7 years ago

Volume 8 Issue 5 - February 2003

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NEW MUSIC/ OPERA ~~~~~~~.E~L:::ree~?i~t JOHN BECKWITII piece by ~Hiott ~art~r or ~o ~rite . ' JOHN BECKWITH IS one of Canada's great musical resources. Through his vast knowledge of the repertoire, dedication to teaching, and ongoing activity as a composer and researcher, he has b,een an important influence on many Canadian composers. · On March 7, 8, 14, and 15, we will have the opportunity to hear · the University of Toronto Qpera Division perform his fourth opera Taptoo! at the MacMillan ·Theatre in Toronto. In addition, discussions of the work will take ptace . on February 5th at noon in .Walter Hall, and at the Munk Centre on March 8th: Taptoo (from taitoo), is a signal sounded on a drwn or bugle to summon soldiers or sailors to their quarters at night, and a display of military exercises offered as evening entertainment. The term is also derived from the Middle Dutch tappe (a spigot or tap), and toe (closed), as in shutting the tap after last call. I caught up with him just days before he left on a short trip to do research on his former teacher, Alberto Guerrero, and talked about the opera, and musical life . in Canada. STEENHUISEN: lWull prompted you to begin your critical writing on music? BECKWITH: I think it's just the way I am. I was always somewhat interested in writing and composing tQO. In my youth I did a lot of journalistic work - sometimes it was just for fun, while in university you're obliged to keep up with knowledge being produced. You feel the urge to share some of the things you find out and I think that led to doing critical and research writing. It's1a counterpart to my work in composition. STEENHUISEN: You've also said though that it's in part because no one else is doing it. BECKWITH: I reeently read an interview in which the composer Denys Bouliane said "Ou sont !es musicologues?" I've.often felt the sa'me way, not only with musicologists but also with music theorists. They are very happy to pro- some mus1colog1cal mvest1gat1on about music in Finland; but the number of well-trained, professional people in those disciplines who have applied themselves to our . · music in Canada is very few. STEENHUISEN: Why do think that is? BECKWITH: I think we've got a certain pride in literature and in visual art and film, but, gosh, in music, the creative music - when I think of it, the repertoire just comes anq goes. People don't seem to think of it naturally. Your question, is a wonderful question - I don't know why.:.certainly in the United States now it's become an important thing to do for performers, opera companies, orchestras and so on, to keep doing not just · new works, but works from the : Americanrepeitoire. Thathabit just hasn't iinpinged on C~ians to ariy very great extent, though one can think of ex~ptions. I have always preached that there is a Canadian repertoire and it goes back further than most people are awan:. One of the things I dislike is when people call this a young country. It's not a young country! In hardly any sense is it a young country, but certainly not in terms of our culture. I set some words by Marc Lescarbot (Les Premiers hivernements) which were written in Canada, in what is now Canada, even before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. STEENHUISEN: lWull drew you to rl/4ke so many arrangemerlls of Canadian folk music? BECKWITH: In the 80s I worked with Lawrence Cherney in a summer series called "Mus.ic at Sharon". One of the things we liked to feature there was earlier Canadian music. First of all, because the Sharon Temple itself is a spectacular example of early Canadian architecture. A very unique example, it seemed interesting to · try and associate that venue with · things that had been earlier in the Canadian repertoire. We did a lot. .I count up what I did and think it comes to about 200, mostly short pieces. STEENHUISEN: Would you call this an example of nationalism in your work? BECKWITH: Oh yes. I guess that's the simplest way to refer to it. Some people feel it's not the politically correct way to look at today's world-now, we're thinking more of globalization, and sharing between different national com- . munities. Some years ago, Professor Robin Mathews, from the. University of Ottawa, made the comment that in Canada to think internationally is to ignore Canada. I think that's true. Canada isn't part of that international community in many people's eyes. That's one of the reasons why we don't have:: a sense of our repertoire that other countries have. So I don't mipd - for my generation and for younger generations to think nationally instead of internationally. Maybe we can focus more on our own . production in music - make it better known. STEENHUISEN: lWull was. your intention in focussing on· Canadian subjects in narrative and· text-based works? BECKWITH: It seemed to me a more natural way to handle a .project, to think about how it relates to me and my environment, and my upbringing in this part of the world. On several occasions I've been offered a commission for a vocal work and I've gone to a Canadian writer and said "Will you write me something?" Then I can maybe influence the writer,, and the writer can influence me directly. STEENHUISEN: I used the term nationalism, but we really haven't defined it. In Canada, theoretically it's also eclecticism and multiculturalism. ' originatirig on Canadian soil. think that's a part of our national point of view and it's going to come out in our music, if we're honest. But nationalism can tum into bigotry and you don't want that, o~ course. Referring to culture, nationalism is the openness to . what is peculiar, what habits and what experiences are peculiar to this .country; peculiar to us. There's a rich field of possibility to draw upon. STEENHUISEN: Canadian culture and subjects are an important part of Taptoo!, aren't they? BECKWITH: All the operas that I've done with James Reaney have had a close connection with Canadian life because in his writing in general, that's his theme. Not just Canadian )ife, but southwestern Ontario life. In the case of Taptoo!, we're dealing with the founding of Toronto in 1793, the events leading up to that, and those that followecl. It covers maybe a 30 year span of time in short scenes, moving not just .realistically, but · rather fantastically sometimes, trying to pick up on what motivated people at that time, how Canadians at that time established themselves as distinct from Americans. STEENHUISEN: As for example? Canadians found that the American form of democracy was too broad, for one thing. To say that you BECKWITH: That's true. 30-35 must have freedom in everything years ago, the CBC asked me to · was a little bit too sweeping. do some arrangements of Canadian They wanted democracy, but in songs, some for Donald Bill and defined terms. Another example is some for Maureen I:orester. I Simcoe, who is a central character think they thought I was going to in the opera. He was~very antido songs in French and English _ slavery - that didn't hit the Ameri- I did songs for Maureen Forester cans until 50 years after. Canadiin five languages and they were all ans also established much more of Canadian, they ~ere all songs a connection to British parliarilenta- 16 February 1 - March 7 2003

have 1t too fartetched that these ry forffis, which made the people characters would sing in this way. continue to call themselves colo- I've always felt that ~bout opera, nists for the whole of the nine- that I don't want it to be so artifiteenth century. We've gotten past cial, l?Y having a very complicated that now. I think that except for a cape/la, 12-tone music for peothose who are monarchists, it's not . pie who are supposed to be farmoperative for most of us, not the · ers. l hope it makes it believable way it was even in my youth, but · that these people would sing their certainly throughout the nineteenth thoughts in this way. Of course century. you have to accept the artificial feature that people do sing their STEENHUISEN: Let':s talk a bit . thoughts, but I like to feel, yes, . now about your musical approach that if so the~ people wo~ld to setting this historical story. How sini their.thoughts in this way. wouklyou describe it? Partly it is to distinguish things BECKWITH: When I was con- ; like that class, but also to distintacted to see if I would like to . guish where ,they are in history. ,· write Taptoo!, I hadn't thought of · ' ' · writing 'another opera. When I STEENHUISEN: Has this a/- read it, frrst of all I thought it was ways been your approach, or is it an awfully good piece, and sec- something that developed through ondly I recognized that when he each of your four operas? writes a libretto Reaney always BECKWITH:, Around the time thinks about what role music is ·go- that I either was working ~n or ing to play - he doesn't just write a had just finished my frrst opera I play and say "Here, set this to mu- wrote a little article for what is sic". He had already researched a now called Opera Canada Maga- Iot of the musical component for zine. It was a slightly different . Taptoo!, the military music of the title then. I made the point that if fort, the drum and bugle music, you're going to see Canadian opthe dances, the church music such era (there weren't that many at that as it was, boOks of hymns they time), if you're going to see Canasang from, the patriotic music, and dian operas they're not going to be so on. I had the option either to the same as European operas. I look at those pieces, at those ele- guess I had that Sense always that ments .in his script and use con- coming frdm here you're going to tempor-aneous tunes, or to think use some of the conventions, some up tunes of my own in the same of the forms ofoperas, but that it's vein. I decided to use quotations, in goiJ!g to coµie out different. fact about 20 different tunes from STEENHUISEN: Taptoo! also the late 18th and early 19th centu- relates to another Canadian hisries some of them very well torical op,~rci, doesn 't it? kno~n, like "Hail Columbia!" I BECKWITH: It's the prequel to chose music that had its own char- Harry Somer's opera Serenette for acter and would lend flavour to the which Reaney also wrote the listory. I call it a documentary bal- · bretto. The initial thought was that lad. opera because that'.s the way · Serf!nette; Taptoo!, and then a ballad operas work~ m the 18th third opera would be like a Canacentury. They consisted of current dian historical operatic trilogy. It popular tunes that were lac~ to" loo)cs unlikely that the third opera gether with a s~ory, and'w1!11 co?- is going to happen bec'ause in the tempor~ musical emphasis. It s 90s funding changed so drasticala e

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