Choral composition | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Choral composition

Choral composition. From colonial days to the early years of the 21st century, Canadian composers have written works for performance by choirs. Canadian choral contributions include sacred and secular compositions in all categories.

Choral composition

Choral composition. From colonial days to the early years of the 21st century, Canadian composers have written works for performance by choirs. Canadian choral contributions include sacred and secular compositions in all categories. Sacred choral offerings by Canadians include anthems, cantatas, masses, and other works of a religious emphasis; while secular works for choir include folksongs, other songs in parts, those for children, and larger works. While many Canadian composers have achieved prominence, among the best-known writers of choral pieces are Healey Willan and R. Murray Schafer.

Earliest Canadian Choral Compositions

On 14 Nov 1606 the first choral work either written or arranged in Canada was performed on the waters before Port Royal (Annapolis Royal, NS) - the four-part song 'Great God Neptune' in the masque The Theatre of Neptune by Marc Lescarbot.

The main influence on choral music in succeeding years was the church, Roman Catholic at first, later also Anglican, Presbyterian, Ukrainian, and Methodist.

Choral Works 1914-1945

Healey Willan
Healey Willan arrived from England in 1913 and exercised a profound effect on later musicians; he made a vast contribution to the literature. Both his performances and his style of choral writing, a subtle blend of sinuous lines, warm harmony, and fastidious counterpoint, have earned much admiration. His most significant works are undoubtedly the shorter liturgical pieces - in particular a group of 11 liturgical motets, 14 masses, and a series of hymn-anthems. There is choral music in several major works including the opera Deirdre (1945, revised 1962) and some music-dramas. Also of note are the large-scale motet An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Host (1921) and the Coronation Suite (1953).


Succeeding generations in Quebec produced many notable choral composers. Jean Papineau-Couture made a striking setting of Psalm 150 (1954) for choir, instruments, and organ and composed the advanced Viole d'amour (1966); Pierre Mercure'sCantate pour une joie (1955) and Psaume pour abri (1963) are distinctive; and Roger Matton'sL'Escaouette (1957) and Te Deum (1967) show a predilection for choral writing employing large forces. Notable also is Jacques Hétu'sLes Djinns. Otto Joachim produced an outstanding choral piece, Psalm (1960). Claude Vivier attracted attention with his Chants (1972-3) and his Festival Singers commission Journal, for choir, soloists, and percussion. Kelsey Jones has written extensively for voices. Among his major works are Songs of Time (1955), Songs of Experience (1958), and The Prophecy of Micah (1963). André Prévost'sTerre des Hommes (1967), a massive work for three choirs, orchestra, and narrators, was composed for the opening of the World Festival at Expo 67.

Published Choral Series

During the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th century, Canadian publishers issuing choral series often mixed non-Canadian and Canadian music together. These series of choral works included the Octavo Choir Music and The Lute series of anthems, both by Anglo-Canadian; The Canadian Part Singer's Treasury by Harris; Nordheimer's Octavo Edition; Western Music's Western Choral Series and Western Folk Song Series; and Whaley Royce's Octavo Choruses and Quintettes, and Select Choruses and Part Songs.

Recent or current series include Alliance des chorale du Québec's Turlurette; Harris Sacred Choral Series, Harris Secular Choral Series, and Folk Songs of Canada, all by Harris; Leslie Music Supply's Leslie Choral Series; Thompson's The Festival Singers of Canada Choral Series, later the Elmer Iseler Choral Series; Waterloo's five: the F.R.C. Clarke Sacred Choral Series, the Hymn Sing Choral Series, the Memorial University of Newfoundland Choral Series, the Waterloo Folk Music Library, and the Waterloo Sacred Choral Library. Most of the other 20th and 21st-century Canadian publishers have issued some choral music. The Canadian Musical Heritage Society (as of 2004, published by Clifford Ford Publications) has been offering Canadian heritage choral music since 1982.

See also Anthems, motets, psalms; Cantata; Choral singing; Christmas; Easter, Lent, the Passion; Folk-music-inspired composition; Masses; Oratorio composition; and Te Deum laudamus.

Other Composers

Writing in a similar vein were W.H. Anderson and Alfred Whitehead. Anderson specialized in music for less sophisticated choirs, both church and secular, and Whitehead's work reflected his career as a cathedral organist. Gena Branscombe, a Canadian émigré to the USA, contributed significantly to choral music, especially for women's voices. She remembered her Canadian roots with Maples (1928) and Our Canada from Sea to Sea (1939).

Ukrainian and Jewish Contributions

Of note are the contributions in the Ukrainian Catholic/Orthodox churches. The presence of Ukrainian-American Olexander Koschetz (1875-1944) in Winnipeg in the summers of the 1930s helped foster indigenous composition for the liturgy. His four complete liturgies, one of which was printed in Saskatoon, have been a mainstay of church choirs ever since. The next generation of composers includes Pavlo Macenko, S. Yaramenko, and J. Holovko.

In the Jewish liturgy, numerous cantors have arranged or composed works for use in their synagogues. Composers active from the beginning of the 19th century include Nathan Mendelson, Jacob Rosemarin, and Bernard Wladowski. However, the fact that almost all of this material remains in manuscript in Jewish archives around the country has mitigated against its dissemination. Works by each of these composers have been published in The Canadian Musical Heritage anthology, vol. 25.


Meanwhile, in Quebec, a native strain asserted itself, though choral music was not the chief manifestation. There are a few works by Claude Champagne, including the major piece for choir and orchestra Altitude (1959) and some shorter liturgical pieces. Gabriel Cusson contributed extensively to the genre, both secular and sacred. Most notable is his Messe pour trois voix de femmes et orgue (1928). Other Quebec composers also contributed to the sacred repertoire, such as Roméo-Clément Larivière and Maurice Blackburn.

Early Canadian Works

Some controversy surrounds the authorship of the chants for the Feast of La Sainte Famille, instituted by Bishop Laval in the 17th century. According to Mother Marie-André Duplessis de Ste Hélène (1687-1760) '... M. [Charles-Amador] Martin... being a capable singer, composed the chants of the Mass and the Office of La Ste Famille as it is.' Ernest Gagnon posited that, if any of the chants were composed by Martin, the most likely candidate would be the Prose section. Another composition possibly composed in Canada ca 1700 is an anonymous motet Magnus Dominus (ca 1700) written in harmony in the style of the early French Baroque. Younger by a century is a Sanctus by the composer-priest Charles Écuyer, restored by Gustave Smith in 1877 (from two surviving choristers' memory of it) as a duet with organ accompaniment. Joseph Quesnel is said to have written motets, but there is some indication that the church music of this blithe late-18th-century spirit was too cheerful and dramatic for the church of his day.

Printed Works in the 1800s

The earliest printed works to appear were editions of service books for Roman Catholic use. The first appearance of choral compositions by Canadians was in the Protestant church music collections of Humbert (Union Harmony, 1801, 1816), Mark Burnham (Colonial Harmonist, 1832), and J.P. Clarke. Clarke's six hymn-tunes and two anthems in his Canadian Church Psalmody (1845) are notable. He composed an eight-part anthem, 'Arise, O Lord God, Forget Not the Poor'. Edward Mammatt, Thomas Turvey, and John McCaul were contributors to the genre, appearing in these early collections. In Montreal J.-C. Brauneis wrote a Mass (1835; for choir, violin, flute, bass viol, bassoon, and organ) that was highly praised. In Fredericton, NB, Bishop John Medley was a prolific composer of anthems and canticles, a large number of them published together in Church Anthems, Services and Chants (pre-1899), compiled and arranged by Edward Cadwallader (ca 1847-1925), an organist at Christ Church Cathedral (1870-90).

Early Quebec Composers

In Quebec City, two composers dominated: native-born Ernest Gagnon and French-born Antoine Dessane. Most of Gagnon's choral works were published; two collections stand out as exemplifying his focus on the parish life of Quebec: Cantiques populaires du Canada français and Petite Maîtrise des collèges (a two-volume collection of simple motets and other liturgical works). In contrast, Dessane's choral output harkens back to his native continent. His forces call for full orchestral accompaniment in some works. The style is operatic in the tradition of the church music of Mozart, Haydn, and Cherubini, which was falling out of favour in the church. Not surprisingly, only one known work for choir had been published in his lifetime.

In the next generation, Guillaume Couture (composer of the oratorio Jean le Précurseur, 1909) and Alexis Contant (who wrote two oratorios, Caïn, 1905, and Les Deux Âmes, 1909) dominated. However, the small choral works of Achille Fortier are impressive for their daring. Contant's smaller works show the influence of late French romanticism while Couture's few small choral works indicate he was an experimenter (eg, Tantum ergo No. 2 in F sharp, no date). Other Quebec composers of choral music were William Reed, Percival Illsley (composer of the cantata Ruth, 1894), Alphonse Lavallée-Smith, Joseph Gould, J.-O. Lagacé, and Arthur Letondal.

British-born Charles A.E. Harriss leaned more toward the spectacular in such works as the cantata Daniel before the King (1890), a Festival Mass (1901), and a Coronation Mass (1902). However, the smaller works for choir such as the anthem Lead, Kindly Light and several part songs are among the best produced by Canadian composers in the pre-World War I period. Another British émigré who played a significant role in choral music in Montreal was Herbert Sanders. Henri Miro was the composer of three major choral works with orchestra: a Messe solennelle in D (1904), the cantata Vox populi (1929), and Symphonie canadienne (1931), as well as shorter works.

New Brunswick Contributions

In addition to Medley and Cadwallader in Fredericton, the Saint John composer-organist-conductor James S. Ford's verse anthem Thou, O God, Art Praised in Zion (1904) won the Clemson Gold Medal from the American Guild of Organists. Ford was organist at St John's and Trinity churches from ca 1899 to 1932.

Ontario and BC Contributions

The burgeoning of choral composition in the period before World War I was most dramatic in Ontario where Angelo Read (who wrote the cantata David's Lament, 1904), Clarence Lucas (author of the cantata The Birth of Christ, 1902, and a Requiem Mass), J.E.P. Aldous, R.S. and Paul Ambrose, C.-O. Senécal, A.S. Vogt, Albert Ham (composer of the cantata The Solitudes of the Passion and an Advent Cantata), W.H. Hewlett, Donald Heins, Edward Broome, John Adamson, and Bertha Tamblyn were active. In Victoria, BC, G. Jennings Burnett wrote a number of hymns and anthems.

Toronto Contributions

Composers born or resident in Toronto have been perhaps particularly 'choral minded,' partly because of Willan and partly because of a very strong local choral tradition that stretches back to Torrington and Vogt. Godfrey Ridout, with such works as Esther (1952), Pange lingua (1960), and The Dance (1960), and Robert Fleming, who wrote several small-scale works and a cantata Heirs through Hope (1968), represent this influence most clearly. Clifford Ford'sMass (1976), commissioned by the Festival Singers, is an unaccompanied setting of varying polyphonic density, ranging from 4- to 16-part writing.

Ben Steinberg'sPirchay Shir Kodesh (1963) is one of several settings he has composed for synagogue services. Srul Irving Glick also wrote for synagogue choir; he produced two major choral works in the 1980s: the choral symphony The Hour Has Come and the oratorio Visions Through Darkness. Keith Bissell has a large list of choral works to his credit, intended mostly for school or amateur choirs, and a growing list of longer works, including the Advent cantata People Look East (1966), The Passion According to St Luke (1971), God's Grandeur (1975), Famous Men (1976), and a few more complex works written for commissions.

Ruth Watson Henderson has written extensively for choir; particularly for children's choir. Many of her works have been performed and recorded around the world. Welford Russell (ca 1901-75), a surgeon by profession, published eight choral works; his best known is the part-song 'Who Is at My Window Who?' recorded by the Festival Singers (Sera S-60085).

Western Canadian Contributions

Among composers active in the west, Violet Archer wrote more than 30 works for choirs. Among the more challenging ones are The Bell (1949), Landscapes (1950), Songs of Prayer and Praise (1953), Sing, the Muse (1964), and Psalm 96 (1989). Jean Coulthard was particularly successful in her short works for younger singers, but she also wrote a cantata, Quebec May (1948), and several large works. Bernard Naylor, who divided his time between Canada and England, wrote a large body of challenging music, chiefly for skilled church choirs. Particularly interesting are a set of Nine Motets, another of Three Latin Motets, several cantatas, and a Missa da camera (1966). Another outstanding composer is Imant Raminsh of British Columbia; prominent among his widely performed choral works are folksong arrangements and works on biblical texts.

New Techniques

In his groundbreaking study Alternative Voices (see Bibliography) István Anhalt discusses new techniques of writing for voices. Among those Canadians whose compositions for voice use spoken, whispered, hummed, or coughed delivery include Anhalt himself, John Beckwith, Udo Kasemets, Bruce Mather, R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, Gilles Tremblay, and Vivier. Musical experiment is generally associated with instrumental works, but in fact many avant garde composers in Canada, as elsewhere, have experimented with voices.

Beckwith has exploited the possibilities of serial techniques in Jonah (1963), of vocal collage in The Trumpets of Summer (1964), and of Canadian hymnody in Sharon Fragments (1966) and Harp of David (1985). The work of Somers also exploits more adventurous techniques ranging from the comparatively simple contrasts in God the Master of This Scene (1962) and Gloria (1962) through the bonhomie of Five Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (1969) to the complications of Kyrie (1972), Limericks (1980), and Chura-churum (1985).

Late 20th Century

Harry Freedman has composed a few choral works, including The Tokaido (1964), Totem and Taboo (1965), and The Flame Within (1968). Talivaldis Kenins'Chants of Glory and Mercy (1970) is a large and effective work. Oskar Morawetz' few choral pieces include Who Has Allowed Us to Suffer? (to words by Anne Frank). Schafer has written several pieces designed to lift choirs out of traditional ruts and expose them to modern devices and effects; the best known are Epitaph for Moonlight (1968), Miniwanka, or the Moments of Water (1971), Gamelan (1979), and Falling into Light (2003).

Among other Canadian composers who have shown special interest in the field of choral music are Peter Allen, Michael Conway Baker, Hugh Bancroft, Milton Barnes, Leslie Bell, Lorne Betts, Wolfgang Bottenberg, Alexander Brott, John Burge, Barrie Cabena, Patrick Cardy, Stephen Chatman, F.R.C. Clarke, Lionel Daunais, Victor Davies, Leonard Enns, William France, James Gayfer, Graham George, Srul Irving Glick, Keith Hamel, John Hawkins, Frank Haworth, Derek Healey, Alan Heard, Jacques Hétu, Harry Hill, Derek Holman, Richard Johnston, David Keane, Lothar Klein, Alfred Kunz, Quentin Maclean, Sir Ernest MacMillan, Michael Miller, David Ouchterlony, Donald Patriquin, Bruce Pennycook, Arthur Poynter, Thomas Schudel, Nancy Telfer, Barry Truax, Robert Turner, and Charles Wilson.

Further Reading

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