Music of celebrated Canadian composer Harry Somers this weekend. His North Country Suite, which was composed in 1948 and is given here in this broadcast recording from 1960 by the CBC String Orchestra of Toronto, conducted by Paul Schermann.
Somers was a gifted pianist and gave several recitals in the late 1940s, including one of Barbara Pentland’s music and one of his own in March 1948 at the Royal Conservatory. He had begun composing without guidance in 1939, but in 1941 he joined John Weinzweig’s class. Except for a period of service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (1943–45) he was with Weinzweig until 1949, when a $2,000 Canadian Amateur Hockey Association scholarship afforded him a year in Paris with French composer and teacher Darius Milhaud.
In 1948, Somers gave up his burgeoning career as a pianist to devote himself to composing. During the 1950s, he also mastered the guitar. He continued to compose prolifically, earning extra income as a music copyist, an activity that refined the meticulous penmanship for which his manuscripts are known. Some of his earlier commissions include: Five Songs for Dark Voice (1956), by the Stratford Festival for Maureen Forrester; String Quartet No. 3 (1959), by the Vancouver International Festival for the Hungarian Quartet; as well as The Fisherman and His Soul (1956); Ballade (1958); and The House of Atreus (1963), commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada.
Somers’ many commissions indicate the level at which his work was appreciated. In the 1980s, his commissions included: Three Limericks (1980) for the Guelph Spring Festival; Elegy, Transformation, Jubilation (1981) for the TSO; Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (1984) for the Guitar Society of Toronto; the test-pieces Movement for String Quartet (1983) and Shaman’s Song (1983), for the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition respectively; and the operas A Midwinter Night’s Dream (1988) for the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, Serinette (1990) for Music at Sharon, and Mario and the Magician (1992), after Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, for the COC.
Although Somers absorbed many influences in the course of his career (e.g., Weinzweig, Bartók, baroque counterpoint, 12-tone procedures, Gregorian chant), his music retained certain trademarks independent of trends, such as the serialism of the 1950s. Many of these characteristics can be found even in his student works. The piano pieces of 1939–41, written before his studies with Weinzweig, are mood essays with descriptive titles and a marked interest in non-functional harmonic colour. A favourite device is the parallel movement of fourths, fifths, triads, and the seventh and ninth chords. This persists in his works of the 1940s (e.g., the introduction to the first movement of North Country, 1948).
After Somers’ death in 1999, various concerts were dedicated to his music: James Parker, Jean Stilwell and the Esprit Orchestra performed at Massey Hall in November 1999; Victor Feldbrill conducted the TSO in May 2000; Serinette was revived in concert in Toronto in May 2001; and screenings of Images of Canada took place at the CBC Museum in Toronto, also in 2001.
In the mid-1970s, CBC issued an LP boxed set of Somers’ compositions. His work was not often recorded on CD until after he died. CBC Records released Harry Somers: A Celebration in 2000 (SMCD 5199), and Centrediscs launched A Window on Somers, a seven-disc series, in February 2001, through the Harry Somers Recording Project.
With all that in mind – here is his 1948 composition, North Country as performed by the CBC String orchestra of Toronto, conducted by Paul Schermann.