Late Canadian Carols 
Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 3:34PM
David K. MacIntyre

Nine Carols from Canada in English for Women's Choir and Harp

July 14, 2015

On July 8, 2015, I sent the completed score of Late Canadian Carols, a new thirty minute work for women's choir and harp to Belle Canto Women's Ensemble of Edmonton, the fine people who commissioned it with the generosity and support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The story begins back in November 2013. I'd been invited to Red Deer, AB, as a guest of Belle Canto Women's Ensemble, along with two other composers (Jeff Ens and Sarah Quartel) to do a session for the Alberta Choral Federation about the nuts and bolts of commissioning new works by Canadian composers for performance by Canadian performers, in this case, Belle Canto. I don't remember the exact title of the our event, but in my own mind I called it "Commissioning New Music: Best Practices". I've had lots of experience writing music on commission, from the best to the worst, so I have lots of thoughts on what it's all about.

But little did I know when I got up at 5 AM that morning in November 2013 I'd be sitting here today in July 2015, nearly two years later, blogging about a new piece of music that was set in motion that day, a work that has occupied most of my waking hours (and some sleeping hours, too) for the last 10 months. It's been a crazy ten months because I've been trying to invent something new all this time, something unique, something worthy of doing and yet for most of the journey, I didn't even know what it was about on a conscious level. Subconsciously, sure, I totally knew where I was going. But consciously? Uh-uh.

Writing new music is a perplexing business, as I'm sure any composer will tell you. Sometimes it's very clear at the beginning what I'm writing about and other times (like this time) it's not clear what the piece is actually, truly about until the very end when all the pieces suddenly drop into place. This was one of those crazy pieces that found its way by me groping in the dark, bumping into furniture and without my glasses on in a room that I've never seen before in my life! It's painful; I'm getting welts on my knees from all the bumping-into-things! Funny thing, the title Late Canadian Carols came easily, arriving before a word was found or a note of music was written.

You see, my trip to talk about "commissioning new music: best practices" with Belle Canto at the Alberta Choral Federation conference was an "audition" of sorts but I didn't know it. I must've passed it because when I left the conference in Red Deer 24 hours later on that cold November afternoon with chorister Sally McIntosh at the wheel of her early 21st Century sedan on our way to the Edmonton Airport, I had a handshake deal with Heather Johnson, the Artistic Director of Belle Canto, that I'd be creating a major new work of thirty minutes duration for her choir and harp, all subject to funding. We were looking at 2015-16.

When I met Heather and the Belles in Red Deer in November 2013, they had been singing my Ave Maria (in six parts a cappella for women's choir) for 15 years in seven countries winning prizes all the way. And, they'd been singing my Alleluia (in five parts a cappella for women's choir) for just over a year. I was thrilled to hear them sing both works on the Friday night when I arrived in Red Deer because it gave me time to hear the brilliance of their singing while meeting them personally in the warm, friendly atmosphere of the rehearsal hall - a place where all performing artists are most comfortable. Their rehearsal performance of Ave Maria was flawless and I didn't have a single suggestion to give them that would make it better. Fifteen years of singing a work can do that. Alleluia was another story, however. The tempo I'd marked in the score was too slow and I could hear it the instant they started singing. It wasn't their fault, it was mine. Alleluia had been published before I'd ever heard a premiere performance and so, naturally, I'd made a mistake. The recording I'd heard by Montreal's Concerto Della Donna under Iwan Edwards was perfect all right, but he had simply ignored my too-slow marking and done it faster because I wasn't in Montreal to say anything one way or another. Now here we were in Red Deer with Belle Canto and I could feel that my tempo marking was too slow. So, I moved it from dotted quarter = 66 to dotted quarter = 84, a pretty substantial tempo increase. And without changing anything else, the work suddenly came alive and became the joyous work it was intended to be!

After our wonderful rehearsal that Friday night and the conversations I'd had with the women, it was clear that I was in love with this ensemble. The women were like women I'd grown up with as a Saskatchewan boy forty-five years earlier; they were smart, funny and down to earth. They were great singers, highly disciplined and they had a rigorous, thoughtful director. I loved them and I loved how they sang my music!

As we went to dinner, Heather Johnson, the conductor, said to me "you know, David, I wanted to talk with you about maybe doing a commission for us." Without a pause, I jumped right in, “You know, Heather, I’ve always wanted to write a major work for women and harp as a response to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and put them on the same program - half a program for each.” She lit up considerably because the Britten is a work she knows very well and the notion of a 21C response to Britten’s 1942 masterpiece is an exciting prospect for her, I can tell. I explained that I’d always loved the piece, that I had sung the SATB version but enjoyed the SSA version much more (she agreed) and that I didn’t want to do an homage or copy-cat version of the Britten, but instead, I wanted to respond to Britten’s ideas and make my own piece using techniques he used in Ceremony of Carols such as early period text (Middle English), multiple movements, festive singing, women and harp, canon, fugue, stretto, etc. To me, it seemed a great work to “respond” to and place my work and his side-by-side in concert. And in the long run, it might give choirs another work to put alongside the Britten instead of John Rutter’s Dancing Day. And besides, carols don't have to be about the nativity, they can be about anything that's worth celebrating. Like the diversity of Canada, for instance?

Now, Heather is a very smart woman and she's always on the lookout for bright ideas that will enhance the women's choral repertoire. To my joy (but not surprise), she supported this idea immediately. The title emerged a few weeks later when I had to supply the company with a working title for a grant application. Since Britten's texts are in Middle English, I wanted my response to be in Canadian English on words created before Canada was a country - three, four hundred years ago. Further, I wanted to engage the notion of "carols" in the broadest sense of the word: folk songs or popular hymns celebrating a festive event. Without even having found my words, I knew they would feature stories of diverse peoples surviving adversity in this huge, rugged, northern land. And since the music for the carols is from the present day, they'd be, by nature, Late Canadian Carols as opposed to Early Canadian Carols. I gave them a title for the application and then we waited. Six months. In the meantime, I did a commission for Spiritus Chamber Choir of Calgary (titled Even In Our Sleep on words by Aeschylus quoted by Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King was assassinated) and Whitehorse Community Choirs of Whitehorse, YT (titled Cold Snap on words by Whitehorse poet Clea Roberts in five movements. A love song set in the deep freeze of a Canadian winter).

In June, 2014, we got the news: the Commissioning Composers program of the Canada Council had supported our project with a generous grant for 5/8 of my fee and Heather was sure they could raise the other 3/8 from other sources. It was on! Between June and September, I finished up the Calgary and Whitehorse projects and I had a workshop of my opera The Resistance of Mr. and Her produced by The Belfry Theatre in Victoria directed by Michael Shamata. In August, I managed to have 2 weeks vacation with Catherine by going to the beach everyday. Lucky for me I was starting a year-long study leave, so in September, 2014, I began the process of creating Late Canadian Carols. What a thrilling ride it's been! The process kicked into gear when I went to the library.


Update on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 4:38PM by Registered CommenterDavid K. MacIntyre

At the library, I knew I was looking for words in English by Canadian writers of 16th-19th centuries and that's all I knew. Although I didn't start by looking for words by Aboriginal writers, I ended up finding some lovely stories that were passed down through First Nations and Inuit cultures in an oral tradition, stories that became centre-pieces for my project. As a composer, my process is the same for every piece: I find words that I like and I set them to music. In this case, I set words to music for women's ensemble and harp. I found stories and poems I liked and I set them to music. I always write more than I need so that's a given for me. And because I didn't know what my show was truly about yet, I didn't censor myself. I simply followed my bliss. At the end of my first week in the library, I'd gone through dozens of books. And by Friday, I'd winnowed it down to about six books that I brought home with me for the weekend.

Included in those books were poems by Archibald Lampman, probably the finest and most famous Canadian poet of the 19th Century. I knew his words would make the final cut and, indeed, three of the nine carols are to words by Lampman. Other poets I liked included Charles G. D. Roberts, Susanna Moodie, Frances Brooke (who wrote The History of Emily Montegue, recognized as the first novel ever written in Canada in 1769). In fact, at one point I actually considered making the whole work an adaptation of The History of Emily Montegue, but it was simply too huge an undertaking for a thirty minute music work. I needed two hours to make that idea succeed. Nonetheless, I ended up including a fictitious poem that Brooke had written for Emily Montegue. It's an epostilary novel, one made entirely of letters between the various characters who discuss love and life in 18th Century Canada. Various First Nations bands are discussed in the novel and one racist character makes a point of searching for any First Nations poem she can find that isn't about war. After much searching, this character finds a poem about love. It's only three lines long, but for me it's simply the most beautiful love song I can imagine and it, too, made the final cut: a fictitious First Nations poem about love as found by a fictitious racist character created by an English woman in a novel about life in early upper Canada.

By Christmas of 2014, I'd written fourteen (or so) carols on words by various writers whose words I loved, including an Inuit tale about a girl who was turning into stone and a First Nations tale about a woman dressed in leaves who falls in love with a man dressed in a rainbow. They get married and have a child who is a seer. The child's gift of foretelling the future frightens his mother. (Isn't that always the case? For example, I'm sure Christ's gifts frightened The Virgin.) From the fourteen (or so) carols, I cut it down to ten carols that ran about thirty minutes and I put them in order to make a first draft. When I took my break at Christmas, I knew I had the makings of the piece but I still wasn't sure what it was "about" besides being a collection of carols. What linked them all together? What was the underlying story - if, indeed, there was one?

My wife Catherine plays a hugely important role in my music. She's my First Reader. A First Reader is exactly what it sounds like: she's the first person to read (and hear) my music - everything I write - she's the first person I show it to. Why? Because I trust her. Because she has great insight, because she knows my voice as a composer and because she is very good at honing-in on things that matter to me, things I don't even know matter to me. She will tell me things I never expected to hear and she's very good at articulating the "truth behind the music".

How does she do this?

Well, in this work it starts when she hears a recording of me singing all the parts and playing the harp. Part of my process involves me creating a model of what the work will actually sound like. This is the great thing about technology; it allows me to make a dummy recording of thirty women singing in full harmony with a harpist. From listening to the recording, she can hear how the words will be sung by the women, how they will fit together and, after doing it for twenty-five years now, she is very good at picturing how it will sound with real singers and instruments. I can show her any piece I'm working on and she gives me commentary on it. The whole process of working with her is very helpful to me.

In the first week of 2015, Catherine and I went through the piece over a whole afternoon. By the end of the day, I had an exceptional set of notes about the piece and, surprisingly, a whole new working title: LUMINESCENCE. Although I didn't keep that title in the end, switching the working title at this stage of the process was very important for the development of the project. With the new title, it allowed me to investigate a quality for the piece rather than a subject for the piece. This shift was incredibly helpful! It made me see the project in a whole new way and it helped me open it up to new influences. Most of all, investigating the quality of luminescence allowed me to open up the project to a whole new sound!

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