Elmer Iseler | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Elmer Iseler

Elmer Walter Iseler, choir conductor (b at Port Colborne, Ont, 14 Oct 1927; d at Caledon Hills, Ont, 3 Apr 1998).
Elmer Iseler Singers
Iseler is considered the foremost Canadian choir conductor (photo courtesy Robert Missen Artists). The music is an excerpt from Glick's Sing Unto the Lord a New Song, performed by the Elmer Iseler Singers (courtesy CBC).

Elmer Walter Iseler, choir conductor (b at Port Colborne, Ont, 14 Oct 1927; d at Caledon Hills, Ont, 3 Apr 1998). Iseler was considered the foremost Canadian choir master of his time, with an international reputation. He studied piano and organ as a youth. In Kitchener under the tutelage of Ulrich Leupold (1909-1970), the first trained musicologist to settle in Canada, he explored the church music of the Lutheran tradition. Continuing his studies at the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, he conducted the U of T orchestra and the All-Varsity Mixed Chorus. Meanwhile he sang in the choir at the Church of St Mary Magdalene under Healey WILLAN. He apprenticed 1951-52 as assistant rehearsal conductor of the TORONTO MENDELSSOHN CHOIR and taught orchestral and choral music in Toronto high schools. With this group and the TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA he conducted more than 150 performances of Handel's Messiah.

In 1954 Iseler helped found the Toronto Festival Singers (later FESTIVAL SINGERS OF CANADA), Canada's first professional choir. The choir rapidly became celebrated for its virtuoso technique and beautifully blended voices. Its fame developed through innumerable tours, broadcasts and recordings. In 1964 Iseler also became the conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, a post he retained for 33 years.

In 1979 he formed the Elmer Iseler Singers, a professional choir with which he toured widely in Canada and internationally, eg, to the Seoul Olympics and Calgary Olympics, the World Symposium on Choral Music in Vienna and Vancouver, the International Choral Kathaumiwx, Toronto's International Choral Festivals, Northern Encounters Festival, and Festival 500 in Newfoundland. He was an authoritative interpreter of Willan's choral music. In addition, he was noted for his performances of the great choral works by Bach, Brahms, Mozart and others. When Igor Stravinsky heard his choral conducting and the CBC Orchestra in the early 1960s, he insisted that the recordings of his works be done with these Toronto musicians. Iseler also made a significant contribution to Canadian choral composition by commissioning and programming many new works.

Performing music by Canadian composers was one of his priorities. To assure that these works would have wider usage he ensured their dissemination through publication in The Elmer Iseler Choral Series (Gordon V. Thompson/Warner Chappell). This series of some 180 titles includes works by the 19th century Canadian composer J.P. Clarke, the recipient of Canada's first Bachelor Music degree, plus many contemporary Canadians (eg, Robert B. Anderson, Louis APPLEBAUM, John BECKWITH, Jean Belmont, Howard CABLE, Stuart Calvert, Henri Contet, Maryjane Cruise, Eleanor Daley, Leonard Enns, Robert Evans, John Greer, Srul Irving GLICK, Ruth Watson Henderson, Kenneth Leslie, Allis MacGillivray, Rita MACNEIL, Kola Owolabi, Kenneth Peacock, Imant Raminsh, John Reeves, Godfrey RIDOUT, Sid Robinovitch, Harry SOMERS, Scott Tresham, Graeme Wearmouth). During his 25th-anniversary season as conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Symphony commissioned Derek Holman's Tapestry for chorus and orchestra in Iseler's honour (premiered 22 November 1989).

In addition to live performances and publications, Iseler familiarized the public with Canadian compositions through his 57 recordings, many of which included some, or consisted solely of, Canadian material. The last complete recording conducted by Iseler was Noël: Early Canadian Christmas Music, which contains Canadian choral music from the 1640s to 1940s, researched and published by the Canadian Musical Heritage Society. The last recording with which Iseler was involved, again containing all-Canadian material, was The Maple Leaf Forever.

The influence of Iseler as a choral conducter in Canada is inestimable. He gave countless workshops on choral conducting throughout Canada and abroad that guided and inspired numerous young conductors. With his own choirs, Iseler's aim was to produce a sound that was suitable for a particular work. The usual philosophy was to develop a sound unique to a particular choir and use that for all performances regardless of the repertoire. Consequently European audiences were always amazed at the variety of sound and tone colour produced by the Mendelssohn Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers. Possibly this choral approach was developed by Iseler in response to what he found in Canada, a wide variety of singing traditions from indigenous approaches through to many styles brought by the settler societies.

Among the many awards and honours that Iseler received for his outstanding contribution to Canadian musical life were the City of Toronto Gold Civic Award of Merit, the Silver Medal of Paris (1973) and the Canadian Music Council Award (1975). He was named an Officer of the ORDER OF CANADA in 1975 and received the Order of Ontario (1995). In 1990 he received the National Choral Award for Distinguished Service. Five Canadian universities awarded him honorary doctorates (Dalhousie in 1971, Brock in 1972, Wilfrid Laurier in 1985, York in 1994, and Toronto in 1998). In 1996, Iseler and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir were honoured with the Roy Thomson Hall Award for outstanding contribution to the musical life of Toronto, and in 1997 he was awarded the National Arts Centre Award for Distinguished Contributions to Touring in Canada. In December 1997 he was named a Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music for his "extraordinary contribution over several decades in enriching the lives of millions of Canadians through music."

At the University of Toronto where he had taught choral music 1965-68, and was appointed Adjunct Professor of Choral Music in 1997 with the Elmer Iseler Singers as professional choir-in-residence at the Faculty of Music, the Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting and the Elmer Iseler National Graduate Fellowships in Choral Conducting were created after his death.