The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer died on August 14, 2021 at the age of 88; for a tribute to him, see the Institute for Music in Canada page here. This playlist of ten items is intended for those who are new to Schafer’s music and want to get a sense of the breadth of his compositional style. The playlist is ordered from the music that I feel will be easiest to appreciate by the uninitiated, progressing along a fairly steady line to the most difficult. If you prefer to listen to all of the works in a row without reading the commentary, they are available on a YouTube playlist that you can find by clicking here. [The playlist is 1h 36m 26s long.]
- Three Hymns from The Fall into Light. The choral oratorio The Fall into Light was commissioned in 2003 for Schafer’s 70th birthday. It was first performed in the atrium of the CBC building in Toronto by six professional choirs, each led by their own conductor, with a seventh conductor providing overall direction. The three hymns heard here are moments of repose in the midst of this huge work; Schafer excerpted them in 2005 to facilitate them being performed and recorded separately. The first hymn in particular recalls the idiom of the Anglican sacred choral music that was Schafer’s first in-depth musical experience as a young choir boy in Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill. In addition to the main choir there is a ghostly shadow choir whose presence enriches the effect of the beautiful tonal language of the melodic phrases. The performance here is by the superb Vancouver Chamber Choir under Jon Washburn; these musicians have made three outstanding recordings devoted to Schafer’s choral music.
2. Wolf Music: “Tapio” for alphorn with echoing instruments. Every August for many years, a group of up to 64 people would gather with Schafer in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve to enact And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, the epilogue to Patria. Patria is a cycle of 12 linked music theatre pieces, many of them intended, like the epilogue, for performance outdoors. The music, theatre, and rituals of And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon were created collaboratively by Schafer and the members of the Wolf Project, as the gathering became known. Most of And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon has been kept as a private artwork, only to be shared with other members of the Wolf Project, but in 1996 Schafer did publish some excerpts from the work under the title Wolf Music. Included in that set is this beautiful solo, with natural sounds and echoes, performed here by Mike Cumberland on alphorn. It is spellbinding how beautifully the music and the natural sounds go together; I could listen to this track on repeat for the rest of my life. The track begins with a short spoken introduction by Schafer himself.
3. Adieu Robert Schumann. As a young music student at Queen’s University, I was excited to hear one of the first performances of this work. It was written for the contralto Maureen Forrester, who premiered it with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under the conductor Mario Bernardi. Shortly after the Ottawa premiere, the performers took the work on tour, including a stop in Kingston in March 1978. The text is taken from the diaries of Clara Schumann, and tells of the descent into madness followed by the death of her husband, the composer Robert Schumann. Schafer weaves an intricate collage of quotations from the music of Robert Schumann into his score, which I discuss in an article here. The last three minutes of this piece feature a beautiful combination of poignant text and evocative music.
4. Epitaph for Moonlight. This is quite likely Schafer’s most performed and most popular piece. Written in 1968, shortly before the moon landing, the work sets a variety of invented words for “moonlight” that were created by a group of Vancouver schoolchildren. The score is in graphic notation so that it can be performed, with minimal assistance, by a choir of children who do not read conventional music notation. Regarding the title, Schafer explains that “in today’s polluted cities with their twenty-four-hour glare, no one even notices the moon anymore. The moon is dead. I saw her die.”
5. String Quartet No. 8, second movement. Schafer’s thirteen works for string quartet constitute one of the most important contributions to that medium in recent years. Five of those thirteen works (nos. 7, 8, 10, 12, and 13) were written for the Molinari Quartet of Montreal, which has recorded them for the ATMA Classique label. String Quartet No. 8 was premiered by the Molinari Quartet in Montreal in 2002; as I wrote on another occasion, “The second movement includes subtle use of a pre-recorded string quartet and makes use of the BACH motive. It is one of the highpoints of the entire cycle—solemn, complex, intense, and very moving, but never striving for effect.” Settle in for twelve and a half minutes of great music and great music making…
6. Trio for Flute, Viola, and Harp. When he was asked in 2010 to write a piece for flute, viola, and harp for the Trio Verlaine, Schafer was faced with a decision: disregard Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, which is the foundational and best-known work for that combination of instruments, or acknowledge it. He chose the latter course; the first movement in particular is in an impressionistic style that is a departure from Schafer’s other works, but a successful one. It is performed here by Trio Kalysta (Lara Deutsch, flute; Marina Thibeault, viola; and Emily Belvedere, harp), a group of three talented young musicians from McGill University, on their debut album Origins from 2019.
7. Six Songs from Rilke’s Book of Hours: No. 6. This collection of six songs for soprano and piano quartet (violin, viola, cello, and piano) was commissioned by the soprano Stacie Dunlop and was premiered by her along with the members of Calgary’s Land’s End Chamber Ensemble. Rilke’s poetry collection was published in 1905, and Schafer decided to set the poems to music in the Viennese expressionist idiom of Schoenberg and his circle from that same period. The title of this CD, which is entirely devoted to Schafer’s music, is also taken from Rilke’s Book of Hours, specifically a line from a poem in the “Book of a Monk’s Life”: “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” (I live my life in widening circles). Rilke’s Book of Hours has been called a set of love poems to God. The sixth and final song in Schafer’s cycle, “Das waren Tage Michelangelos,” is given a setting that can be summed up in one word: devastating. The German text of Rilke’s poem can be found here.
8. String Quartet No. 3: second movement. Schafer’s third string quartet was commissioned by the CBC producer David Jaeger for the Orford String Quartet. It was premiered by that ensemble in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on September 30, 1981. The second movement of the work features energetic vocalizations by the quartet players, “similar to those in karate” according to Schafer. The movement certainly provides quite a physical (and vocal) workout for the quartet players.
9. Requiems for the Party Girl. Schafer devoted a great deal of time and energy to a massive cycle of twelve music theatre works that he called Patria. He wrote an entire book to explain the Patria series and the term “Theater of Confluence” that he used to describe his aesthetic theories behind these works. The first part of the cycle to be written was this set of ten short arias for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, written for his first wife, Phyllis Mailing, and premiered by her in Vancouver on November 21, 1967. This work was later incorporated into Patria 2, which is also titled Requiems for the Party Girl. Schafer wrote both the text and music for the work, which depicts the mental collapse and suicide of the titular heroine. The musical setting is based on an all-interval twelve-tone row that recurs in many parts of the Patria cycle. The director Thom Sokoloski mounted a brilliant production of Patria 2 for Schafer’s 60th birthday at the du Maurier Theatre in Toronto’s Harbourfront in 1993.
10. Thunder: Perfect Mind. The final work on this listening list was written for Schafer’s third wife, the mezzo-soprano Eleanor James. It is an incredible tour de force for singer and full orchestra; according to Schafer’s program note on the work, it is based on an ancient Egyptian text that was discovered in 1945. L. Brett Scott in his biography of Schafer published in 2019 (buy it here) states that the work was completed in July 2003 as a welcome-home present for James when she came to live with Schafer on his farm in Indian River, near Peterborough, Ontario. It is given a brilliant performance on this recording with James accompanied by the Esprit Orchestra of Toronto conducted by Alex Pauk.