Frances James

(Mary) Frances James. Soprano, teacher, b Saint John, NB, 3 Feb 1903, d Victoria, BC, 22 Aug 1988. She spent her childhood in Halifax and Montreal and took her main formative studies on a four-year scholarship at the McGill Cons with Walter Clapperton.

James, Frances

(Mary) Frances James. Soprano, teacher, b Saint John, NB, 3 Feb 1903, d Victoria, BC, 22 Aug 1988. She spent her childhood in Halifax and Montreal and took her main formative studies on a four-year scholarship at the McGill Cons with Walter Clapperton. In Montreal she was soloist 1925-9 at St James' United Church and sang on radio station CKAC. She moved to Toronto ca 1930 when she was engaged for two radio series - 'Musical Crusaders' produced by the CPR, and the 'Canadian General Electric Vagabonds'. She studied French and German song texts with Lisette Patterson and voice with Jeanne Dusseau in 1936. She was the first Canadian pupil of the Lieder specialist Emmy Heim at the TCM in 1934. Later she studied singing in New York with Enrico Rosati and Maria Kurenko and worked with Roland Hayes in Boston.

In 1929 she toured western Canada with tenor Stanley Maxted in joint recitals sponsored by the CPR. James participated in the CPR Festivals in the late 1920s and was a recitalist 1931-49 for the CPR hotel chain, singing in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, Vancouver, and Victoria. In Banff in 1931 she sang in the premiere of Willan's ballad opera Prince Charlie and Flora and met and married Murray Adaskin; and also in Banff, in 1939, she sang with Adaskin's Toronto Trio before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In Toronto she performed with the Toronto Bach Choir under Reginald Stewart in 1934 and was a soloist with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 11 Feb 1936, in Beethoven's Missa solemnis. She made her debut in the Hart House Sunday evening concert series with Gwendolyn Williams Kodolfsky at the piano in 1935.

James became familiar to a national audience through her performances for many CBC radio series, including 'Friendly Music,' 'Canadian Mosaic,' 'Footlights,' 'Midweek Recital,' and 'Distinguished Artists'. Of particular interest was her 20-week series on 'Midweek Recital' in 1946 that featured 150 art songs, including the Canadian premiere of Hindemith's Nine English Songs and other contemporary songs in addition to the standard repertoire. For the CBC she sang in Sir Ernest MacMillan's broadcasts of six Handel oratorios in 1942; in the premieres of Willan's Transit through Fire (1942) and Deirdre (1946) and Bernard Naylor'sKing Solomon's Prayer (1953); and in the Canadian premieres of Britten's Les Illuminations (1946), Peter Grimes (1949, as Ellen Orford), and Albert Herring (1951, as Lady Billows); and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1953, as Anne Trulove). She gave the Canadian premiere of the 1923 version of Hindemith's Das Marienleben in 1943 in Toronto and the Canadian broadcast premiere of it on the CBC in 1945. She was invited to Yale by Hindemith in 1946 to preview the newly-completed second version of the song cycle, and in 1950 she made the first recording of this version.

In concert James premiered songs by many Canadian composers, including Somers'Three Walt Whitman Songs in 1946 and Weinzweig'sOf Time, Rain and the World in 1947. She performed the Somers work and three songs from Pentland'sSong Cycle at the historical Harbord Collegiate concert, an all-Canadian program given in Toronto 17 Apr 1947. James participated in the first Montreal performance (1946) of Finzi's Dies natalis with the Little Symphony of Montreal, conducted by Bernard Naylor. In 1950 she went to Santa Barbara while Murray Adaskin was studying with Darius Milhaud. There she sang Rêves, a cycle written by Milhaud at Mills College, Oakland, Cal.

Frances James was a pioneer in the presentation of 20th-century music in Canada. As Éviola Gauthier and Cédia Brault had done in the 1920s and Mary Morrison, Patricia Rideout, and Phyllis Mailing in the 1960s and 1970s, James became a sophisticated medium for the vocal music of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. For student musicians growing to maturity in those years, her CBC recitals were a main source for acquaintance with the songs of Debussy, Hindemith, Milhaud, and Britten, as well as the contemporary Canadians. The voice, though handsome, was not particularly sensuous. It was, however, a firm implement for the conveyance of intelligence, a seriously researched understanding of the musical material in hand, and a broad sense of the culture represented. Many composers, including Britten, Hindemith, and Milhaud, admired her performances of their music.

Murray Adaskin became head of the music department at the University of Saskatchewan in 1952, and Frances James taught voice there from that time until the Adaskins retired in 1973. The couple then moved to Victoria, where both continued to teach privately and at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and University of Victoria. Among James' pupils, in Saskatchewan and Victoria, several have continued in the profession, including Sheila Osborn, a choir director in Saskatchewan; Audrey Shore Dowler, a soprano and school music supervisor in Manitoba; Greta Clark; Margaret Ready Scarsgard in Vancouver; Dorothy Howard, Catherine Lewis; and Jane MacKenzie. James was awarded the Canadian Music Council Medal in 1984.


Further Reading

  • A.A.A. 'Frances James develops into thrilling artist,' Winnipeg Free Press, 24 Dec 1948

    'Frances James - songs by Weinzweig,' CBC Times, 4 Sep 1949

    Lazarevich, Gordana. The Musical World of Frances James and Murray Adaskin (Toronto 1988)

    Creative Canada, vol 1