern of counter figures on snare, bass drum, hi-hat and ride cymbal in the manner of Max Roach, and then breaking into a brisk, galloping sort of swing irresistibly his own” [p. 61]. Le Pingouin was recorded for a CBC LP of the Brian Barley Trio in 1970 and reissued on CD in 1995; it is now available on iTunes. Other examples of Ranger’s playing are available online via YouTube and elsewhere. Miller’s discography lists over two dozen recordings featuring Ranger; most are no longer available, but in any case much of the notice that he garnered came from his live appearances, still remembered by those who heard them as spell binding performances.

Ranger comes across in Miller’s account as a single-minded, daring, inspired, but utterly uncompromising figure: a hard drinking, chain smoking guy with a strong streak of bad temper. He played drums, but impractically never learned to drive, and hence was reliant upon others to get his kit from gig to gig. At his best, he was a force to be reckoned with and capable of true musical greatness; at his worst, he would just go through the motions or even undermine his fellow musicians. As Miller memorably puts it, “there were no limits on what he was able to do – only on what he was willing to do” [p. 96]. Despite the fact that he has been compared to Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s drummer on A Love Supreme, or to Tony Williams, who joined the Miles Davis Quintet at the age of 17, Ranger was a true Canadian original.

Ranger could be devastated by setbacks that other musicians would take in their stride. Miller reports that he was “despondent” [p. 165] when his quintet did not win a competition that was part of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1986, and quotes others as stating that he was “hurt deeply,” “totally depressed,” and “destroyed” [p. 199] after a single bad review in 1990 of the 12-piece Jade Orchestra, into which he had poured his energy during his early years in Vancouver. Music was everything to Ranger; he was passionately devoted to it at the expense of all else: a middle class existence, money, his family, friendships, teaching, indeed all other aspects of life. His playing matched his mood: if he was angry or upset about something, he would just walk away, even in the midst of a gig. As Miller notes, “it was a tribute of sorts to Ranger that Koffman, Greenwich and other bandleaders were prepared to cope with him at his worst in the perpetual hope that he might be at his best” [p. 132].

A Western tour in November 1991 with Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, along with the noted US sax player Dewey Redman, was what Ranger termed “the zenith” of his career, and in particular one evening in Saskatoon: “Everything,” he said, “was just right” [p. 210]. Redman for his part later said that Ranger was the greatest drummer in the world, a comment that eventually made its way back to Ranger, who was understandably pleased. But within a couple of years of that zenith, Ranger was on welfare, trying to quit his various addictions, and diagnosed with a bipolar disorder that was treated with lithium and therapy. His last significant engagements were in 1995 and 1996 in Victoria, after which he played a duo recital with Dave Say on tenor sax in Nanaimo in May 1997. Sadly, he then sold his drums in the summer of 1997 to pay for dental work, and subsequently tried unsuccessfully to borrow them back for his last public appearance on June 28, 1998. He then quit music and may even have been homeless for a while; he was likely on welfare and thus not able to work for fear of losing his social assistance. After a couple of years on the skids, he finally went missing in November 2000.

The focus throughout this account is understandably trained with a laser-like intensity on Ranger. Miller seems to work in at least a mention of every single public appearance that Ranger gave in the course of his 40-year long career. Ranger’s personal relationships are covered a bit more sketchily. Suddenly in Chapter 11, half way through the book, a woman named Ali Karnick, a US casting director working in Toronto, is introduced; she and Ranger live together for four years (ca 1980) in her comfortable house and she saves his career, getting him Canada Council funding by writing up and submitting the application in 1982. But there is no mention of what had become of Ranger’s wife Denyse and their four daughters, who disappear from the narrative on p. 84. (Lani, the youngest daughter, is among those whom Miller interviewed for the book.) In Chapter 13 Ranger abruptly leaves Karnick to move in with Lili Wheatley, an artist who had expressed an interest in his music; she too disappears from his life in the early 1990s, “no longer able to abide his drinking” [p. 215]. In Vancouver he lives for a few years with Judith Yamada, introduced only as “a woman he had known from Montreal” [p. 215-16]. Ranger finally ends up alone in public housing by 2000, in Aldergrove, where he was to meet his untimely end.

It is likely that what Miller includes about Ranger’s personal life is all that is known, or all that those who knew him are willing to divulge. What remains is his recorded legacy – not, unfortunately, nearly extensive or representative enough, by all accounts – and the influence he exerted on other Canadian jazz musicians by his example and his forays into teaching. As Miller noted in a Facebook post, among those few truly legendary figures in Canadian jazz, “Ranger seems to live on most vividly in the collective imagination of the Canadian jazz community”. Thanks to this book, Miller has ensured that Ranger’s career and reputation will extend beyond that focused community and have both a broader reach and a more lasting impact.

Robin Elliott

Episode 8

Episode 8

We hope you enjoy our conversation with Métis poet, Gregory Scofield, about his book of poems, Louis: The Heretic Poems, and about the ways the historical figure of Riel has continued to be used in national narratives.