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Music by John Beckwith -
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'... an important voice in Canadian music ...'

avowals - John Beckwith. © 2007 Centrediscs

Composer John Beckwith, in his long career as a Canadian musical icon, has remained faithful to his quest for the expression of the Canadian musical voice. Born in 1927 in Victoria, British Columbia, he has made his name also as a writer, educator, broadcaster and pianist.

Beckwith's personal voice is a microcosm of the nature of Canada itself: a mosaic of colours expressed in its landscape and its mix of the cultural backgrounds of the people. In the same way Beckwith's training in composition, absorbed from Canadian and European sources -- covers many contrasting styles, and he utilizes these differing techniques (often within single works) to produce his 'quilt-like design', an expression typically used to describe his music.

Avowals was produced in 2007 by the Canadian Music Centre (on whose Board of Directors Beckwith served from 1970-77) and focuses on a fine selection of works for solo voice with keyboard accompaniment. If one is unfamiliar with Beckwith in general, and his solo vocal works in particular, rest assured that one is in the capable hands of the performers: William Aide (piano, celesta, harpsichord), Doug MacNaughton (baritone), Teri Dunn (soprano), Benjamin Butterfield (tenor), and Kathryn Domoney (soprano).

The title of the disc is taken from one of the featured works: a fascinating piece that was the fruit of collaboration between Beckwith and the Canadian poet bpNichol. A cursory glance at some of bpNichol's poems reveals his interest in the phonetic nature of words -- how certain sounds mutate smoothly into others -- and one realizes that the magic of these works is to hear, rather than just read, them. Ideal, then, is the medium of music through which his poems can come to life and their sonic character can be truly appreciated. Avowals is a monodrama for tenor and keyboards, the keyboard player being required to shift back and forth between piano, harpsichord and celesta (as well as participating occasionally by means of vocalized responses).

Listen -- Avowals
(track 13, 0:00-0:49) © 2007 Centrediscs

The layout of the stage is given in the notes so that we may appreciate the movements of the singer onstage; here is the only problem with a recording of the work in that, like a recording of opera, the visual dimension is missing. A listener must rely on the mind's eye for the two spot-lit areas (performance area and backstage area) between which the singer moves throughout the work, as well as the position of the keyboard player and the interplay between the two. The musical style ranges from the simplest of phonetic probing by the solo singer to a homophonic song-plus-accompaniment to sudden glimpses of familiar terrain, such as jazz-like crooning.

Listen -- Avowals
(track 13, 2:28-3:19) © 2007 Centrediscs

This certainly is, in the words of pianist William Aide, 'music to test performers and to pin an audience's ears back'.

For Six Songs to poems by e e cummings from 1980-82 for baritone and piano Beckwith chose poems from five different collections spanning the poet's career. The cycle is a mix of moods; the first four songs in a light-hearted, even humorous, vein, followed by serious melancholy and, finally, a philosophical seriousness in the voice which is echoed in the depths of the piano. It is uniform in its lack of uniformity: the compound duple merriment of a folk song, the imitation of a warbling finch, a cabaret mood, and dejection which then ends in defiance. In the second song we find the baritone interrupting himself as he recreates the busy atmosphere of his surroundings.

Listen -- ITEM this man is so (Six Songs to poems by e e cummings)
(track 2, 0:00-0:15) © 2007 Centrediscs

Margaret Laurence's novel The Fire Dwellers provided the impetus for Stacey, described by the composer as a sung monologue for soprano and piano. Here Beckwith chose six excerpts of text wherein the frustrated heroine converses with herself. The Sprechgesang feel of the music is required in order to accommodate the prose, and the vocal line is, by turns, sinuous and angular according to the mood that Stacey is in. The piano is very restrained. It expresses itself only as much as is needed and no more. Often it comments independently on her situation like a Greek chorus, and other times it can set up the mood for the singer, aiding the listener in reading Stacey's mind and mood. Do not be taken in by the straightforward, simplistic nature of the work: it is a tour de force for the soprano, requiring vocal bravura and great dramatic sensitivity. Teri Dunn delivers a very effective rendering.

Listen -- At the Day of Judgement, God will say (Stacey)
(track 7, 1:16-2:10) © 2007 Centrediscs

Two poems from The Last Landscape and one from The Price of Gold were Beckwith's choices from the pen of Winnipeg-born poet Miriam Waddington for the next song cycle. In order to echo the lilting nature of the words, the music is more lyrical in style. Thematic fragments are discernible, and their reappearance is often due to repetition in the text. In keeping with the rhythm of these poems the piano sets up a more strophic and even-phrased background. It is particularly suitable in Old Chair Song and gives it the feel of a distant nursery rhyme.

Listen -- Old Chair Song (Three Songs to poems by Miriam Waddington)
(track 15, 0:00-0:55) © 2007 Centrediscs

The final six songs on this impressive disc are arrangements that have been chosen from two of Beckwith's folk-song collections: The Young Man from Canada (tenor) and I Love to Dance (soprano). Here Beckwith, ever the Canadian nationalist, presents us with texts from various cultures that all have their own history in Canada. Their languages are here: Gaelic, Ukrainian, English, German, Hungarian, and Québécois. The songs express the loneliness of those who wander in an unknown land, travelling, parting from loved ones who are now far away, restlessness.

Great intensity of feeling characterizes these songs as well as Beckwith's touch of folk-song style: mostly strophic writing, traditional 'simple' harmonies and cadences. The third song's text is taken from Songs of the Pacific Northwest. It is best described as 'rollicking' and is probably the most light-hearted.

Listen -- Young Man from Canada
(track 19, 0:00-0:38) © 2007 Centrediscs

The intense feeling is mostly that of melancholy, and it is that feeling which largely governs this group of songs. The demands on the singer are great; the atmospheric accompaniments are spare, leaving much of the interpretation of emotion in the hands of the singer.

Listen -- Müde kehrt ein Wanderer zurück
(track 20, 1:03-2:11) © 2007 Centrediscs

Overall, this disc would be an important addition to one's collection of solo vocal music, as well as being representative of some of contemporary Canadian repertoire. John Beckwith has undoubtedly been an important voice in Canadian music, and the variety -- or quilt, if you like -- of compositional techniques spanning his career is most certainly demonstrated here.

Copyright © 16 October 2008 Natalie Artemas-Polak, Prague, Czech Republic


Avowals - works for solo voice by John Beckwith

CMCCD 12907 Stereo FIRST RELEASE 74'05" 2007 Centrediscs

Doug MacNaughton, baritone
Teri Dunn, soprano
Benjamin Butterfield, tenor
Kathryn Domoney, soprano
William Aide, piano

John Beckwith (born 1927):

Six songs to poems by e e cummings (1980-82)
buy me an ounce and I'll sell you a pound
ITEM this man is so
"o purple finch
Jimmie's got a goil
that melancholy
let it go

Stacey (sung monologue on texts from Margaret Laurence's 'The Fire Dwellers' for soprano and piano, 1997)
At the Day of Judgment, God will say
Okay, God, say what you like
Once it seemed almost violent, this music
I don't want anyone else bringing up my kids
Dear Lord and Father of mankind
I used to think there would be a blinding flash

Avowals (text by bpNichol, monodrama for tenor and keyboards - piano, celeste and harpsichord, 1985)

Three Songs to poems by Miriam Waddington for soprano and piano
A man and his flute (2000)
Old chair song (2003)
The snow tramp (2003)

Arrangements from Canadian song traditions:
Tighinn do America (Gaelic, Cape Breton)
So skuki i pechali (Doukhobor, Alberta)
Young Man from Canada (Cariboo)
Müde kehrt ein Wanderer zurück (Mennonite, Manitoba)
De szeretnék hajnal csillag lenni (Hungarian, Saskatchewan)
Letellier: Le Roulier (Québec)


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