Chester Duncan | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chester Duncan

Chester (Thomas Alexander Winchester) Duncan. Teacher (literature), pianist, critic, composer, b Strasbourg, north of Regina, 4 May 1913, d Winnipeg 31 Mar 2002; ATCM 1930, BA (Manitoba) 1934, MA (Manitoba) 1939.

Duncan, Chester

Chester (Thomas Alexander Winchester) Duncan. Teacher (literature), pianist, critic, composer, b Strasbourg, north of Regina, 4 May 1913, d Winnipeg 31 Mar 2002; ATCM 1930, BA (Manitoba) 1934, MA (Manitoba) 1939. He studied piano privately in Winnipeg with Beryl Ferguson and majored in literature 1930-4, 1935-9 at the University of Manitoba, and 1945-6 at the University of Toronto, specializing in 20th-century British poetry. He taught piano from 1936 to 1942. He developed his parallel interests - music and literature - to a high level, often interrelating them.

He was a professor emeritus of the University of Manitoba where for 35 years, 1943-78, he taught in the Department of English. His lectures there were noted for civility and wit. His students included actor Douglas Rain and theater director John Hirsch. Nationally Duncan became known for his incisive commentary - usually, though not always, on music - for CBC radio ('Critically Speaking,' 1950-63; 'Sharp, Flat and Natural,' 1954; 'Listening with Duncan,' 1958-61; 'Duncan's Diary,' 1961-3; a series of talks in 1952; special programs on the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, and Auden for 'CBC Wednesday Night' in 1959; programs on the music and letters of Brahms and Schumann in 1962; three lecture recitals on 'Jazz and the Modern Composer' in 1966, during which he also played Constant Lambert's Sonata and the piano part in Bartók's Contrasts; and a special program, 'Some Canadian Poets with Music,' in 1972 for 'CBC Tuesday Night'). Some of the material from his hundreds of broadcasts is preserved in his book Wanna Fight, Kid? (Winnipeg 1975). The Manitoba Department of Education recorded six cassettes of Bryon Johnsen reading from this book.

Duncan performed most often as a chamber musician (pianist of the Hidy Trio, 1961-8, and sometime duo-recitalist with the violinist Frederick Grinke, the cellist Martin Hoherman, the flutist Dirk Keetbaas, the cellist Lorne Munroe, his son, the pianist Laurie Duncan, and others) and as accompanist for singers (regularly Orville Derraugh and Joan Maxwell, on occasion Belva Boroditsky, Uta Graf, Frances James, Peter van Ginkel, and many others). He recorded with Marta Hidy and Joan Maxwell for the CBC. He also gave solo recitals in public and on radio and performed many times as soloist with the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra, in such works as Howard Ferguson's Concerto for piano and strings (twice), Alec Rowley's Concertino (twice), George Dyson's Concerto Leggiero (North American premiere), Hindemith's The Four Temperaments (twice), William Walton's Sinfonia Concertante (twice), Gordon Jacob's Concerto No. 2 (North American premiere, and a repeat performance), E.J. Moeran's Rhapsody No. 3 (three times), and Gershwin's Concerto in F (twice). He also played the solo part in Franck's Symphonic Variations for various performances of Gweneth Lloyd's Allegory by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in the late 1940s. In 1989, with his son Laurie, he recorded a cassette of Eckhardt-Gramatté's Passacaglia and Fugue and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Canzona CT-89004), which was broadcast on CBC's Mostly Music in 1994. The two collaborated on a CD of the elder Duncan's songs in 2001.

As a composer Duncan devoted himself principally to song, combining his knowledge of both literature and music. Some 200 settings include works of James Reaney, Miriam Waddington, Leonard Cohen, Dorothy Livesay, and other Canadian poets as well as poems of W.H. Auden, Hilaire Belloc, and A.E. Houseman. His compositions - including incidental music and songs for Auden's The Ascent of F6 and For the Time Being - have had public performances in Winnipeg, and For the Time Being was broadcast by the CBC in 1965. A retrospective recital of his songs was presented 28 Jan 1973 by the School of Music, University of Manitoba, and in 1983, 65 of the songs were recorded (2 cassettes, private recording, available for on-site listening in Canadian Music Centre libraries) with tenor Orville Derraugh. My Loving Days (2001, Julie Biggs) contains songs from Duncan's Pleasant Plain.

Composition was the main creative activity of Duncan's retirement years. He added some 75 songs, including 15 to words of Robert Herrick, and he expanded the music for Auden's For the Time Being to create a two-hour work of oratorio proportions. He continued to lecture extensively on music and poetry and to adjudicate at festivals across Canada.

Duncan contributed articles on music to Saturday Night, the Dalhousie Review, the Tamarack Review, the Canadian Music Journal, the Canadian Forum, and the Northern Review, as well as program notes to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He was an associate of the CMCentre and a lifetime member of ACTRA. His wife, Ada (b Edith Margaret Elwick), a member of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir for 35 years, is a gifted pianist and organist.

See also Laurie Matthew Duncan, (his son).

Selected Compositions

Incidental music for Hassan (James Elroy Flecker) 1944, Coriolanus (Shakespeare) 1950, Elizabeth the Queen (Maxwell Anderson) 1954, Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare) 1956

Incidental music and songs for The Ascent of F6 (Auden, Isherwood) 1945-50, Pleasant Plain (Margaret Stobie) 1952, The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare) 1953, For the Time Being (Auden) 1946-65, Will Shakespeare (Clemence Dane) 1949, Woyzeck (Büchner) 1962


'Is the sound still there if no one hears it?' CanComp, March 1976

'The survival of a Manitoba composer,' Manitoba Music Educator, Nov 1980


Entertainment (suite in 5 movements). 1946. Ms

The Bridge, film music. 1951. Ms



Rhymes (limericks). 1966. Mezzo (bar). Ms

'Bed Time Prayer' (anonymous). 1971. Mezzo. Ms

Five Songs to Words of W.H. Auden. 1972-81. Mezzo (bar). Ms

'Exchanges' (Ernest Dowson). 1974. Ten. Ms

'Night Herding Song' (cowboy song). 1979. V. Kappa 1981

Sarum Primer. 1980. High voice, piano (organ). Ms

'Longing' (Arnold). 1982. High voice. Leslie 1989

Also collections of songs: A.E. Housman Songs (1937-63), Auden Songs (1940-72), Canadian Songs (1944-71), Hilaire Belloc Songs (1974)

Also settings of works by Shelley, Herrick, Livesay, Birney, D.H. Lawrence, and others; and arrs of Australian, Canadian, Scottish, and US folk songs.


Then and Now (Yeats). 1969. Sops in unison ('Then'), SSA ('Now'). Wat 1974

'Nunc dimittis'. 1970. Men and boys' choir. Ms

Choral Suite (L. Carroll, Blake, Clough). 1974. SATB, piano. Ms

'Beautiful' (M.K. Hood). 1980. Unison, piano. Kappa 1981

Destinations: A Choral Suite (W. Scott, Auden, Yeats). 1980. SATB, piano. Ms

Further Reading