Raymond Pannell

Pannell, Raymond. Composer, pianist, writer, b London, Ont, 25 Jan 1935. His father played oboe in the Royal Canadian Regiment Band.

Pannell, Raymond

Pannell, Raymond. Composer, pianist, writer, b London, Ont, 25 Jan 1935. His father played oboe in the Royal Canadian Regiment Band. Pannell began playing the piano at five, won a scholarship at the Stratford Music Festival at six, and subsequently performed as a child prodigy, giving recitals in Ontario at 13. In 1954 he went to New York to study piano with Edward Steuermann and composition with Bernard Wagenaar and Vittorio Giannini at the Juilliard School. He returned to Canada and taught at the RCMT 1959-63. He continued an active performance career, playing his five Piano Etudes at his Carnegie Hall debut 25 Jan 1960 and competing in the second International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962. Beginning in the mid-1960s he turned his attention increasingly to opera, directing an opera workshop at the Stratford Festival in 1966. He was appointed assistant director and resident composer of the Atlanta Municipal Theater in 1968 and conducted performances of works such as La Bohème there. The following year he became the director of the Youth Experimental Opera Workshop (the YEOW project) in which young people created, designed, produced, and filmed their own works. This controversial program, which was involved in the campaign for civil rights, represented the USA on a worldwide simulcast marking the 25th anniversary of Unicef. Pannell returned to Canada in 1970. His projects included demonstrations of the principles of YEOW at OISE in 1972. He co-founded Toronto's Co-Opera Theatre in 1975 and became its general director. Pannell's main contribution has been as a composer of dramatic music. He has composed incidental music for several Stratford Festival productions in addition to his operas. His works display a variety of idioms including serialism (incidental music for Measure for Measure, 1969), sparse atonality, lush chromaticism, and electroacoustic techniques (Circe, 1977). His opera The Luck of Ginger Coffey, commissioned by the COC for Canada's centennial, reflects the influence of US composers such as Bernstein, Copland, and Harris. Pannell has stated that 'It came from a different musical culture, from the States, where my influences were and the piece reflected that,' and that the deliberate juxtaposition in this work of jazz, serial, and popular song elements brings together 'a number of sound environments to musically represent the different kinds of modalities in which people thought'. This juxtaposition of styles has been viewed by critics as eclecticism.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey is Pannell's last traditional opera. Exiles is an experimental work commissioned by Stratford in 1973. Scored for four opera singers and five actors, a chamber ensemble, and a pre-recorded tape, it combines instrumental and electro-acoustic music, improvisation, poetry, and photography to depict the ordinary world with a new vision. There is no plot; rather the events and arias express 'a place between two worlds... mysterious, disturbing and limitless' (Pannell). Aberfan, commissioned for CBC television, won the Salzburg TV Opera Prize in 1977. The award citation commended 'its simplicity of means, both in production and musical composition. It was emotionally intense and written with great impact'. It also won an ACTRA award for best television program in 1978, the Prix Anik, and a citation as best serious music program from the Canadian Music Council. This opera, inspired by the Welsh disaster in which a slag-heap buried school-children alive, has been seen in 22 countries. Push, composed 1975-6 and produced by Co-Opera Theatre in 1976, is a 'developmental' or improvised opera about 'everyone in the world looking like a prisoner'. In this work the singers create their own lines and take turns playing the roles of Mandelstam and Pound. Souvenirs (1978) is a one-act opera about aging. Again there is juxtaposition of styles, with chromaticism and vaudeville music as well as the sparse atonal music in which Pannell is perhaps most himself. As in the other operas, the use of several different styles is deliberate. 'I see no reason why music has to be in one style any more. We don't behave that way. Music is like speech, reflecting back on memories and memories are not consistent in style' (Pannell).

Pannell shifted his attention ca 1989 to writing fiction. His first novel, Stilts, is about a Russian clown. This accords with his view that everything he has written since Aberfan stems from the commedia dell' arte. A second novel, The Gift of Tongues, was completed in 1991.

Selected Compositions

Aria da Capo, chamber opera (Edna St. Vincent Millay). 1963 (Toronto 1963). Ms

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. 1967. Ms

The Luck of Ginger Coffey, opera (Hambleton, based on the novel by Brian Moore). 1967 (Toronto 1967). Ms

Exiles, one act (Pannell, Beverly Pannell). 1973 (Stratford 1973). Ms

Go, children's opera (Pannell). 1975. Ms

Midway, opera. 1975. Ms

Push, developmental opera (Pannell based on Mandelstam and Pound). 1976 (Toronto 1976). Ms

Aberfan, one act video opera (Pannell, B. Pannell). 1976. Ms

N-E-W-S, one act radio opera. 1977. Ms

Circe, one act masque (Atwood). 1977 (Toronto 1977). Ms

Refugees, vaudeville opera. 1979 (Toronto 1979). Ms

Souvenirs (B. Pannell). 1978 (Toronto 1978), rev as As Long as a Child Remembers, 1984. Ms

The Downsview Anniversary Song-Spectacle Celebration Pageant (Pannell). 1979 (Toronto 1979). Ms

Harvest, one act TV opera (Pannell). 1980 (CBC-TV 1980). Ms

Don Quixote's Christmas Concerto. 1981. Pf, narrator, orch. Ms

Thank You, Mr. Ludwig van, an entertainment. 1988. Narr, chamber ensemble. Ms

Chorale and Toccata. 1989 (Toronto 1989). Orch. Ms

The Animals of Limbo, a Christmas pageant. 1990 (Toronto 1990). SATB, 'animal instruments'. Ms

The Forbidden Christmas, musical (Atwood, Pannell). 1990. Ms

Also some incidental music

Writings

' Aria da Capo,' OpCan, vol 4, Feb 1963

'Building a tradition,' OpCan, vol 18, Sep 1977

'Opera in the 1980's,' OpCan, vol 21, Spring 1980

'Goodnight Co-Opera, sweet dreams,' Canadian Theatre Review, 40, Fall 1984


Further Reading

  • Marshall, Brenda. 'Raymond Pannell,' OpCan, vol 5, Dec 1964

    ' The Luck of Ginger Coffey,' OpCan, vol 8, Sep 1967

    'Raymond Pannell opera wins top honours for CBC television,' CanComp, 124, Oct 1977

    Schulman, Michael. 'Opera goes co-op with Raymond Pannell,' CanComp, 102, Jun 1975

    Godfrey, Stephen. 'The Pannells tackle new frontiers,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 24 May 1978

    Contemporary Canadian Composers/Compositeurs canadiens contemporains