Music Connects Us.
Notes from our Artistic Director
~ September 1, 2021 ~

Raymond Murray Schafer – Canada’s Beethoven

For the past few months I’ve known the day would soon come when I’d be writing a Tribute to Murray Schafer because I knew that illness was overtaking him at his residence near Peterborough. Sadly, that day has arrived. Murray died on August 14. Yet, because I consider him such an original composer to the world and a distinctive interpreter of our Canadian experience as well as a wonderful colleague with whom I was honoured to work many times, I’m still finding it daunting to express my personal farewell and to define our national loss with the full and formidable words his life and his creativity warrant.

This is a very personal comminiqué that I’m sharing with you today because I consider this man to be a monumental figure in our nation’s history, frankly our greatest single figure as a composer/author/ecologist/philosopher. I’ve always felt that Murray is far less known and thus vastly underappreciated by Canadians. Including Murray’s music within the programming that will mark a Huron Waves Music Festival season under my leadership is one of my goals.

Murray Schafer is, I believe, our Beethoven…if only Canadians could have recognised this stature during his lifetime. I predict the future will look upon him with amazement and appreciation.
That process of appreciation can start right here, right now, as I urge everyone reading this message to take the time to open some links which will give you an insight into Murray’s world.

First is a short video produced by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra in 2013; the conductor, Alex Pauk, visits Murray at his home and hears what shapes his host’s creativity: it’s the environment for inspiration and it’s nature as a source for elements in his compositions. Together, these are a distinct Canadian perspective! Watch it here.

In that video one hears Murray say, “The environment is my orchestra.” Anyone who has experienced Schafer’s Music for Wilderness Lake will know exactly what he means; twice at dawn during my seasons at Stratford Summer Music Murray stood at the western tip of Tom Patterson Island and waved coloured flags to conduct 12 trombonists along the Avon River. Wilderness Lake has been performed around the world; watch here how a group of musicians prepared for their performance near Austin, Texas.

A third video brings back memories of an Ontario singer about to rehearse a Schafer choral score. “I’m accustomed to notes on regular five-line staves, which we always used when I sang in the church choir,” she told me, “but when I look at the Schafer score I’m puzzled at how we will translate his beautiful drawings into what we are expected to sing!” Fortunately, through the patience and guidance of a conductor who was also a Schafer enthusiast, that singer and her complete choir came to appreciate Murray’s unique notation and to sing the performance beautifully…with the composer in their audience! In fact, she later told me that accomplishing that music was the greatest thrill of her lifetime in music.

This video, prepared by Maestro Jon Washburn and the Vancouver Chamber Choir, demonstrates how to  interpret and perform various Schafer works scored with non-traditional notation. I’ve chosen one particular choral work, Alleluia, where total silence from the choristers is as poignant as their vocals, especially when you read the circumstance that led to this composition.

Alleluia was written in early 1999 as a special gift for a friend. Murray had received a letter from Susan Frykberg, a composer he had known only slightly in Vancouver, telling him that she had found God and decided to enter a convent. Her revelation was so clear and touching that Murray sat down and in almost one sitting wrote Alleluia for her. The song was premiered by the Vancouver Chamber Choir in November, 2000.

If you have time, do explore here the entire collection of songs. I predict you’ll marvel at the artistry – figuratively and literally – of this music.

To round out this newsletter I had planned to include one other biography/tribute to Murray, specifically the CBC‘s statement penned by Robert Rowat of CBC Montreal’s radio unit, which you can read here.
But when I recently read The New York Times obituary I was heartened to see not only such a prestigious journal giving Murray the international profile he deserves but also its details and the assessment from its writer, Wm Robin, a noted American musicologist. For me, the wide perspective of this Times’s article demonstrates Murray Schafer’s importance and his standing among world music, ecology and the human spirit. Please read it here.

Among my personal treasures is a bundle of 20 feet of music written in Murray’s own hand and given as a gesture of appreciation to his landlord when he spent the summer of 1983 in Stratford. This score he calls an Editing Unit: Theseus & Ariadne, (Ariadne moves forward to the Entrance of the Labyrinth. Theseus rises to meet her), clearly a setting within his 12-part music/theatre epic, PATRIA, portions of which performers have been mining for years, though never, to my knowledge, with a performance of the full PATRIA cycle which, admittedly, would take days/nights and a variety of land and water settings to complete.

PATRIA in its fullness thus remains a challenge and a joy for the future…and that, I believe, is the path for all of Murray Schafer’s insights and accomplishments. For us who live to enjoy his music now, there is the conclusion of Canada’s preeminent music critic, Wm Littler, who quoted Robert Frost in his own tribute:  “Murray Schafer …’took the path less travelled by and that made all the difference.'”

Our short survey here has hardly glanced the range, the vastness and the beauty of this one man’s canon. My own conclusion is that Raymond Murray Schafer (July 18, 1933–August 14, 2021) is as great a musical figure from Canada to the world as was Ludwig van Beethoven in 19th century Vienna.

Till we’re together again, stay safe and healthy.  And remember that Music Connects Us.

John A. Miller, Artistic Director