Jean Coulthard | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jean Coulthard

Jean Coulthard, OC, OBC, composer, teacher (born 10 February 1908 in Vancouver, BC; died 9 March 2000 in North Vancouver, BC). A pioneering woman composer and the first composer from Canada's West Coast to receive wide recognition, Jean Coulthard’s music is remarkable for its integrity, purity of expression and deeply emotional language.
Coulthard, Jean
Jean Coulthard's music is personal and serene (photo by Andreas Poulsson). The music is from Music to St. Cecilia for organ and strings with the Calgary Philharmonic under Mario Bernardi (courtesy CBC).

Jean Coulthard, OC, OBC, composer, teacher (born 10 February 1908 in Vancouver, BC; died 9 March 2000 in North Vancouver, BC). A pioneering woman composer and the first composer from Canada's West Coast to receive wide recognition, Jean Coulthard’s music is remarkable for its integrity, purity of expression and deeply emotional language. Often romantic and impressionistic, her more than 350 compositions span virtually every genre and range from the intentionally accessible to the uncompromisingly abstract. Perhaps best known for her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1963) and Twelve Essays on a Cantabile Theme (1972), Coulthard taught at the University of British Columbia for 26 years and continued to compose for nearly 30 years after her retirement, completing her last piece a few months before her death at age 92.

Early Years and Career

Jean Coulthard grew up in a musical family in Vancouver’s Shaughnessy neighbourhood. Her father was a doctor and her mother was the singer and music teacher Jean Blake Coulthard (née Robinson), an influential figure in the development of Vancouver’s early music and cultural scene. Coulthard began to compose at age eight while studying with her mother; she also studied in Vancouver with Jan Cherniavsky (piano) and Frederick Chubb (theory) from 1924 to 1928. At 17 she started teaching piano in the Coulthard home studio with her mother and her sister, Babs.

On a scholarship from the Vancouver Woman's Musical Club, Coulthard attended the Royal College of Music in London, England (1928–29), where she studied with Kathleen Long, R.O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams. On her return to Vancouver, she continued to teach privately and at private girls' schools. She married noted designer Donald Adams in 1935 and gave birth to daughter Jane in 1943.

1940s–1950s Compositions

Coulthard's early compositions — e.g., "Cradle Song" (1927), "Threnody" (1935) — were mostly for voice and piano. From 1939 to 1944, she studied composition with Arthur Benjamin, who encouraged her to compose for orchestra. During this period she produced four works — Canadian Fantasy (1940), Excursion (1940), Ballade (A Winter's Tale) (1940) and Song to the Sea (1942) — that established her reputation in Canada.

Coulthard also studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar (1944–45, 1949) and received critical assessments of her work from Arnold Schoenberg and Darius Milhaud in 1942, Béla Bartók in 1944 and Nadia Boulanger in 1955.

Following her studies with Wagenaar, Coulthard began to create in larger forms, including Music on a Quiet Song (1946) for flute and strings; various sonatas for cello and piano, oboe and piano, and piano solo; String Quartet No. 1 (1948, rev. 1952); and Symphony No. 1 (1951). Compared to her sonatas, with their looser formal structure and more overt romanticism, her Variations on B-A-C-H (1951), Duo Sonata (1952) and especially String Quartet No. 2: Threnody (1954, rev. 1969) reveal broadening tonal material, concision, and increasing mastery and intensity of expression.

In 1953, the CBC commissioned A Prayer for Elizabeth to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Coulthard was in Paris in late 1955 on a Royal Society of Canada scholarship, and then spent nearly six months in southern France in 1956. During her time in France, Coulthard began a violin concerto and an opera, completing the latter work, The Return of the Native, in 1979. The opera was finally premiered in concert form in September 1993.

Lyric Suite: Sketches from a Medieval Town (1957) and Aegean Sketches (1961) show Coulthard's openness to European history and culture. In 1958, the Vancouver International Festival commissioned Coulthard to write the song cycle Spring Rhapsody for Maureen Forrester. The Violin Concerto, a Canada Council commission, was premiered in 1959 by Thomas Rolston and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

1960s–80s Compositions

During the 1960s, Coulthard wrote increasingly complex works for a variety of ensembles, many on commission. The Pines of Emily Carr (1969), based on the journals of West Coast painter Emily Carr, introduced aleatoric elements, while The Birds of Lansdowne (1972) made use of an electronic tape incorporating bird songs from Vancouver Island. She also took advanced orchestration studies with English composer Gordon Jacob (1965–66).

Coulthard’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1963), recorded in 1972 with Robert Silverman and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, attracted mainstream attention. However, it was her string octet, Twelve Essays on a Cantabile Theme (1972), that most notably showed her mastery of musical form and content — an extraordinary statement of musical expression and compositional skills. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra commissioned This Land and Canada Mosaic, performing the latter on its Japanese tour in 1974.

From the late l970s through the 1980s, Coulthard continued to write extensively in a variety of forms, often influenced by literary discoveries. Her significant works from this period include: String Quartet No. 3 (1981); Image Astrale for piano (1981); Fantasy Sonata for horn and piano (1983); Christina Songs for high voice and piano (1983); Autumn Symphony for string orchestra (1984); Dopo Botticelli, a suite for cello and piano (1985); Sonata No. 2 for piano (1986), written for Jane Coop; Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (1989), written for Shauna and Thomas Rolston; and Symphonic Image ("Vision of the North") for string ensemble (1989), written for the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble.

1990s Compositions

Coulthard continued to accept commissions through the 1990s from the Canada Council, Vancouver's Community Arts Council, the Toronto Children's Chorus and others. Premieres of Coulthard’s works during this decade include Symphonic Image: Of the North (1993). Other notable late works include The Encore Series (1995; teaching repertoire for violin and piano), with David Duke and Jean Ethridge.

Introduction and Three Folk Songs, Music to St. Cecila for organ and strings, and Sonata Rhapsody for Viola & Pianoreceived Juno Award nominations for Best Classical Composition in 1990, 1993 and 1995 respectively.

Teaching Career

In 1947, Coulthard became the second person (after Harry Adaskin) hired to the faculty of the newly-created Department of Music at the University of British Columbia, where she established music theory courses and remained on staff for 26 years.

In 1972, Coulthard founded the Okanagan Music Festival for Composers with Alys Monod. After retiring from the University of British Columbia in 1973, Coulthard taught workshops and summer sessions at J.J. Johannesen's International School of the Arts (1973) and at the Banff School of Fine Arts (1978–79; now the Banff Centre for the Arts).

In 1977–78, Coulthard created the eight-volume piano pedagogy series Music of Our Time in collaboration with her former students David Duke and Joan Hansen, with art by Coulthard's daughter, Jane Adams. The series was supplemented by teachers' guides and by a brief, Student's Guide to Musical Form.

Characteristic Style

By the mid-1940s, Coulthard had absorbed the diverse influences of her teachers and fashioned her own personal style, which became increasingly tonally-based from the 1950s onward. Her music displays two significant streams: the lyrical (e.g., Lyric Sonatina, 1976); and the profound and brooding (e.g., String Quartet No. 2: Threnody, 1954, rev. 1969). Her personal compositional style is characterized by an integral romanticism, the assertion of tonality through strong key centres, and the use of colouristic harmonies, robust rhythms and cyclical formal structures.

Tributes and Legacy

Coulthard was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. Volume 10 of Radio Canada International's Anthology of Canadian Music (1982) was devoted to Coulthard's compositions and includes a monologue by her entitled "Music Is My Whole Life."

In 1990, Maclean's magazine named her to its Honour Roll, and quoted Mavor Moore, former chair of the Canada Council, who praised Coulthard as "an extraordinarily original composer, with a voice very much her own." Coulthard's 90th birthday in February 1998 was celebrated with a gala at the University of British Columbia, broadcasts on CBC Radio and a number of performances, including one by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Following Coulthard’s death, musicologist Glenn Colton wrote in Centregramme that "Coulthard was not only a driving force behind the mid-century promotion and dissemination of Canadian music, but also a pioneer who paved the way for women composers (and, to a certain extent, Western Canadian composers) on the national music scene." Biographer and UBC professor William Bruneau wrote that Coulthard“took special care to make music for her community. There's scarcely a Canadian music student who has not met her work… Above all, she was a person of precision, balance and grace — traits that also came through in her music.''

Concerts celebrating Coulthard’s 100th birthday in 2008 were held by the CBC/McGill Concert Series in Montréal and the Turning Point Ensemble in Vancouver. During its 2013–14 season, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra held the Jean Coulthard Readings series, which promoted the work of emerging BC composers.

The University of British Columbia established the Jean Coulthard Fund for Canadian Music Studies in recognition of her commitment to Canadian music. Her papers are held at the University of British Columbia Archives.

Author Bryan N.S. Gooch, Betty Nygaard King, David Duke, Vivienne Rowley, William Bruneau, BARCLAY MCMILLAN, ELAINE KEILLOR Revised Andrew McIntosh


Officer, Order of Canada (1978)

Freeman of the City of Vancouver (1978)

Composer of the Year, PRO Canada (1984)

Honorary Degree, D Litt, University of British Columbia (1988)

Honorary Degree, LLD, Concordia University (1991)

Member, Order of British Columbia (1994)

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

Selected Compositions

Excursion, ballet, with Symphony Nova Scotia (1940). Ms. CBC SMCD-5088.

The Devil's Fanfare, ballet (1958). Ms.

The Return of the Native, opera (Jean Coulthard and Edna Baxter, after Hardy). 195679.

Ballade: A Winter's Tale, string orchestra, 1940 (Vancouver, 1942). CBC IS Canadian Album No. 2/6-ACM 10 (Toronto Symphony Orchestra).

Excursion, with Symphony Nova Scotia (1940). Ms. CBC SMCD-5088.

Convoy (also known as Song to the Sea), overture, 1942 (Vancouver, 1944). Ms. CBC SM-215/6-ACM 10 (Atlantic Symphony Orchestra).

Symphony No. 1., 1951 (Toronto, 1954). Berlin (rental).

A Prayer for Elizabeth, with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, string (Toronto, 1953). BMIC, 1961. Centrediscs CMC-2887.

Rider on the Sands (1953). Ms.

Serenade or a Meditation and Three Dances, string orchestra, 1961 (Vancouver, 1962). Ms.

Endymion, 1964 (Halifax, 1970). Berlin(rental).

Kalamalka: "Lake of Many Colours," (Halifax, 1974). Waterloo (rental).

Canada Mosaic, with CBC Vancouver Orchestra (1974). Waterloo (rental). Introduction and 3 folk songs, CBC SM-5081.

Autumn Symphony, "Symphony No. 4" (formerly Symphonic Images), string orchestra, 1984–85 (Vancouver, 1987). Ms.

Symphonic Image: "Vision of the North," string orchestra, 1989. Ms.

Soloist(s) with Orchestra

Music on a Quiet Song, string, with Hervé Baillargeon (flute) (1946). Waterloo (rental). RCI 8/6-ACM 10.

Night Wind, alto, piano; revised for soprano, orchestra, words by Douglas LePan (1951). Ms.

The Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long, with CBC Vancouver Orchestra, violin, harp, string, 1960 (Vancouver, 1964). Ms. 2-CBC SM-5050.

Fantasy, violin, piano, orchestra, 1961 (Victoria, 1962). Ms.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, 1963 (Ottawa, 1967). Ms. 6-ACM 10 (Robert Silverman, piano).

Choral Symphony, "This Land" ("Symphony No. 2"), soli, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, orchestra, with Canadian poets (1966–67). Ms.

Two Visionary Songs, soprano, flute, string (string quartet), words by Harold Monro and Walter de la Mare (1968). Ms.

Music to Saint Cecilia, organ, string, unknown date (arrangement, 1968). Ms.

Lyric Symphony, "Symphony III," bassoon, chamber orchestra (1975). Ms.

Burlesca, Pf, string orchestra (1977). Ms.

Symphonic Ode for Viola and Chamber Orchestra, 1977 (Montréal, 1979). Ms.

Vancouver Lights: A Soliloquy, baritone, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, orchestra, words by Earle Birney, 1980. (Vancouver, 1983). Ms.

Fanfare Overture for Chorus and Orchestra, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, orchestra (1985). Ms.

When Tempests Rise, soli, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, orchestra (1988). Ms. [Cantata drawn from the opera Return of the Native]


Two Sonatinas, violin, piano, 1945 (Berlin, 1975).

Sonata for Cello and Piano, 1947 (Novello, 1968). Col MS-6542 (Ernst Friedlander, cello)/CBC SM-305 and 6-ACM 10 (Vladimir Orloff, cello)/RCI 4 (Roland Leduc, cello).

Sonata for Oboe and Piano, 1947 (Waterloo, 1977). RCI 4 (Claude Perrier, oboe; John Newmark, piano).

String Quartet No. 1. (1948, rev. 1952). Ms.

Duo Sonata for Violin and Piano (Sonata No. 1) (1952). BMIC 1963.

Threnody: String Quartet No. 2., 1954; rev. 1969 (Berlin, 1975). RCI 386/6-ACM 10 (University of Alberta String Quartet).

Piano Quartet: "Sketches from a Mediaeval Town," piano quartet (1957). Ms.

Sonata Rhapsody, viola, piano (1962). Waterloo (rental). SNE 550 (CD) (Robert Verebes, viola).

Sonata II (A Correspondence), violin, piano (1964). Ms.

Ballade of the North, violin, piano (1965–66). Ms.

Divertimento, flute, oboe, clariet, horn, bassoon, piano (1968). Ms.

Lyric Trio, piano trio (1968). Ms.

Lyric Sonatina, bassoon, piano, 1969 (Waterloo, 1973). Mel SMLP-4032 (Christopher Weait, bassoon).

Lyric Sonatina, flute, piano, 1971 (Waterloo, 1976).

The Birds of Lansdowne, piano trio, tape (1972). Ms.

Twelve Essays on a Cantabile Theme, with University of Alberta String Quartet, Purcell String Quartet, 2 string quartet (1972). Ms. RCI 495/6-ACM 10.

Songs from the Distaff Muse (various), 2 sets: soprano, alto, violoncello (1972); soprano, alto, piano (1974). Ms.

Music on a Scottish Folk Song, violin, guitar (c. 1974). Ms.

Lyric Sonatina, clarinet, piano (1976). Ms.

Serenade, alto, violin, words by Elizabeth Gourlay (1977). Ms.

Fanfare Sonata, trumpet, piano (1978). Ms.

Shizen: Three Nature Sketches From Japan, oboe, piano, 1979 (Novello, 1986).

Sonata for Violin Solo (1979). Ms.

Pas de Deux: Sonatina for Flute and Bassoon (1980). Ms.

Sonata No. 3, "À la jeunesse," violin, piano (1981). Ms.

String Quartet No. 3. (1981). Ms.

Fantasy Sonata, horn, piano (1983). Ms.

Lyric Sonatina, guitar (1984). Ms.

Dopo Botticelli, cello, piano (1985). Ms.

Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (1989). Ms.

Sonata for Solo Cello (1997). Ms.

Voice and Chamber Ensemble

Three Shakespeare Songs, soprano, string quartet (1947). Ms.

Two Night Songs, baritone, string quartet, piano (1960). Ms.

The Pines of Emily Carr, alto, narrator, string quartet, timpani (1969). Ms.

Music for Midsummer, soprano, violin, viola, cello, harp (1970). Ms.

Shelley Portrait, alto, flute, clarinet, cello, piano (1987). Ms. Concordia Commissions SNE-614-CD.


Four Études (1945). BMIC, 1952 (1, 2); 1954 (3, 4). No. 1 and 4: Bar BC-2837 (Marie-Aimée Varro, piano); No. 1 and 2: RCI 93/6-ACM 10 (Ross Pratt, piano); No. 4: RCI 134/6-ACM 10 (John Newmark, piano).

Sonata (1947). BMIC, 1953; 1969. RCI 289/6-ACM 10 (John Ogdon, piano); 1st movement: RCI 648 (Katja Cerovsek, piano).

Quiet Song, piano (1948). RCI 93 (Ross Pratt, piano).

Three Dances (1950). FH 1957 (3).

Variations on B-A-C-H, 1951 (Novello, 1972). 1969. RCI 289/6-ACM 10 (John Ogdon, piano).

Aegean Sketches (1961). BMIC, 1964. Mel SMLP-4031 (Antonin Kubalek, piano).

Preludes for Piano, 1954–64 (Avondale, 2009).

Sketches From the Western Woods (1970). Ms. (1984). Bedivere BVC-357 (cass) (Margaret Bruce, piano)/6-ACM 10 (John Ogdon, piano).

Image Astrale, 1981 (Avondale, 1988). Centrediscs CMC-1684 (Charles Foreman, piano).

Piano Sonata No. 2. (1986). Ms.

Educational Works

Early Pieces for Piano, 1917–21 (Alberta Keys, 1992).

Pieces for the Present for Piano (1973). Waterloo.

Music of Our Time/Musique de notre temps, 9 vols (Waterloo, 1977–80) and A Student's Guide to Musical Form (Waterloo, 1983). Published in the US as Music in Many Forms (Neil A. Kjos, 1984).

A la jeunesse for violin and piano [pub. as Encore Series] (Frederick Harris, 1980).

Earth Music for cello and piano (1986). Ms.


"Cradle Song," SA, piano, words by Padraic Colum (1927). BMIC, 1960. RCA CCS-1020 (CBC Vancouver Chorus; H. McLean, organ).

"Threnody," soprano, alto, tenor, bass, words by Robert Herrick (1935). BMIC, 1961. RCA CCS-1020 (CBC Vancouver Chorus; H. McLean, organ).

"Québec May," soprano, alto, tenor, bass, poem by Earle Birney, 1948 (Waterloo, 1976). RCI 35/6-ACM 10 (CBC Symphony Orchestra).

"Sea Gulls," SA, piano, with Ross Pratt (piano) (1954). (Jay, 1967).

"More Lovely Grows the Earth," with Montréal Bach Choir, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, words by Helena Coleman (1957). Ms. RCI 189/6-ACM 10.

"Soft Fall the February Snows," tenor, tenor, bass, bass, piano, words by William Campbell, 1958 (Berlin, 1970). RCA CCS-1020 (CBC Vancouver Chorus; H. McLean, organ).

"The Signature of God," soprano, alto, SA, piano, poem by John Hall, 1964 (Berlin, 1970).

"Auguries of Innocence," soprano, alto, tenor, bass, words by William Blake (1963–65). BMIC, 1969. RCA CCS-1020 (CBC Vancouver Chorus; H. McLean, organ).

"Hymn of Creation," soprano, alto, tenor, bass, percussion (1975). Ms.

Three Ballades From the Maritimes, soprano, alto, tenor, bass (1979). Ms.

Also 7 junior choral pieces (1954–65), 4 published by Iroquois and 1 by Oxford University Press. "The Bell Song" has been recorded by the Vancouver Bach Choir (VBC-001L).


"Cradle Song," mezzo, piano, arrangement (1927). BMIC, 1960. West WST-17137 (Maureen Forrester).

"Love Song," soprano, piano, based on Haida poem (1942). Ms. RCI 74 (F. James).

Three Songs, soprano, piano, words by James Joyce (1946). Ms. (1 and 3). RCI 20 (F. James).

Two Songs, baritone, piano, words by James Joyce (1946). "Lean out of the Window": RCI 109/6-ACM 10 (Bernard Diamant, baritone)/Master MA-377 (D. Mills).

Cycle of Three Love Songs, baritone, piano, words by L.A. MacKay (1948). RCI 109/6-ACM 10 (Bernard Diamant, baritone).

Spring Rhapsody (various), alto, piano (orchestra) (1958). Waterloo, 1978 (1,2,3); (4) "Ecstasy," BMIC, 1969. RCI 203 (Maureen Forrester)/Master MA-377 (D. Mills).

Two Duets, soprano, tenor (alto), piano, words by Robert Herrick (1960). RCI 515/6-ACM 10 (Bruno Laplante, Marie Laferrière).

Two Night Songs, baritone, piano quintet, words by Harold Monro and Hilaire Belloc (1960). Ms. 6-ACM 10 (John Boyden, baritone).

Six Mediaeval Love Songs, baritone, piano, trans. H. Waddell (1962). CBC SM-180/Centrediscs CMC-2185 (Jon Vickers).

The Pines of Emily Carr, alto, narrator, timpani, piano, string quartet (1969). Ms.

Four Prophetic Songs, alto, flute, violoncello, piano, words by Elizabeth Gourlay (1975). Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1183 (Roxolana Roslak).

Three Sonnets of Shakespeare, alto, string quartet (1977). Ms.

Two Idylls From Greece, baritone (tenor), piano, words by Joseph Braddock (1980). Ms.

Christina Songs, high voice, piano, words by Christina Rossetti (1983). Ms.

Further Reading