Tuesday, March 28 & Wednesday, March 29, 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto



Our title is taken from a song based on a poem by the Mohawk-English writer and performer Tekahionwake (meaning "double-wampum", or "double-life" in Mohawk), better known to English-speaking Canadians as E. Pauline Johnson. Although beloved of generations of young Canadian campers, "Land of the silver Birch" cannot truly be called a folk song, and does not, therefore, appear on tonight's programme. But it epitomizes the romanticized vision of the Canadian landscape which has attracted so many immigrants, and continues to shape our self-image.

Its author, in many ways, personifies the complex and often problematic relationship between the Indigenous peoples of this country and the immigrants of more recent times. As the daughter of a British immigrant mother, who passed on her own love of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and a father prominent in the Six Nations Mohawk community, Johnson shifted between Anglo-Canadian and Indigenous identities. She learned to understand Mohawk from her paternal grandfather, Chief John Smoke Johnson, but wrote only in English. Her writing adapted the nostalgic tone of her maternal literary inheritance to the realities of Canadian Indigenous life, and combined the Romantics' nature-lyricism with an understanding of the natural world influenced by her Mohawk inheritance.

Tonight's programme explores the experience of some of the very first European immigrants to Canada. The readings are from writers who represent both France and England, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, while the composers include representatives of both the Old and the New Worlds.

Folk-song settings are examples of travel across cultures, usually imagined as the immigration of pristine, simple, and relatively unsophisticated material into a more cultivated sphere: from the rural Highlands of Scotland to the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh and Berlin, for example, or from the farming villages of Quebec to the contemporary urban concert-hall. The writers represented, on the other hand, tended to see themselves making the reverse journey, from the "civilisation" of Europe to the "wilderness" of North America.

The power of nostalgia, and the desire to preserve elements of ancestral culture, have of course meant that Canadians of both French and English origin (like later immigrants of other backgrounds) have often been more interested in the "folk" traditions of their homelands than they might have been if their families had remained in the Old World. But their reactions were, of course, quite varied: Catherine Parr Traill embraced most of the adventures of homesteading life in Upper Canada enthusiastically, while her sister Susannah Moodie generally compared her new home unfavourably to her old one. And their responses to encounters with First Nations people range from the near indifference of David Thompson to the appreciation and gratitude of Marc Lescarbot.

The range of attitudes among immigrants, from cheerful acceptance of new surroundings and customs to insistence on shaping life along known lines, can perhaps be seen in reverse in the folk-song settings: some composers, like Vaughan Williams, prized the strength and simplicity of oral tradition almost at the expense of their own opportunities for creative mastery and display. Others have drawn the traditional material into a far more personal idiom.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Scottish Folk Songs, op. 108 (excerpts)
Mieczyslaw Kolinski: Six French Folk Songs
Gilbert Patenaude: Six chansons du Détroit
Alexander Rapoport: At the Queen's Inn
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Two English Folksongs
Ernest MacMillan: Three French Canadian Sea Songs
Gilbert Patenaude: L'Hirondelle, messagère des amours

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Scottish Folk Songs, op. 108 for voice, violin, cello, and piano

Beethoven composed numerous folk-song settings, almost all of them for the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, between 1809 and 1820. It was a time when Scottish Highland culture was still regarded in the rest of Britain, and in Europe, as something nearly as fascinatingly alien as that of the New World.

Thomson's policy was to send the composers the tunes of the original songs, with an indication of mood and tempo, and then to match new versions of the text to the completed arrangements. Most of the resulting settings are, therefore, politely romantic 19th‑century re-castings of the ancient and varied scenarios of folk-song (the text of The maid of Isla, for example, is as far from the original folk-style as might be imagined).

While Beethoven may initially have undertaken the project as a strictly commercial venture, he invested great energy and originality in it, eventually producing 176 settings for Thomson – outnumbering his works in any other form. The accompaniments are highly sophisticated, and the preludes and postludes provide a structural coherence unusual in this genre. The songs on this evening's programme are all from the Twenty‑five Scottish Songs, opus 108, published in London and Edinburgh in 1818 and "palmed off", as Beethoven put it, on the Berlin publisher Schlesinger in 1822.

Mieczyslaw Kolinski (1901‑1981): Six French Folk Songs for voice, flute, and piano (1969)

Mieczyslaw Kolinski was born in Poland and educated in Berlin. He taught there and in Prague before going into hiding in Belgium during World War II. He subsequently emigrated to North America, first to the United States and then, in 1966, to Canada.

He was active as a composer, theorist, and ethnomusicologist, with interests in the music of many cultures, but a particular focus on those of his adoptive country – French, English, and First Nations. In 1972, he was recognised by the Society for Ethnomusicology for his contributions to the discipline, and in 1979 he was named scholar emeritus by the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.

His folk-song settings reflect his intensive study of the folk repertoire and his conviction of its essential integrity. The accompaniments draw on the modal and rhythmic structures of the original tunes, extending them into an additional instrumental dimension, but presenting them as gems worthy of setting rather than as raw material for the production of contemporary art-music.

Gilbert Patenaude (1947- ): Six chansons du Détroit for mezzo-soprano, baritone, flute, and string quartet (2003)

Montreal native Gilbert Patenaude studied piano, organ, conducting, and theory in his home city and in Nice, France, and Hilversum in the Netherlands. He has been the musical director of numerous groups, including the Théâtre lyrique de Laval, the Orchestre symphonique de Laval (of which he was the founding director), the Petits Chanteurs du Mont‑Royal, and the Choeur Enharmonique. He has produced many choral and orchestral arrangements, as well as large-scale original compositions such as the operas Pour quelques arpents de neige (1989) and Chevalier de Lorimier (1992), and the "musical tales" Wananish (1993) and Le bal des douze princesses (1995).

The Six chansons du Détroit, a commission from the Talisker players in 2003, are settings of songs from the francophone tradition of the Detroit/Windsor area – a centre of voyageur activity during the most active period of the North American fur trade. In these pieces – as in the separate French-Canadian folk-song L'Hirondelle, which concludes the evening's programme – the two voices appear both in dialogue and in duet. The string quartet functions very much as a unit, supporting and surrounding the voices, while the flute provides both subtle hints of colour, and soloistic interludes.

Alexander Rapoport (1957- ): At the Queen's Inn for baritone, flute, violin, viola, and cello (2017 - premiere performance)

The Talisker Players' composer-in-residence needs no introduction to this audience. In his most recent work, he imagines a song contest at the historic Queen's Inn in Kingston, shortly after its opening in the 1830s, and sets three British folksongs which might have been sung by the contestants.

The harvest carol The barley grain for me appears in printed versions (sometimes entitled John Barleycorn) as early as the 16th century; A.L. Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams, in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, noted what appear to be pagan elements in the text, and described it as either "an unusually coherent folklore survival" or "the creation of an antiquarian revivalist, which has passed into popular currency and become 'folklorised'." The dapherd grey represents a strand of the "murder ballad" genre, in which the intended victim gets the better of her would-be killer. In both these songs the composer enlivens the basic triple metre with inventive syncopations. The Spree is exactly what the title suggests – a rhythmically compelling account of a drunken binge and its aftermath. The singer's concentration is challenged by the alternation of singing, stamping, and clapping!

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Two English Folksongs for voice and violin (1913)

Like Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Vaughan Williams was a devoted collector of folk music as well as a highly original composer. His settings of folk-songs reflect a similar attitude to the dignity of the original material. These two pieces, for example, adhere very closely to the modal structure of the melodies, with self-effacing – but sensitive and highly effective – accompaniments. Searching for Lambs is an unusual example of an English folk-song in an irregular metre, almost entirely in 5/4, while The Lawyer is a charming statement of bucolic true love.

Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973): Three French Canadian Sea Songs for voice and string quartet (1930)

Sir Ernest MacMillan was Toronto's most prominent organist, conductor, teacher, and composer of the first half of the 20th century. But while most musical Torontonians recognise his name, fewer are aware that he was also a collector of folk songs, who collaborated with Marius Barbeau during the mid and late 1920s in gathering and transcribing Indigenous and French-Canadian material.

These three settings grew out of that experience. The string quartet accompaniment provides a smooth, almost orchestral support for the voice – MacMillan specified performance by string orchestra as a alternative – without ever overwhelming the melody or the text. The flowing wave-figures of Sept ans sur mer are particularly effective in expressing the inexorable length of a sailor's stint at sea, while the rhythmic sparkle and polish of À Saint-Malo have made it a concert favourite.

Gilbert Patenaude (1947- ): L'Hirondelle, messagère des amours for mezzo-soprano, baritone, flute, and string quartet (2003)

See above, Six chansons du Détroit.


contact: words.music@taliskerplayers.ca, 416-466-6546