Canadian composer Brian Cherney has been on faculty at the Schulich School of Music since 1972, teaching composition as well as the history of Canadian music. In 2017 a conference was held in honour of his 75th birthday, where alumni, faculty, scholars, and musicians from across North America came together to celebrate his musical output and scholarly work.
Over the past few years, Cherney has been working on an important research project involving two Canadian composers: Norma Beecroft and Harry Somers. Beecroft and Somers wrote almost 200 letters to each other during the Fall of 1959 and into early 1960 that speak of many things: the changing musical style of the time, the financial realities of being a composer, life as a composer overseas, and their romantic relationship. Brian Cherney has designed a unique concert called Between Composers to be held on March 22nd, which will bring their correspondence to life. Excerpts from the letters will be read out loud, and compositions that are referenced in the letters will be performed to match the text.
Norma Beecroft (b.1934) studied composition with John Weinzweig in Toronto during the 1950s, as well as the flute. During the period when these letters were written she was in Rome, studying composition with Goffredo Petrassi and flute with Severino Gazzelloni. When she returned to Canada in 1962, she continued her career as a composer, as well as a career at the CBC in a number of roles, including as national program organizer for radio, and as the host for Music of Today. She was one of Canada’s most active early practitioners of electroacoustic music; quoted in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada as saying “when I returned to Canada in 1962 it was the direction I thought most interesting to pursue, to mix electronic sounds with live instruments so that one could have the visual interest on stage, and yet at times wonder what was live and what was on tape.” She has recently published a book called Conversations with Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music that explores the history of electronic music around the world.
Harry Somers (1925-1999) was “one of Canada’s most prolific, original, and important composers” (The Canadian Encyclopedia), and was the first Canadian composer to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada. His versatile output includes scores for stage, concert hall, film, radio, and television. He also studied composition with John Weinzweig in Toronto, although a decade before Norma Beecroft. To financially supplement his compositional career, he also earned money through his work as a music copyist. Somers was based in Toronto, but had a number of overseas experiences during his career, including a year in Paris studying with Darius Milhaud, and a grant from the Canadian Cultural Institute in Rome to live and work in Italy for several years. One of the unique things about Somers was his interest in landscape, and he was very influenced by the work of the Group of Seven (Canadian landscape painters working between 1920-1933).
You might be wondering how the Beecroft-Somers letters ended up in the hands of Brian Cherney more than half a century later – and to answer this we must rewind back to Cherney’s previously published works. Cherney’s first book was an analytical examination of the music of Harry Somers; published in 1975 when Cherney had just started his professorship at McGill University. Later in his career, Cherney and Toronto-based composer John Beckwith co-edited a collection of essays on the life and music of Canadian composer John Weinzweig, which was published in 2011. It was during Cherney’s research for these Weinzweig essays that he uncovered a path that led him to the letters.
While Cherney was looking for letters between Weinzwieg and Harry Somers at Library and Archives in Ottawa, he stumbled across other letters between members of Somers’ family, especially his first wife, Cathy, and more material continued to appear from there – not only letters, but diaries and scraps of paper with scribbled notes from Somers on a range of subjects. At this point, Cherney realised that a new book on Harry Somers needed to be written, to incorporate all of this newly discovered material. As his research progressed, Cherney contacted Norma Beecroft, as he knew she had been associated with Somers back in the 1950s. When he visited Beecroft several years ago at her home in Oshawa, ON., Cherney was met with a new stack of correspondence: these letters between Beecroft and Somers from 1959-1960.
Cherney’s research for this new book has been significantly boosted by the information revealed in the letters. They detail not only the evolution of the romantic relationship between the two composers, but also discuss the music they were writing, various compositional concerns of the time (after a relatively conservative music scene in Toronto, Beecroft was being introduced to serialism in Rome), and the people they were meeting (in both Toronto and in Rome). Beecroft’s letters initially describe her struggles with self-confidence in her compositional work, but over time they track a clear progression towards a sense of empowerment and independence. The letters also paint a picture of the financial reality of being a composer at that time (Somers was essentially living commission to commission at this stage in his career), and the changing landscape of musical style and technology. Cherney sums this up by saying that the letters “give a glimpse into a whole period of time: you get a vivid sense of who they are, what they’re dealing with, and what they want to do.”
When asked about his reasons for carrying out this in-depth research, and his upcoming book on Harry Somers, Cherney says: “the reason I’m doing this book with such conviction and detail is that we have to pay attention to people like this – when I tell people these days, no one knows about them. It’s so important to our cultural history.”
The music performed during the March 22nd Between Composers concert will include:
- Harry Somers’ String Quartet No. 3 (it was premiered in August of 1959, and dedicated to Norma Beecroft):
- A selection of Harry Somers’ guitar pieces that were written during the Fall of 1959 (to be performed while the letters are being read)
- The short film Saguenay will be screened, with the soundtrack written by Harry Somers. It was commissioned by ALCAN, and talks about the generation of hydropower from the Saguenay River. Harry Somers talks in his letters about writing the music during three weeks in January of 1960, and recording it straight after – right before he travelled to Rome to meet Norma Beecroft
- Norma Beecroft’s Amplified String Quartet with Tape, written in 1992: