String core

Here’s a rave review of R. Murray Schafer’s string quartets by a blogging Florida composer and educator. I post it here because I’ve been listening to Schafer’s quartets — or the first seven of, I think, 10 now — since I heard the St. Lawrence Quartet play the extraordinary Quartet No. 3 a couple of weeks ago. Turns out they’re all extraordinary, pensive and passionate, bracingly modern but not devoid of sense for an ordinary listener. But if you’re like me, you mistrust a Canadian who tries to tell you Canadian music is good, so here’s an American, Jay Batzner:

The big question is: why doesn’t Schafer get the love in the US? He has some choral pieces that get done but those quartets, all 8 are total masterworks, are largely ignored around here. Carter’s quartets get a fair amount of play and, while I’m a fan, they don’t have the expressive emotive power of Schafer’s works. There is a lot of music in Schafer’s quartets, plenty for the performers as well as the audience. The sheer craft and musicality in those scores is totally off the charts. Quartets should be crawling all over themselves to play and record them.

Who cares? Most people won’t. But as soon as I heard the St. Lawrence play the Third Quartet, I was immediately grateful to learn that they tour with it all the time and play it all over the world. That’s rare.

What I’ve learned in recent years, as I spend more time in concert halls, is that an awful lot of Canadian music is designed to be new, not to be remembered: it’s about commissions and premieres, not about building a repertoire, which is a common language of cultural history shared by musicians and audiences. Canadian concert audiences are expected to sit through new Canadian composition on their way to their final reward — Mozart or Brahms, say — but performers rarely go back to find some old Canadian composition that’s worth hearing again. A typical Canadian symphony concert will feature something German from 1840, something Finnish from 1908, something American from 1940, and something Canadian that got back from the copyists’ just in time for Thursday’s rehearsal, and that you will never hear again, even if you liked it (as often happens, actually).

What’s missing is a Canadian canon: concert music as part of our cultural memory. It’s not as stark as I depict it, but it’s pretty striking if you spend much time in concert halls. What’s your favourite Canadian composition from more than a decade ago, and when’s the last time you heard it performed? Just something I’ve been thinking about lately, and hope to write about soon. Anyway, Murray Schafer has some string quartets that will go on the list, if anyone ever produces one.

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