Murray Schafer – For The Record

Unknown publication – early 1970s
Murray Schafer

Fans of R. Murray Schafer had little to rejoice about when the CBC recorded the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's second album last spring.

Included in this CBC-produced and funded effort, for eventual broadcast purposes and possible release, were such well-known short classics of the symphonic repertoire as Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (which boasts 15 different versions already available in the Schwann Catalogue), Dvorak's Carnival Overture (8 versions), the overture to Weber's Die Freischutz (7), and Glinka's Russian and Ludmilla Overture (10). Only one Canadian work was included — Tangents by Toronto composer Harry Freedman, an effective "modern"-sounding work with a trick ending.

One can seriously wonder, considering the competition in the four "standards", why the whole album wasn't devoted entirely to the works of Canadian composers — for example, those of Schafer, late of SFU, one of Canada's most interesting composers and innovative musical educators.

The VSO has performed several Schafer pieces in recent seasons: North / White, which protests "the rape of Canada's North," Canzoni for Prisoners, Son of Heldenleben, and the satirical No More Than 10 Minutes, a non-piece commissioned by the Toronto Symphony. All or any of these works would be fitting for inclusion in an album.

Though true little of Schafer's large-scale music has found its way on to disc, at least his chamber music is fairly adequately represented (for a Canadian composer, any recordings at all constitute a fairly adequate" representation).

The most noteworthy of these are the String Quartet No. 1 and Requiems for the Party Girl, both available on albums from CBC Publications, Box 500, Terminal A, Toronto, Ontario [no longer the case].

The String Quartet, commissioned by SFU's currently resident Purcell String Quartet, was first performed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in July, 1970, and well over a hundred times since. Backed by the Third Quartet of Vancouver composer Barbara Pentland (also a Purcell commission), the Schafer appears on CBC album RCI-353.

Though very much an original work, the Schafer Quartet has many affinities with the quartet writing of Bela Bartok and Alban Berg as well as with the Second Quartet of Ligeti, premiered only 8 months before (though it is unlikely that Schafer was familiar with this last work). Moreover, Schater's piece is a perfect example of what one critic called, in referring to his music, "a peculiar synthesis of twentieth century avant-garde techniques and the spirit of nineteenth century romanticism."

The Schafer work is nineteen minutes long, and there is not a second wasted. Its beginning is terrifically wrought with tension, the four instruments striving to break out of an insistent horizontal musical line (this effect is especially vivid in live performance). The sound at times is near-electronic, doubtless a reflection of Schafer's expertise in that musical field. After a violent outburst, the first violin breaks loose and provides a melancholy, lyrical solo.

Trouble brews, however, with some »mysterious in-and-out-of-phase work by the second violin and viola performed against a ghostly background of first violin and cello harmonics. The work slowly gains momentum with the instruments playing in unison, each of them breaking loose momentarily in a cadenza. Finally, the music rises to a frenzied pitch and the quartet closes abruptly with a series of musical flashbacks, depicted by the noise, like a camera shutter, produced by the cellist who "snaps" one of his strings against his fingerboard.

The Purcell's playing of the Schafer is exemplary, even though I have heard them render the cadenzas with more abandon (most notably at a Canadian League of Composer's Conference in Victoria in February, 1971). Nevertheless, their committed performance totally manages to overcome the rather dry sound of the recording (done in the CBC's Montreal studios).

Schafer's Requiems for the Party Girl is part of a four-record CBC set entitled Music of Today, featuring contemporary works by Canadian composers (RCI-298/301). Whether the purchase of this set (which contains skimpy notes) is worth the price for the Schafer alone is debatable, though among other works included is the interesting Remembrances by John Hawkins, plus pieces by Otto Joachim, Francois Morel, Gilles Tremblay, Jean Papineau-Couture, Serge Garant, Sydney Hodkinson, Norma Beecroft, Steven Gellman, Jacques Hetu, and Richard Gregoire.

In any case, the performance of the Requiems, by Phyllis Mailing and the Ensemble de la Société de Musique Contemporaine du Quebec under Serge Garant, is an electrifying one. There is no comparison between this recording and another version on the American CRI label. (Incidentally, there is supposed to be a performance of the Requiems backed by the String Quartet available on the Melbourne label, but I've never seen it in any B.C. record stores.)

The subject matter of the Requiems is rather simple. The singer ("party girl") at its beginning states "Sing requiem, for I am about to commit suicide." What follows are depressing recollections of a life carried on in dreary offices and similarly monotonous twentieth-century circumstances.

Phyllis Mailing, for whom the piece was written on a CBC commission in 1966, gives a stunning demonstration of her accomplished artistry in the vocal virtuosity of the solo part. Her performance is alternately hair-raising and tragic, with the small instrumental ensemble assaulting the listener with a wide variety of contemporary musical effects.

Another Schafer work available from the CBC is the early (1956) Minnelieder for woodwind quintet and mezzo-soprano. (CBC RC1-218). This piece may come as a surprise to those familiar with Schafer's later avant-garde works, since it is very tonal-sounding. In the 12 songs presented, all concerned with the theme of love, mostly unrequited, there is an impressive use of the instrumental and vocal resources, and the performance — by Phyllis Mailing and the Toronto Woodwind Quintet — is beautifully done.

So far the only Schafer large-scale symphonic work recorded is Son of Heldenleben, available on Select CC-15.101, and more recently from the CBC (RCI-387). The Schafer is a filler work on this album, devoted mainly to Clermont Pepin's Symphony No. 3 ("Quasars"). Both are performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Franz-Paul Decker.

A satirical mish-mash of themes from Richard Strauss' bloated musical-autobiographical turn-of-the-century tone poem Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"), combined with a bevy of modern orchestral sounds and an electronic tape, this 10½-minute work is a tongue-in-cheek tribute which will appeal largely to fans of the arch-late-Romantic composer conductor.

The MSO's performance sounds adequate, though the acoustic is pretty boxy. Hopefully the CBC release will be an improvement over the Select one, which was plagued by a miserable pressing.

Another Schafer album of interest is Melbourne SMLP 4017, which has received minimal distribution on the West Coast. It contains the composer's anti-war Threnody for youth orchestra, youth choir, speakers and tape, first heard in Vancouver in 1967, plus the two educative works Statement in Blue for junior orchestra, and Epitaph for Moonlight, a choral work giving its young performers a chance to cope with contemporary vocal techniques. The second side of the album contains a sonically illustrated lecture by Schafer, The New Soundscape. This work was included because, as Schafer once told me, the record company phoned him at the last minute, realizing they had only enough material for one side!