Literature set to music

Anglo-canadianExcellent literature can be fit material for the composer in any country.
Anglo-canadianExcellent literature can be fit material for the composer in any country.

Literature set to music

Excellent literature can be fit material for the composer in any country. In Canada most of the texts employed by composers have some intrinsic literary merit, and those who have exercised discrimination in selecting suitable words have tended to produce musical settings that are of equally high quality.

Not surprisingly, the works of some well-known writers have been used frequently. Composers often have selected pieces by Earle Birney, Bliss Carman, Marjorie Pickthall, E.J. Pratt, and Duncan Campbell Scott. Works by less famous figures also have been set to music, and certain composers (eg, Brott and Schafer) at times have provided their own texts. Certain curious facts emerge from a study of settings of English Canadian literature, and one of the most unusual is that some poets of substantial reputation seem not to have attracted the attention of musicians, or at least have attracted very little attention. There are, for instance, only relatively few settings of pieces by Roy Daniells, A.M. Klein, P.K. Page, Miriam Waddington, Wilfred Watson, and Phyllis Webb. Some poets, on the other hand, have been set seldom but significantly: Margaret Atwood by John Beckwith (The Trumpets of Summer), Gustav Ciamaga (Solipsism While Dying), and Bruce Pennycook (Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein); Leonard Cohen by himself, by Norma Beecroft (Elegy and Two Went to Sleep), by Harry Freedman (The Shining People of Leonard Cohen), and by Chester Duncan and Tibor Polgar; Eldon Grier by István Anhalt (Cento); Dennis Lee by Beckwith (Place of Meeting), Freedman ('Ookpik'), Raymond Luedeke (Garbage Delight), and John Greer (Palm Court Songs of the Bubble Ring); and A.J.M. Smith by Violet Archer (Northern Landscape) and Chester Duncan ('Beside One Dead'). Notable are certain productive collaborations; for example, the ones between Dorothy Livesay and Barbara Pentland, between Anne Marriott and Pentland, and between Eugene Benson and Charles Wilson. The collaboration between James Reaney and Beckwith resulted in a number of works with specifically Canadian themes, eg, Canada Dash, Canada Dot (1965-7 - 'a centennial collage-trilogy'), Great Lakes Suite (1949), A Message to Winnipeg (1960), and Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1961). The Reaney/Beckwith operas Night Blooming Cereus (1958), The Shivaree (1979), and Crazy to Kill (1988) have Canadian settings, as does the Reaney/Somers opera Serinette. (Reaney's verse, it should be noted, has interested other composers as well, eg, Chester Duncan, Walter Kaufmann, Alfred Kunz, and Kenneth Winters.)

By far the largest number of treatments of English-Canadian texts has been by Canadian composers and not by musicians of other nationalities - for instance, W.H. Anderson set verses by a great many minor Canadian poets but also by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Duncan Campbell Scott; Beckwith, in addition to his Reaney, Atwood, and Lee settings, has composed to words of David Willson (Sharon Fragments), bp Nichol (Avowals, Mating Time, beep), and Colleen Thibaudeau (songs); Robert Fleming set words of John Coulter, Robert Finch, Paul Hiebert, and Tom Kines; Ernest Whyte's songs include settings of Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and others; Edward Betts Manning set Charles G.D. Roberts (songs); Oskar Morawetz' works include treatments of texts by Lampman and Pratt; Wilson's song cycle Image out of Season uses words of seven Canadian poets - Isabella V. Crawford, F.R. Scott, Miriam Waddington, E.J. Pratt, Jay Macpherson, Irving Layton, and Robert Hogg; and Keith Bissell's compositions include settings of words by Bliss Carman and Lampman, among others. Some writers have attracted the attention of composers, particularly after 1970; Robertson Davies, for instance, is one (including treatments by Louis Applebaum, Derek Holman, and Samuel Dolin), and others are Irving Layton (eg, Violet Archer, Tibor Polgar, Judy Specht, Charles Wilson), Dorothy Livesay (eg, Violet Archer, Chester Duncan, Raymond Luedeke, and Barbara Pentland), Marshall McLuhan (Lloyd Burritt and Udo Kasemets), F.R. Scott (eg, Lloyd Burritt, Alfred Kunz, Donald Steven, and Charles Wilson), and Miriam Waddington (eg, Milton Barnes, Chester Duncan, Harry Freedman, Ruth Watson Henderson, and Michael R. Miller). A few non-Canadians have treated Canadian verse, however. One should mention the US percussionist-composer Warren Benson's music (performed by Nexus) to words by Birney, Barney Child's settings of some John Newlove poems, and the English composer Richard Arnell's use of writings by Ralph Gustafson.

Some ideas prove clearly congenial to composers ('inspirational' is a less accurate and more dangerous word in an overview such as this), and certain poems (eg, Pickthall's 'Quiet') have been set by more than one composer. People and human concerns and feelings serve as the basis of the largest group of textual themes, while nature - the pastoral element in so far as it can be detached from human emotion - lies at the centre of the next largest group. Certain texts within both groups deal with Canadian persons or places, eg, David (1949) - Birney/Lorne Betts and Birney/Lloyd Burritt; Christmas in Canada (1968) - Ernest Buckler/Keith Bissell; To the Ottawa River (1949, published 1962) - Archibald Lampman/Oskar Morawetz; Louis Riel (1967) - Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand/Harry Somers; The Brideship (1967) - George Woodcock/Robert Turner; Brébeuf (1943-ca 1947, two versions) - Pratt (from Brébeuf and His Brethren)/Healey Willan, and Newfoundland (1964) - Pratt/Keith Bissell. Other works are far more universal (or general) in their subject matter, dealing with love, spring, etc. Pieces which take pointedly national themes or which seek to glorify Canada are in the minority, and there are few which take as their theme and motivation a special national occasion.

Nevertheless, the centennial year (1967) provided the opportunity for an increase in the writing of a number of works with clearly Canadian themes, and many of these were written as the result of commissions (Canada Council, CBC, and others). It is natural enough that vocal works resulting from such support frequently have had a national or regional flavour. Moreover, many radio and TV plays and adaptations have necessitated the writing of incidental music, eg, works by Birney - Damnation of Vancouver, Queen of Spades (from Pushkin) (music by John Avison); W.O. Mitchell - Jake and the Kid (music by Morris Surdin); and Atwood - The Journals of Susanna Moodie (music by Beckwith).

Certain Canadian composers have tended to seek out the texts of their fellow countrymen and some may have done so as a result of a sense of obligation, of national consciousness. Nevertheless, this tendency has not meant a substantial compromise with respect to the literary merit of the words used, and, as has been implied above, Canadian composers have not said 'Canadian words - at any price'. It is clear also that many Canadian writers have delighted in some of the compositions which have resulted - Livesay stated, 'Violet Archer's music is ''sympathique'' to me' - though certain writers lamented in the late 1970s what they perceived as a lack of attention from their country's composers. However, such a lack of attention became less apparent in the 1980s and will not persist for long if the attitudes of, for example, Alexander Brott, Lloyd Burritt, and Jean Coulthard continue. And if the quality of the musical writing is as sensitive as that in, say, Coulthard's handling of Birney's Quebec May (1948) or Pratt's Sea Gulls (1954), Canadian writers have little ground for fear.


Quebec has a long tradition of song. The first inhabitants in the 17th century brought with them the traditional songs and instrumental music of their native provinces of France and passed them from generation to generation. The song as a poetic form has a long history in France, and much of the early poetry of Quebec used the rhythmic patterns of this form. So it seemed most natural to sing the poems to the traditional French melodies. In the preface of his Recueil de cantiques à l'usage des missions, des retraites et des cathéchismes (1795), which gave only words, Father Jean-Baptiste Boucher-Belleville asked, 'Is it not possible to substitute these pious verses... for the indecent ones that corrupt hearts... ?' Father Jean-Denis Daulé, for his part, in 1819 published the Nouveau Recueil de cantiques à l'usage du Diocèse de Québec, containing not only words but also music for the songs, and some of both were of his own composition.

For the period 1765 to 1867, over 300 songs have been discovered in the periodical press. In most cases, the poem only is printed, the melody being indicated by the title of a traditional song. This outburst of patriotic sentiment in Quebec reached a peak of intensity in the period from 1825 to 1840. Four songs sung to traditional French melodies characterize this period: 'La Chanson patriotique' by Augustin-Norbert Morin (1825); 'Sol canadien, terre chérie' by Isidore Bédard (1829), later set to music by T.F. Molt; 'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!' by Sir George-Étienne Cartier (1835) with music by Jean-Baptiste Labelle; and finally, 'Un Canadien errant' by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie (1840). The last-named gained a new audience in the 1960s when it was performed by Nana Mouskouri.

By the 1840s musicians were becoming interested in French-Canadian poetry. Charles Sauvageau set François-Magloire Derome's 'Chant national' and François-Réal Angers' 'Chant canadien' for voice and piano. 'Le Drapeau de Carillon' became Octave Crémazie's most celebrated poem when in 1858 Charles Wugk Sabatier wrote an accompanying melody for it. Other works by Crémazie were set to music later, including the 'Chant du vieux soldat canadien' and the 'Chant des voyageurs' by Antoine Dessane, and 'Le Canada' by Alfred La Liberté in 1902, A.-P. Derome in 1906, Auguste Fontaine in 1909, and J.-J. Gagnier ca 1935. In 1862 Antoine Dessane had set to music Blain de Saint-Aubin's poem 'La Mère canadienne'. The period also saw the Canadian blossoming of another popular genre, the drawing-room ballad. Lavallée's 'Nuit d'été' to a poem by Napoléon Legendre, and Jehin-Prume's 'Les Caprices du coeur' and 'Car vous étiez si gentille' are typical. Louis-Honoré Fréchette's 'Mon Bouquet' was set to music by Achille Fortier ca 1890 and Albert Lozeau's 'Hymne à la patrie' by J.-J. Gagnier in 1939.

Joseph Quesnel was the first Quebec composer to attempt the setting of more elaborate texts. He wrote his own librettos for the comic operas Colas et Colinette and Lucas et Cécile. The Cantate: La Confédération, with text by Auguste Achintre and music by J.-B. Labelle, was composed in 1868. In 1879 Lavallée's Cantata (text by Napoléon Legendre) was performed in Quebec City in honour of the visit of the Marquess of Lorne and the Princess Louise. The following year Lavallée wrote the melody for a song destined for particular fame: 'O Canada'. The words, by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, were written after the music. It was around 1880 also that Célestin Lavigueur composed the operetta La Fiancée des bois to a libretto by Pamphile Lemay.

Joseph Vézina's operetta Le Lauréat, to a libretto by the ex-premier of Quebec, Félix-Gabriel Marchand, was completed around the beginning of the 20th century. Of Alexis Contant's two oratorios, Caïn was to a text by Brother Symphorien and Les Deux Âmes had words by Henri Roullaud, a French poet who had settled in Canada. The text of Guillaume Couture's oratorio Jean le Précurseur is Albert Lozeau's free-verse adaptation of a libretto by Abbé Antonio LeBel.

In 1937 the foundation of La Bonne Chanson coincided with an increased demand for songs with pleasant melodies and lyrics chosen more for their patriotic or religious content than for their literary quality. Nevertheless, this movement contributed to the gradual rediscovery of the Quebec heritage and prepared the way for the birth of a literature that was committed socially and politically.

The appearance on the Quebec scene of the chansonnier Félix Leclerc in the early 1950s marked a turning point in the evolution of French-Canadian literature in its relation to music. Leclerc was the first representative of the generation of Vigneault, Léveillée, Ferland, etc, whose poems are intended to be recited or sung. The chanteuse Monique Leyrac performed nine poems of Émile Nelligan in settings by André Gagnon. Maurice Dela has set to music Vigneault's 'Le Paysage'. Robert Charlebois has collaborated with Claude Péloquin and others.

Poems which, unlike those of the chansonniers, lend themselves to concert treatment have formed the basis of numerous contemporary musical works: Alfred Desrochers' Hymne au vent du nord set to music by Clermont Pépin (1960); from the poetical works of Émile Nelligan, three songs by Maurice Blackburn (1949), Maurice Dela's 'Le Vaisseau d'or' (1967), Jacques Hétu'sLes Clartés de la nuit (1970), and Les Abîmes du rêve (1982); Cécile Chabot's L'Imagerie set to music by Hector Gratton (1945); Félix-Antoine Savard's French-language version of the Te Deum set to music by Roger Matton (1967); and Wilfrid Lemoine's Les Rivages perdus set to music by François Morel (1954). The works of Saint-Denys Garneau have inspired Serge Garant ('Et je prierai ta grâce,' 1952; 'Cage d'oiseau,' 1962), Jean Vallerand (Quatre Poèmes de Saint-Denys Garneau, 1954), Alain Gagnon ('Que je t'accueille,' 1968), Bruce Mather (Madrigal II, III, and IV, 1968-72), and Jean Papineau-Couture (Paysage, 1968). Papineau-Couture's Églogues (1942) are to words of Pierre Baillargeon. José Evangelista'sEn guise de fête (1974) employs a text by Anne Hébert. Richard Boucher's cantata Anges maudits, veuillez m'aider (1979) takes its inspiration from a poem by Émile Nelligan. Léo Roy set 62 of Nelligan's poems to music 1934-5. Others who have set Nelligan's poems to music include Charles Baudoin, François Dompierre, and Claude Léveillé.

Gabriel Charpentier, the poet and composer, collaborated on the text for R. Murray Schafer'sLoving (1966) and wrote the libretto and music for his own opera Orphée I. Other Charpentier texts (Ils ont détruit la ville, Dissidence, and Cantate pour une joie) were set by Pierre Mercure. On the tenth anniversary of the latter's death, Charpentier wrote Artère for baritone. Among Charpentier's compositions to words of other poets are the vocal trio 'Jamais' and Quand nous serons heureux, both with text by Jacques Brault.

Of the younger poets writing in the 1970s, mention should be made of Michèle Lalonde, whose long poem Terre des hommes was set to music by André Prévost for Expo 67. Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux employed texts by Noël Audet and Gilles Marsolais for Makazoti (1971), by Nicole Brossard for Alchera (1973), by Paul Chamberland for Ishuma (1973-4), and by France Théoret for Transit (1984). Marc Gagné wrote both the libretto and the music for his opera Menaud (1986), based on a novel by Félix-Antoine Savard. Nelligan, a 'romantic opera' with a libretto by Michel Tremblay and music by André Gagnon, was premiered at the PDA by the Opéra de Montréal in 1990. Some composers - eg, Lionel Daunais (Sept Épitaphes plaisantes, Fantaisie dans tous les tons) and Rodolphe Mathieu - have composed mostly to their own texts, but collaborations between representatives of the literary and musical worlds became quite common in the 1970s and made a distinctive contribution to the development of Canadian music.

One ground for real alarm is the degree to which settings of Canadian writers are unknown and unperformed. The cataloguing of such works was incomplete in 1980 - a number of writers themselves were not aware of settings of their words - and the incidence of performance was far from high. In 1991 the cataloguing remained incomplete: the database of the Canadian Music Centre represents a considerable advance (access is possible by composer's or author's surname, as well as by title and call number), but it lists only works by member composers. Too often a fine work will have been given one or two hearings only, and such neglect is unfortunate and undeserved.

The publications of the CMH will, perhaps, help to redress the balance with regard to older works, but constant attention should be given to the totality of the vocal part of Canada's musical legacy.

Further Reading

  • Wyczynski, Paul. Nelligan et la musique (Ottawa 1971)

    Blais, Marie-Christine. 'Nelligan: de la musique avant toute chose,' Chansons d'aujourd'hui, vol 12, Jan 1990

    Legault, Laurent. 'Dans le walkman de Nelligan,' ibid