Elmer Iseler

In 1954 Iseler helped found the Toronto Festival Singers (see Festival Singers) and during 24 years as their conductor was credited with developing and maintaining a choir of rare excellence. In 1964 he became also the conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with which he remained until 1997.

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).

Iseler, Elmer

 Elmer (Walter) Iseler. Choir conductor, arranger, editor, teacher, b Port Colborne, near Niagara Falls, Ont, 14 Oct 1927, d Caledon East, Ont, 3 Apr 1998; B MUS (Toronto) 1950; honorary LL D (Dalhousie) 1971, honorary LLD (Brock) 1972, honorary LL D (Wilfrid Laurier) 1985, honorary LL D (Toronto) 1998. In childhood, he learned the music of the Lutheran church through his minister father. Iseler was raised near Buckingham, Que. He studied piano and organ as a youth and organ and church music with Ulrich Leupold while a freshman at Waterloo Lutheran (now Wilfrid Laurier) University. He continued at the University of Toronto and in 1950 and 1951, while attending the Ontario College of Education, conducted the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the All-Varsity Mixed Chorus. He apprenticed 1951-2 as assistant rehearsal conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (with which he had sung under Sir Ernest MacMillan) and taught orchestral and choral music 1952-64 in Toronto high schools.

In 1954 Iseler helped found the Toronto Festival Singers (see Festival Singers) and during 24 years as their conductor was credited with developing and maintaining a choir of rare excellence. In 1964 he became also the conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with which he remained until 1997. He taught choral music 1965-8 at University of Toronto and in 1968 began to edit Thompson's Festival Singers of Canada Choral Series (later the Elmer Iseler Choral Series), which includes a number of his own arrangements and comprises over 180 titles.

In 1978 he formed the Elmer Iseler Singers, a professional choir with which he has participated in events such as the 1984 Toronto International Festival of the Arts, the Seoul Olympics, the 1985 TriBach Festival in Edmonton, and the 1989 International Choral Festival in Toronto. In 1987 he travelled with the choir to the World Symposium of Choral Music in Vienna, where he gave workshops highlighting Canadian choral music. He also guest-conducted frequently with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, leading over 150 performances of Messiah.

Iseler often was described as the outstanding Canadian choir conductor of his generation. He brought to the Festival Singers and the Mendelssohn Choir fresh discipline and versatility, eliciting stylistic resilience, fine tuning, and a healthy sound adaptable to music of all periods, though best in Tudor and 20th-century works. A one-time member of Healey Willan's St Mary Magdalene Church choir, he was an authoritative interpreter of Willan's choral music. Iseler also made a significant contribution to Canadian choral composition by commissioning and programming new works. Because of his choirs' exposure through touring and broadcasts, and the expertise of their performances, new compositions have been introduced in their best light across the country and internationally, and many have subsequently entered the standard choral repertoire. Iseler's practice of bringing his singers to small Canadian communities also provided inspirational opportunities for numerous choral singers and conductors.

During his 25th-anniversary season as conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Toronto Symphony commissioned Derek Holman'sTapestry, for chorus and orchestra, in Iseler's honour; the piece was premiered 22 Nov 1989. A bust of Iseler and a cash award were presented to him at a special concert 12 Feb 1990 at Roy Thomson Hall.. During the 1990s he led his choirs at various festivals, including Newfoundland's Festival 500, where he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II; and he conducted the National Youth Choir 1992 and 1993. He ceased to conduct the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1997, after 33 years, but continued with the Elmer Iseler Singers. He was named a Fellow of the RCM in 1997, the same year University of Toronto appointed him Adjunct Professor of Choral Music and his Elmer Iseler Singers became the university's official choir-in-residence. His last complete recording was Noël: Early Canadian Christmas Music (Marquis Classics ERAD 227, 1998), made with his Singers.

Iseler received numerous awards during his five-decade career, among the earliest of which were the City of Toronto Civic Award of Merit gold medal and the Société d'Encouragement et d'Éducation de Paris silver medal in 1973. He received the Canadian Music Council Medal and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1975. Elmer Iseler Day was proclaimed by Metropolitan Toronto 3 Nov 1984. In 1986 the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors awarded him its first life membership, and in 1990 it gave him the National Choral Award for Distinguished Service. Other awards Iseler received towards the end of his career were the Order of Ontario (1995); the Roy Thomson Hall Award (1996, with the Mendelssohn Choir); and the National Arts Centre Award for Distinguished Contribution to Touring (1997). About the latter award, John Cripton, NAC director, stated 'Dr. Iseler's commitment and passion for the development of Canadian choralism is unsurpassed. His impressive career has enabled the Canadian voice to be heard throughout Canada and abroad.' As well, CBC's Adrienne Clarkson Presents broadcast a tribute to Iseler just weeks before his death, from cancer. Upon Iseler's death, the University of Toronto established its Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting, as well as graduate fellowships in choral conducting. The Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir also established a scholarship in Iseler's name.

He was married to Jessie Iseler, who was his choir's manager.


Further Reading

  • Kraglund, John. 'Elmer Iseler: the man who built a choir that can challenge North America's finest,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 1 Dec 1962

    'Interview,' CanComp, 90, Apr 1974

    Nielson, Carolyn. 'Directions,' ACCC, vol 1, Fall 1981

    Goulet, Colleen. 'Pullan and Iseler join in Mahler's 8th,' Music, vol 6, Sep-Oct 1983

    Winters, Kenneth. 'Phoenix ascending,' Radio Guide, vol 4, Oct 1984

    'Elmer Iseler celebrates 20 years with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir,' ChoirsOnt, vol 14, Dec 1984-Jan 1985

    'Iseler wins NAC award for chorale tours,' Ottawa Citizen, 8 Oct 1997

    Levitch, Gerald. 'Canadian icon hits a sour note,' Globe and Mail, 6 Dec 1997

    Dann-Beardsley, Cynthia. 'The man of a thousand voices,' PfAC, vol 26, summer 1990