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GORDON RUMSON looks forward
to the Calgary Art Song Competition


The histories of poetry and song have been intertwined since time out of mind. Poets have often referred to their 'songs' and composers have constantly provided melodies to go with texts. Today, the vast bulk of 'music' heard on radio and mobile listening devices is of the song variety.

In the Western Music Tradition the form is known as the art song: the combination of text and (usually) keyboard accompaniment. There are songs by John Dowland (with lute), Schubert, and Beethoven; Robert Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf are all famous masters. But the field is enormous and extends to many other composers in music that descend from great imaginative heights, downwards towards the lowest and least interesting salon type.

Some of Anton Rubinstein's best music is found in his lieder. Arthur Fickenscher wrote now-forgotten gems, while Amy Beach composed a large number of beautiful works in a time (happily now past) when when song composition was one subset of music that was socially acceptable for women composers.

Truly, there is probably not a composer who has not set words to music. Today, Lee Hoiby and Ronald Stevenson have also produced a superb corpus of works for voice and piano.

This long tradition though, is, like so many other traditions, being swamped by the popular culture maelstrom. In order to ensure the continuity of this tradition, it is essential to familiarise the young musician with the legacy and also provide its continuance.

A Calgary skyline. Photo© 2009 Gordon Rumson
A Calgary skyline. Photo© 2009 Gordon Rumson

Thus, it is encouraging to hear that a composer's competition has been established in Calgary, Canada, to promote the creation of art songs and especially that they be directed towards the young singer.

After attending a National Association of Teachers of Singing Convention in 2008 in Nashville, several Calgarian teachers observed and were impressed with the practice of a competition for art song (held by NATS every two years). On returning to Calgary, the local branch of NATS decided to create its own competition.

'The focus of the competitions was to find Canadian Art Song for singers who are starting out their vocal studies and exploring contemporary music,' says Christine Ernst, Calgary singing teacher and one of the organisers of the event. The competition was based on practices of other competitions but tailored to Calgary's needs.

The original call for compositions was for poetry (either by the composer or someone else) set for voice and piano accompaniment. The musical demands were to be for the earlier levels (Grades 1 to 5 in the Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus). Further, the texts should either be English or French (the two official languages of Canada) and the work must have been composed in the previous five years. The competition was open to Canadian citizens.

'We received a wide variety of music all which fit into our art-song category. The poetry came in a variety of style: texts written by composers, texts written long ago, texts written by friends. The poems set were varied in topics: sacred, about nature, birth, death, peace and even some fantasy,' says Christine Ernst.

The judging, by three voice teachers from Calgary NATS Chapter, was done blind, so that the composers names were known only after the selection. Interestingly, all of the composers chosen were women.

The winners were:
Martha Hill Duncan from Kingston, Ontario
Roberta Stephen of Calgary, Alberta
Mary Gardiner from Toronto, Ontario
Georgina Craig of Calgary, Alberta

'The judges were most impressed with the songs where the composers had used contemporary vocal techniques in the composition', said Ernst, and since the competition was to have four equal winning works, this 'allowed the judges to pick a variety of pieces to reward.'

The competition is an example of numerous organisations working together for mutual benefit. The NATS Calgary is local chapter of NATS which was founded in 1944 and is the largest association of voice teachers in the world. The Calgary chapter is one of the most active in the organisation and was founded in the mid-1980s.

The Canadian Music Centre, Contemporary Showcase and the publisher Alberta Keys (which will publish the winning compositions), all provided help and expertise. The Alberta Music Education Foundation provided funding for the project as well.


The four selected compositions will be premièred by four young Calgarian singers as part of the Contemporary Showcase Galas:

1:30 Gala

Night Lights by Martha Hill Duncan from Kingston, Ontario
Erin Anderson accompanied by Richard Coburn

Can You See the Wind by Roberta Stephen of Calgary, Alberta
Navin Kariyawasam accompanied by Marie Lewin

3:30 Gala

Spider's Story by Mary Gardiner from Toronto, Ontario
Sydney Montieth accompanied by Donna Williams

My Shadow by Georgina Craig of Calgary, Alberta
Kelsey Verzotti accompanied by Laurie Neske

At: St Andrew's United Church, 924 Heritage Drive SW, Calgary

The art song has a long and valuable history and events such as these -- which encourage the creation of new works and assist young singers on the road to their mastery -- are significant. Also meaningful is the effect of musicians working together to enliven and enrich musical culture. This is an example that should be taken to heart.

Copyright © 1 December 2009 Gordon Rumson,
Calgary, Canada




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