Amoroso Canto presents the complete unaccompanied choral music composed by Robert Turner and performed by Canzona under the direction of conductor Henry Engbrecht.
The choral music of Robert Turner, performed by Canzona, and conducted by Henry Engbrecht, 2008.
About Amoroso Canto
Robert Turner’s best-known works performed and recorded by Canadian orchestras and ensembles (Opening Night, Children’s Overture, Third Symphony) obscure the passionate and abiding affection for lyrical presences of the human voice he expresses in 9 works for Voice and Orchestra, 4 for Voice and Instruments, 2 full-length operas, and the 6 unaccompanied works recorded here by Canzona. Indeed, many of his most significant choral works were written for full orchestra in the years following his retirement, such as The River of Time (1994) and Festival Dance (1997).
Two Choral Pieces (1952) and Mobile (1960) for chorus and 7 percussionists afford listeners early examples of Turner’s eclectic cultural and musical repertoires introduced to him by American composers. Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings and Elder Olson were among his favorite modernist poets whom he admired for their playful language combined with intellectual complexity. His selections of such texts were made only after he had read extensively from the poets’ complete works and a musical occasion was presented to him, such as choral conductor George Little’s commissioning of these pieces for the Montreal Bach Choir.
Turner’s conventional British cultural heritage is most apparent in Prophetic Song (1961), a musical meditation on a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and “The House of Christmas” Suite (1963), a dramatic setting of a narrative poem by G.K.Chesterton commissioned and premiered by the St. James Anglican Church Choir in Vancouver. Another piece from this period, Turner’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle (1964) for mezzo-soprano accompanied by 8 instruments, dramatically confirms his underlying aesthetic interests in introducing dissonance and atonality into inherited musical and literary forms.
During the 1960s Robert Turner’s voracious appetite for reading soon encompassed Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, European history, the history of literature in English, and contemporary philosophical essays on art and aesthetics. He often wrote beautiful cards and letters to family members and professional associates but no more than a few sentences about a cumulative reading list that would intimidate the most erudite humanist scholars of his generation. In fact, Turner spent far more time reading books than composing music; indeed, one could — and perhaps should — read his scores and listen to his compositions as extended interpretations of, and commentaries on, literary artists’ texts.
Robert Turner was a devout nationalist who enjoyed working and travelling across Canada from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia, most often by railway (he never learned to drive an automobile). His Five Canadian Folksongs (1973) were commissioned (together with Ten Canadian Folksongs for Orchestra) by the CBC so that traditional Canadian folk music would be made more accessible for concert performance. Other major Turner compositions feature original Canadian texts written by George Woodcock for his first opera, The Brideship(1967), Wilfred Watson for Four Songs [from “Friday’s Child”](1969), Jack Richards for Johann’s Gift to Christmas (1972), and Norman Newton for his second opera, Vile Shadows (1983/86).
Robert also delighted in his yearly travels with Sara throughout North America and Europe, especially their sojourns in the southern climates of Italy and Spain, where they attended countless live concerts, visited museums and art galleries, explored the old homes of writers, painters and composers, and haunted the stacks of bookstores and libraries. His musical allusions and painstaking selections of the texts for vocal works reveal Turner’s sophisticated affection for humour and illusiveness derived from these vital events, peoples and places he experienced as much as from the arcane cultural sources and influences he discovered in books and other composers’ scores.
The Amoroso Canto Suite (1978) offers a complex yet lyrical synthesis of Turner’s painstaking studies of a remarkable range of European and North American musical and literary sources, aesthetic styles, and inter-art influences from Mozart to Sammartini, Verlaine and Apollinaire to Wallace Stevens and Louis Dudek. Commissioned by the International Society of Music Education, it was premiered for their 13th International Conference held at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Among listeners’ discoveries in this suite may be unheard of lyrical inventions like “a crystal that fell from musical fingers—a certain tree where the road turns, whatever is found or is done that cannot be lost or changed, Amoroso Canto” (Dudek). Certainly the composer’s own relentless search for expressions of thought and feeling through music is reflected in Stevens’ “Mozart 1935”: “the diverti(me)mento; that airy dream of the future, the unclouded concerto…the snow is falling; strike the piercing chord. Be thou the voice, not you, Be thou that wintry sound as of a great wind howling, by which sorrow is released—dismissed, in a starry placating.”
Above all else, Robert Turner was a man of few words and great affection for whom the enduring quality of the human voice is made sacred through songs created in places of silence where we may recognize in ourselves how and why “Music is feeling, then, not sound” (Wallace Stevens, “Peter Quince at the Clavier”).
About Robert Turner
Robert Turner regarded himself as a Canadian composer but he lived his professional life in a distinctively international cultural environment. Born in Montreal in 1920, Robert Turner’s first compositions were popular songs he composed at an early age while taking piano lessons. His Presbyterian father, William Turner, was an immigrant from Kirkaldy, Scotland, who eventually became a Royal Bank manager, one who enjoyed romantic poetry and landscape painting, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and traditional Scottish folk music; Robert’s grandmothers were both proficient amateur pianists. His mother Myrtle (Snowdon) Turner’s family were prominent British Loyalists who settled in Quebec during the 1830s. In his youth Robert enjoyed playing hockey, skiing, canoeing and swimming at his parents’ vacation home at Morin Heights in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains.
While attending high school Robert’s advanced piano studies with Frank Hanson and Walter Hungerford at the McGill Conservatory led to his composition and orchestration studies with Irvin Cooper, who encouraged him to attend McGill University, despite the increasing reservations and declining support of his parents.
At McGill Robert Turner studied music theory and composition with Claude Champagne and Douglas Clarke, and received his Bachelor of Music degree (1943). Following two years of deciphering Japanese codes in the RCAF’s cryptology division during World War II, he attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs to study with American composer Roy Harris; here, he fell in love with his future wife, Sara Scott, a talented young percussionist with the Louisville Symphony and composition major studying with Harris.
In 1947 Robert went to the Royal College of Music in London on a Commonwealth Scholarship for composition studies with English composers Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob; his relationship with Sara flourished during this year while she was studying composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Robert and Sara married in June 1949 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he would major in composition with Roy Harris at Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody College (Master of Music, 1950). That summer at Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center, where Robert studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and Sara played tympani in the orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, his first extant work—String Quartet No. 1—was premiered to great acclaim by Bernstein and Aaron Copland.
Robert Turner began his professional career as the CBC Senior Music Producer with primary responsibility for the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Avison (1952-68). His contributions to the public performance and commissioning of new Canadian music led to his appointment as Professor in Music Theory and Composition (1969-85) at the University of Manitoba’s School of Music, where he taught a whole generation of young Canadian composers: Peter Allen, Glenn Buhr, Bruce Carlson, T. Pat Carrabre, John Greer, Holly Harris, Diana McIntosh, Ron Paley, Danny Schur, Linda Schwartz, David Scott, and John Winiarz.
These day-to-day responsibilities and commitments in broadcasting and education consumed most of his time and energies but also galvanized his work on the dozens of compositions in all musical forms which he wrote almost exclusively on commission year after year. In 1985 when he retired as Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Manitoba, he began the third major phase of his work exclusively devoted to composition and humanistic scholarship.
Robert Turner’s work as an innovative radio producer, university professor and distinguished composer of more than 70 compositions has been recognized with many awards, including the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada (1993), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003), the Order of Canada (2003), and the Manitoba Arts Council Award of Distinction (2008).
TWO CHORAL PIECES (1952)
- Study of Images 1 Wallace Stevens
- anyone lived in a pretty how town e.e. cummings
- Mobile by Calder Elder Olson
PROPHETIC SONG (1961)
- [Prophetic Song] from “Hellas” Percy Bysshe Shelley
THE HOUSE OF CHRISTMAS SUITE (1963) – The House of Christmas Gilbert Chesterton
- The House of Christmas
- The Wise Men
- A Child of the Snows
- The Nativity
FIVE CANADIAN FOLKSONGS (1973)
- The True Lovers’ Discussion
- The Soldier and the Lady
- The Carrion Crow
- He’s Young but He’s Daily Growing
- Cold Water Song
AMOROSO CANTO SUITE (1978)
- Mozart, 1935’ Wallace Stevens
- Chanson d’automne Paul Verlaine
- An Air by Sammartini Louis Dudek
- Le Pont Mirabeau Guillaume Apollinaire
- Lines to a Movement in Mozart’s E-flat Symphony Thomas Hardy
“Mozart, 1935’” and “Study of Images 1” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens © Alfred A. Knopf. Used by Permission. “An Air by Sammartini” © Louis Dudek. Used by permission of the author. “Mobile by Calder.” Used by permission of The Hudson Review and the author.
Thank you to the supporters of the recording project
- W.H. & S.E. Loewen Foundation
- Scotia Private Client Group
- Winnipeg Arts Council
- The Winnipeg Foundation
- Great-West Life
- Foundation for Choral Music in Manitoba
Accompanist: Rachel Hinton
Percussion Ensemble: Brendan Thompson, Jeremy Epp, Erica Weselowski, Graydon Cramer, Jamie Pham, Byron Wood, Victoria Sparks
Acknowledgements: Aaron Sivertson, Sara Scott Turner, University of Manitoba, St. John’s Cathedral
Recording Engineer: Bryan Harder
Design: John Funk (Underscorefunk Design)