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The 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada – Canadian music in the UK

Updated: Aug 24

Organ Canada magazine; (c) Royal Canadian College of Organists

Sarah MacDonald, May 2017


In 2017, Canada celebrates 150 years since confederation. This is a commemoration not without controversy. The profoundly damaging consequences of European colonisation on Canada’s First Nations are still being endured, both on the national stage, and in the personal lives of many Canadians. Nonetheless, despite its complications, colonialism has played an enormous role in the shaping the current identity of our country. Certainly, the inherited cultural influences of western Europe, and specifically of British Anglicanism, have defined my own development and subsequent career.

Throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century, thousands of Europeans emigrated to Canada to set up what are now its flagship cultural institutions. Most of the country’s symphony orchestras, ballet schools, theatre and music festivals, music conservatories, and liturgical choral traditions were established by European artists, teachers, directors, dancers, and musicians, who came to Canada where opportunities were plentiful. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and the choral traditions in most of our churches and cathedrals, were created in this way. In addition, Canadian-born artists and performers expected to spend time studying in Europe or Britain, learning the roots of their discipline, before returning home to establish institutions or build influential careers. St Michael’s Choir School in Toronto and the Montréal Symphony Orchestra were founded by Canadian-born visionaries who studied in Europe. Eminent Canadians such as artist Emily Carr and writer Robertson Davies both studied in England before spending their extraordinary careers in Canada.

These institutions and individuals are prized as among the most influential and important musical and artistic traditions in Canada, and they continue to sustain significant and respected international reputations. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet was the first institution in the Commonwealth upon which Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the title “Royal” in 1953. The men and boys’ choir of St George’s Cathedral, Kingston, were the first overseas choir to sing at Westminster Abbey in 1954. Michael Tippett came to Ottawa himself in 1972 to conduct the Canadian première of ‘A Child of our Time’ at the National Arts Centre (a performance in which my parents sang). Many great European conductors have held posts with Canadian orchestras (including Andrew Davis, Charles Dutoit, Simon Streatfeild, Günther Herbig).

In the 1970s, immigration laws were tightened, limiting the influx of Europeans and requiring that jobs be given to Canadians first. In addition, Canadian Content (affectionately known as “CanCon”) was introduced, demanding that all cultural output contain a certain percentage of material that was written, composed, produced, performed, or presented by Canadians. The quality of said output was not referred to in the legislation, merely the nationality of its creator. My musical training took place under this new legislation, and every competition or exam programme had to contain at least one piece of music by a Canadian composer. If one applied for a grant, played in a public recital or competition, broadcast on radio or television, CanCon was compulsory. It could be argued that this protectionist policy went too far: by seeking to defend our television networks from the overwhelming influence of our neighbours to the south, we risked marginalising our great European cultural heritage. I was particularly irked as a teenager, when in a piano exam I had to forego a work by Brahms in favour of something pleasant but merely competent by Oskar Morawetz (who, like Brahms, was not born in Canada).

My personal grumblings aside (Canadian disContent?), one positive implication of the imposition of CanCon obligations was that Canada had come of age, and now had its own post-colonial cultural identity which needed to be nurtured and shared, as well as protected. We no longer required the patronage of our European forebears, but could contribute on an equal footing with the rest of the world. So, has this actually happened? Have we contributed bona fide Canadians (whatever they are!) to the international cultural stage? Manifestly, the answer is yes. Perhaps they did not all spend the entirety of their careers north of the 49th parallel, or on the western side of the Atlantic, but they are world-leading names in their fields: singers Ben Heppner, Gerald Finlay, Nancy Argenta, Daniel Taylor; pianists Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Angela Hewitt; writers Margaret Atwood, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Pierre Burton, Timothy Findley; musicians Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Celine Dion; artists including members of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, quite apart from the magnificent First Nations (i.e., non-European) work by the likes of Bill Reid, Roy Henry Vickers, and Robert Davidson. In addition, there are legions of Hollywood actors, film directors, and numerous pop musicians, many of whom have bigger names in the business than their American colleagues (though we don’t all have to be ‘Beliebers’).

In light of the 150th celebrations, I was charged by the RCCO to investigate one small corner of the cultural community, namely the UK’s organ and choral world, to ascertain whether there is any CanCon present here. I contacted my colleagues in British cathedrals, major parish churches, and Oxbridge Colleges about this matter, and the rest of this column will outline the results of my survey. From a personnel point of view, there are a few Canadian organists living and working in the UK. Apart from yours truly, there are the current Assistant Organists at Lincoln, Chester, and Edinburgh cathedrals (though by the time you read this, the latter will have returned to Canada to take up the post of Director of Music at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria). In addition, Orgues Létourneau have five instruments in this sceptred isle: opus 43 (25/II) can be found in Pembroke College, Oxford; opus 70 (35/II) is in the Tower of London; opus 71 and opus 72 are 4-stop continue organs, both in London; and opus 95 (30/III) can be found in Selwyn College, Cambridge (entirely coincidentally, of course).

Of particular interest were the results of the repertoire request. I wrote to about 100 organists and conductors, and had an encouraging response rate of about 40% (that’s more than normally turn up to vote in national elections here), so I hope that these results are plausibly representative. Perhaps not surprisingly, the name which appeared in nearly every answer was that of Healey Willan (who emigrated to Toronto from the UK in 1913 at the age of 33). ‘Rise up, my love’ is in regular (i.e., at least annual) use in about 15 UK cathedrals (nearly 40% of the Anglican cathedrals in the country) as well as in a number of college chapels. Willan’s ‘The three kings’ and ‘O Lord, our Governour’ also feature frequently, as do his numerous Missae Brevae and Evening Canticle fauxbourdon sets. His ‘Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue’ for organ, as well as some of his smaller works, are in the repertoire of a number of organists. Other Canadian composers whose names appeared were Matthew Larkin (‘Adam lay ybounden’ for upper voices is a particular favourite); Denis Bédard (one cathedral Assistant Organist plays nearly all of his published works); Eleanor Daley (‘Upon your heart’ is popular with Oxbridge choirs). Stephen Chatman, David Creese, Derek Holman, Ruth Watson-Henderson, Ernest MacMillan, and Doreen Rao were names which also came up, in addition to my own. Of course, whether or not I count as CanCon anymore is perhaps a moot point – though according to the Wikipedia site for Canadian Content (yes, there really is one) being a Canadian citizen is sufficient, even if I am not currently resident.

From these results, it seems that we are indeed contributing to the international Anglican Choral scene (or at least that in the UK) in our admittedly niche discipline. Crucially, on this side of the Pond, this music is being performed because it is good, and it is consciously chosen, and not because fulfils a nationality box-ticking exercise. Healey Willan’s ‘Rise up my love’ is a masterpiece that stands proudly alongside Brahms (which, pace Oskar, your ‘Scherzino’ does not). I did not know Eleanor Daley’s ‘Upon your heart’ until the results from this survey came in. Enough people said how much their choirs loved it that I have now ordered a set for Selwyn Choir – again, not because it is Canadian, but because it is beautiful.

Perhaps the original protectionist agenda was important in the 1970s, even though for many of us who grew up under its edicts, the word “CanCon” has always been rather pejorative. Notwithstanding the aforementioned colonial complications, which by necessity must provide thought-provoking context for any anniversary celebrations, we should be proud of the European cultural heritage that we have inherited and made our own, and we should also be proud of the country that we have become. The wounds that were inflicted over past centuries will take many more years to heal, but we are slowly moving in the right direction.

Sarah MacDonald

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