Festival Singers of Canada

The Festival Singers was the first professional choir in Canada. Founded in 1954 by Elmer Iseler and known until 1968 as the Festival Singers of Toronto, the chorus reached professional status that year when it became the core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

The Festival Singers was the first professional choir in Canada. Founded in 1954 by Elmer Iseler and known until 1968 as the Festival Singers of Toronto, the chorus reached professional status that year when it became the core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Expanded from 25 singers to 36, the choir performed regularly on the CBC and attracted international attention for their Grammy-nominated work in the early 1960s with Igor Stravinsky. The choir made its US debut at the White House in 1967 and won international acclaim, touring in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and the USSR. The Festival Singers’ repertoire included music of all periods and styles, but emphasized Canadian choral music, commissioning and premiering many works by Canadian composers. The choir declared bankruptcy in 1979.

Early Years

Founded in 1954 by Elmer Iseler (with encouragement from the singers Tom Brown, Joanne Eaton and Gordon Wry), the 25-voice choir was heard first on CBC Radio in a 1955 Good Friday broadcast of Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden. Shortly thereafter, billed as the Festival Chorus, the choir gave three concerts at the 1955 Stratford Festival, two of them with the Hart House Orchestra under Boyd Neel. The first of these, on 9 July, offered the premiere of Healey Willan's A Song of Welcome, B58 (commissioned by the festival and with Lois Marshall as soloist) and Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia.

The Festival Singers' first Toronto seasons won them recognition as one of the outstanding choirs of the day. Their concerts, unaccompanied or with a small ensemble, were broadcast often by the CBC. Expanding to 32 voices, the singers attracted international attention for their work in the early 1960s with Igor Stravinsky. They had been engaged by the CBC to perform with the CBC Symphony Orchestra in the network's tribute to the composer on his 80th birthday in 1962; the program included the North American premiere of A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, and the broadcast premiere of The Dove Descending Breaks the Air. Impressed with their high competence and fine sound, Stravinsky and Robert Craft invited them to participate in recordings of Stravinsky's choral music then being undertaken by Columbia. Their recording of Symphony of Psalms, conducted by Stravinsky, was nominated in 1965 for a Grammy Award. The choir made its US debut in December 1967 at the White House in Washington, DC.

Professional Status

The Festival Singers assumed professional status in 1968 and became at the same time the core of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Stabilized at 36 voices, they toured Europe in 1971 and again in 1972 with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Further US appearances included concerts at Lincoln Center in New York on 26 June 1972; Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on 25 October 1976; and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on 4 August 1977.

In November 1977, the singers toured in England, West Germany and the USSR. They toured Western Canada in 1974 and 1977, and Eastern Canada in 1975. They also appeared at the Stratford Festival during the summers of 1955, 1956, 1958, 1963–67 and 1974; at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1968, 1973 and 1975–77; the winter seasons of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1973–76; and at the Montréal Olympics in 1976. At Guelph in May 1976, they sang two sections of Penderecki's St Luke Passion under the composer's direction. Annual concert series were given in Toronto, and at the height of their fame the singers gave about 25 concerts each year on the CBC.

Canadian Works Commissioned

Reflecting Iseler's dedication to Canadian music, the Festival singers commissioned and premiered works by some of Canada’s most prominent composers: John Beckwith (Jonah, 1963); Robert Fleming (Heirs Through Hope, 1968); Clifford Ford (Mass, 1977); Harry Freedman (The Tokaido, 1962; Totem and Taboo, 1965); the choir's accompanist from 1968 to 1979, Ruth Watson Henderson (Missa brevis, 1975); Oskar Morawetz (Two Contrasting Moods, 1967); Jean Papineau-Couture (Viole d'amour, 1967); Harry Somers (the motet The Crucifixion, 1966; Three Songs of New France, 1976); Claude Vivier (Journal, 1978); Charles Wilson (The Lonely Land, 1976); and John Wyre (Utau Kane NoWa, 1975; Bernie, 1977).

The Festival Singers of Canada Choral Series, begun in 1968, edited by Iseler and published by G.V. Thompson, includes several of these commissions. The choir also gave the premieres of Talivaldis KeninsLagalaî (1970), Thomas Baker's Chinese Love Lyrics, Wilson's Images Out of Season (1973), Derek Healey’s arrangements of Six Canadian Folk Songs (1973), Somers' Kyrie (1974), Norman SymondsAt the Shore (1976), Alexander Brott’s Time's Trials Triumph (1977 in Bonn, Germany), David Fanshawe's African Sanctus (revised version, 1978) and several of John ReevesMotets (1978).

Guest Conductors

With the exception of a period from late 1960 to early 1962, when ill health made him unavailable, Iseler was the Festival Singers' regular conductor until 1978. In his absence, Lloyd Bradshaw conducted several concerts. Walter Susskind and Rowland Pack each conducted one. Iseler himself — as a guest — conducted the final concert in the 1961–62 season prior to returning as artistic director in August 1962. He retained the position for the ensuing 16 years.

Solo Performers

Many solo performers of note were members of the Festival Singers at some time during their careers, including: Mary Lou Fallis; Albert Greer; Ingemar Korjus; Phyllis Mailing; John Martens; Mary Morrison; Patricia Rideout; Freda Antrobus Ridout; Jan Simons; Lillian Smith Weichel; Margaret Stilwell; Eric Tredwell; Alan Woodrow; and Gordon Wry.

Critical Reception

The Festival Singers received glowing reviews in both Canada and the United Kingdom. In June 1971, the London Daily Telegraph wrote, “The Festival Singers of Canada made a stunning impression... The unanimity of attack was astonishing, the intonation flawless and the tonal balance well-nigh perfect.” Similarly, in July 1974 the Globe and Mail commented, “One could not fault the Singers on tonal beauty, ensemble precision or dignity... the Singers swung effortlessly from subtle pianissimos to lusty fortissimos and maintained a delicate balance in even the most complex interweaving of melodic lines.”

Board of Directors

The Festival Singers' first governing board came into being in 1968, the year the choir assumed professional status. Board members were enlisted from the music and business communities. Presidents were James Singleton (1968–69), John Bird (1969–71), Gordon Marshall (1971–72), Mrs. Thomas H. Thomson (1972–74), Max Holling (1974–76), Ian Woolley (1976–77), Mrs W.D. Heintzman (1977–78) and Charles Tisdall (1978–79).

Final Season

By the mid-1970s, there was dissatisfaction with the Festival Singers' objectives and policies among its the choir members, artistic director, management and board. Furthermore, concern about the levels and sources of its funding prompted the Canada Council to commission a review of the choir's affairs in 1976. In 1978, these contentious issues resulted in the board announcement on 12 May that Iseler's contract would not be renewed.

Giles Bryant was named music director in June 1978, and Peter McCoppin, Jon Washburn, Brian Law and John Barnum appeared as guest conductors during the 1978–79 season. That season was not a financial success, due in part to decreased use of the choir by the CBC. The Festival Singers announced a suspension of activities in April 1979 and filed an assignment of bankruptcy on 30 July 1979.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.


Further Reading

  • John Kraglund, “Is There a Pro Choir Waiting in Wings,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 25 November 1967 and “Festival Singers in Bankruptcy,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 2 August 1979.

    “Festival Singers of Canada,” CanComp vol. 49 (April 1970).

    “Festival Singers Tour Europe — Critics Call Tour '’amazing,’” CanComp vol. 62 (September 1971).

    John Roberts, “Stravinsky and the CBC,” CMB vol. 4 (Spring–Summer 1972).

    Jean Ashworth-Gam, “Elmer Iseler and the Festival Singers of Canada: A Classic Success Story,” Recorder vol. 19 (March 1977).

    William Littler, “Why Did Elmer Iseler Get the Old Heave-Ho?” Toronto Star, 25 May 1978.Ronald Hambleton, “Problems That Destroyed a Choir Come to Light,” Toronto Star, 8 August 1979.

    Marcus R. Kramer, “The Festival Singers of Canada: A History,” MMus thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1982

    Walter Pitman, Elmer Iseler: Choral Visionary (Dundurn, 2008).

    André de Quadros, ed., The Cambridge Companion of Choral Music (Cambridge University Press, 2012).