Author Topic: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)  (Read 4449 times)

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Offline Mirror Image

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Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« on: November 12, 2012, 01:54:36 PM »


Born in Toronto in 1925, Somers only began to study music in his early teens and, as if to make up for lost time, immediately engaged in intensive study. At the age of sixteen he entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto where he studied piano with Reginald Godden (1941-43) and Weldon Kilburn (1946-49) and composition with John Weinzweig (1942-43, 1946-49), receiving scholarships in 1947 and 1949. In the latter year he was awarded a Canadian Amateur Hockey Association scholarship through which he studied composition with Darius Milhaud in Paris (1949-50). At that time Somers’ music was subject to the dual influence of serial music (championed at that time by Weinzweig) and a more personal past-conscious view of music and the musical repertoire.

He once remarked that, for him: ...composition evolves from a body of tradition and a series of conventions, be they old or new. Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.

Harry Somers was a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers and in 1971 was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Ottawa (1975), the University of Toronto (1976) and York University (1977). From the late 1950s he composed almost exclusively on commissions from a wide variety of North American musical organizations and individuals.

Biography taken from Harry Somers' website

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A truly captivating musical voice, Somers' music only reminds me of the sad neglect his music receives internationally and with the record buying public. He's not mentioned on anyone's short list of great composers, which is a shame as I think he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Canadian composer that ever lived. His music is truly vast in scope and covers such a myriad of styles. Anyone new to Canadian composers should definitely check out Somers first. I thought this remarkable composer deserved his own thread.

To those that have heard his music, what are your impressions of it? Any particular works you enjoy? Favorite recordings?
"When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something." - Dmitri Shostakovich

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #1 on: November 12, 2012, 03:52:48 PM »
No Canadians here fans of Somers' music? ??? WTF? I mean really. Get off your lazy arses GMG and give Somers a listen! :P
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #2 on: November 12, 2012, 05:32:20 PM »
None of our Canadian listeners have heard any of Somers' music? Anyway, here's the composers webpage:

http://www.harrysomers.com/
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #3 on: November 12, 2012, 06:32:51 PM »
Here's an informative article on Somers' musical style:

Although in the course of his career Somers absorbed many influences (eg, Weinzweig, Bartók, baroque counterpoint, 12-tone procedures, and Gregorian chant), his music retained certain trademarks, independent of trends such as the serialism of the 1950s. Many of these can be found in his student works. The piano pieces of 1939-41, written before his studies with Weinzweig, are mood essays with descriptive titles and a marked interest in non-functional harmonic colour. A favourite device is the parallel movement of fourths, fifths, triads, and chords of the seventh and ninth. This persists in the works of the 1940s (eg, the introduction to the first movement of North Country).

The String Quartet No. 1, the first large work written under Weinzweig's guidance, contains a number of elements carried forward into, and refined during, the late 1940s and 1950s: the extended melodic line (probably a result of exercises designed by Weinzweig to exploit a single line); ostinatos, often with a strong rhythmic drive; points of tonal repose in non-tonal contexts; the accumulation and release of tension (often through textural density) over an extended arc; and finally the use of rhetorical, declamatory gestures at climactic moments.

By the time of North Country, these elements had evolved into a distinctive style in which the communication of intense feeling was balanced by effective scoring and driving rhythms were contained within compact ternary structures. The first movement of North Country evokes a bleak, rugged landscape through the slow unfolding of spare melody in the violins' high tessitura against a quasi-ostinato of short rhythmic figures.

Somers' 'long line' functioned as a vehicle for intensity as well as a provider of continuity. Two main types of line are used. One unfolds slowly within a small range of pitch and often is accompanied thinly by nervous rhythmic interjections. Characteristic of this line are a falling minor second in a long-short rhythm, sharp dynamic fluctuations in otherwise sustained elements or short melodic segments, silences of varying lengths interrupting the line, and a built-in accelerando at the point of climax (often associated with the falling second). Examples can be seen in the final page of the Rhapsody (1948), the opening of Stereophony (1963), and Music for Solo Violin (1973). The second type of line may include one or more of these traits but is more active rhythmically, with wider intervals and greater range, and usually is accompanied by one or more continuous voices. Examples are the violin's theme in the Prologue of the Symphony No. 1, the opening of Lyric, and several of the long vocal solos in Louis Riel.

Another Somers device, dating from the 1940s and recurrent, has been the deliberate use of tension in manipulating the listener's emotions. In the 1950s he generated such tensions with neo-baroque counterpoint and with a juxtaposition of contrasting styles - for instance, the superimposition of tonal on non-tonal material. The effectiveness of Somers' counterpoint can be seen in the Passacaglia and Fugue, in which each section grows to a climax through the accumulation of imitative voices. Of 14 large works written between 1951 and 1959, 10 involve some fugal writing. Style juxtaposition, which first appeared in the second movement of the Suite for Harp and Chamber Orchestra (1949), was less successful in works of the 1950s (The Fool and Piano Concerto No. 2) than in Louis Riel (1967), where folksong, tonal writing, taped material, and Somers' own atonal fabrics work together to achieve a high dramatic impact.

Tension is produced also by sharp fluctuations in volume (Somers calls them 'dynamic unrest') which may be applied to single notes, to segments of a melodic line, or (especially in orchestral works) to sustained vertical aggregates. In fact, the growth pattern of many of Somers' works is an extension of a crescendo-decrescendo dynamic shape. A striking example is the fifth of Five Concepts for Orchestra (1961). The broad structure of many of the post-1940 works is ternary - eg, Symphony No. 1, Five Concepts, Twelve Miniatures - and this probably is a result of the tendency to plan works around the build-up, achievement, and release of tension.

The orchestral works of the 1960s grew, in part, from Somers' music, 1959-60, for the film Saguenay, in which he worked with non-thematic colours and textures. At first this affected only abstract works (Lyric, Five Concepts) but later it led to experiments with other dimensions: visual (Movement), spatial (Stereophony), and theatrical (The House of Atreus). In these works tonal or modal elements (common in pre-1959 works) are present no longer. The basis of pitch organization is a 12-tone series. Although Somers used a series in the mid-1940s, he did not employ it throughout a work until 1951 (Symphony No. 1, 12 x 12). His subsequent use of series (in all major works including Louis Riel) has been flexible and intuitive, tailored to complement other dimensions of a given work, not rigidly applied.

In 1963 Somers began showing particular interest in the voice, using phonetic sounds, timbral inflections, and minute ornamentation. In Twelve Miniatures, Evocations, and Louis Riel these colour a traditional treatment of words. However, in two large works of the 1970s the fabric consists mainly of non-semantic sounds and colour inflections. Voiceplay is a wordless lecture demonstration of new vocal techniques for singer/actor, and Kyrie is a 25-minute work for vocal quartet, choir, and instruments. In Kyrie the text is derived exclusively from the phonetic sounds of the words 'Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.' His command of new voice techniques extends to performance: he recorded Voiceplay, and himself sang the original taping (of an ornamented and electronically elaborated folk ballad) for the opening scene of Louis Riel.

The earmarks of Somers' style are reflected in his works for solo instruments (in particular piano and violin), and small combinations of instruments. For discussion see Composition, instrumental solos and duos: Piano solos.

Somers' special interest in extended vocal techniques continued in three works of the early 1980s: Limericks, Shaman's Song, and Chura-churum. The first, written for the Healey Willan centenary, threatens to smother its text, three ribald limerick verses, by lengthy rhythmic and textural inventions - the result being a 'profane' sequel to Kyrie. In both Shaman's Song, an Inuit text set for solo voice and prepared piano, and Chura-churum, a Sanskrit text set for eight amplified solo voices and a small instrumental ensemble, the virtuosic demands achieve an intensity commensurate with the mystery and spiritual elevation of their subjects. Chura-churum may be the most notationally complex of all Somers' scores.

The trilogy Elegy, Transformation, Jubilation was 'conceived as evolving from the homophonic to the multiphonic, from one group to five,' according to the composer's note in the score. The large orchestra is divided into five unequal groups, spatially separated; the work calls for four assistant conductors in the 'Jubilation' section, coordinated by means of click-tracks. The 'Elegy' is a late example of Somers's eloquent 'long line' melody. Substantial solo-and-orchestra works of the 1980s are the Concertante for violin, percussion, and strings, and the Guitar Concerto - the latter developed from a five-note scale pattern whose treatment the composer said is 'distantly related to those principles applied to the Indian ragas.' (See also Concertos and concertante music.)

Starting in 1976 with Love-in-Idleness, a solo scene based on Shakespeare's Titania, Somers renewed his involvement with musical theatre. The later 1980s saw the premieres of the children's opera A Midwinter Night's Dream and the 'festival opera' Serinette. In an interview in 1990 Somers said in his work on the former he had 'wanted to go back to square one' stylistically, and to deliberately simplify his musical means. Both operas are on Canadian themes, aligning with an unselfconscious nationalism which marks Somers' career - from the early ballet Ballad and Louis Riel to his Images of Canada television scores and the two suites of folksong arrangements for chorus; the latter are among his most accessible and often-played works.

-Taken from The Canadian Encyclopedia-
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Offline Johnll

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #4 on: November 12, 2012, 06:48:57 PM »
This is a composer new to me. In addition to the bio and WHF stuff why not tell us which pieces you really like? I can get 13 albums on MOG but I do not have the patience to listen blind.

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #5 on: November 12, 2012, 07:14:06 PM »
I would say the first work a newcomer should hear is North Country written for string orchestra. There is a haunting atmosphere that prevails in this work. A lot of Somers' music, or at least what I've heard so far, is quite pessimistic in character and mood. There is work that is lighter in feel called Picasso Suite that has a definite Neoclassical feel to it. This might also be a good entry point.
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #6 on: November 13, 2012, 07:54:28 AM »
I can get 13 albums on MOG but I do not have the patience to listen blind.

If a composer is new to you, then you will always go into the music not knowing much about it. I can recommend works to you, which I already have done, but it's up to you to put in listening. Have you listened to those works I suggested yet?

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #7 on: November 13, 2012, 09:54:04 AM »
I have heard most of the works on the North Country disk and I agree with you this is music worth exploring. These are first blush impressions from causal listening. I find his orchestral music frequently to have a bit of chamber quality.  At first I thought I heard a dash of Messiaen only in the respect that his music can develop slowly and he is fond of twittering sounds. Perhaps Feldman is closer to it. Somers likes strong contrast. I do not find his music to be overly dark or even self-consciously “serious” by C20 standards. The Picasso Suite is out right zany. Anyway thanks MI for another new to me composer. I will explore him more, but not everyone has the time you apparently have.

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #8 on: November 13, 2012, 10:29:53 AM »
I have heard most of the works on the North Country disk and I agree with you this is music worth exploring. These are first blush impressions from causal listening. I find his orchestral music frequently to have a bit of chamber quality.  At first I thought I heard a dash of Messiaen only in the respect that his music can develop slowly and he is fond of twittering sounds. Perhaps Feldman is closer to it. Somers likes strong contrast. I do not find his music to be overly dark or even self-consciously “serious” by C20 standards. The Picasso Suite is out right zany. Anyway thanks MI for another new to me composer. I will explore him more, but not everyone has the time you apparently have.

Good to see you've given the works I suggested a listen. His music bears repeated listening though. I still haven't cracked this composer yet. I'm working on it. There are several orchestral works that just baffle me: Of Memory and Desire and Concertante for Violin, String Orchestra, and Percussion. I've listened to both of these works numerous times and they remain enigmas to me, but the sound of them is quite alluring. I just don't know where Somers is going in these works. I'll certainly keep listening.

I've been exploring several 20th Century Canadian composers lately and it's been a rewarding experience so far.
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #9 on: November 13, 2012, 12:08:21 PM »
Several years ago I bought Somers third pianoconcerto ( CBC  SMCD 5199). It is a work that I listen to quite regularly. I find it very impressive and emotionally stirring.
It is a late work in Somers' oeuvre ( he died in 1999, the concerto was written in 1996).



Technically it is propably very demanding for soloist and orchestra, yet it definitely isn't flashy.  On the contrary, the overal tone is very serious, almost reverential or dreamlike and it is imbued with a gripping, haunting, incantatory lyricism. The slow movement manages, in my opinion, to suggest silence through sound. The last movement is enigmatic and ends with a question mark ...or is a grimace?

At half an hour, it is a big work (each movement ca 10 mins.). There is hardly any very fast music and often the pianopart  is tightly interwoven with the orchestra. Somers freely combines dissonance and tonality .

Performers: James Parker, piano and the Esprit Orchestra / Alex Pauk.

I quote from "A window on Somers" a "Centerdisc" (CMCCD 15911) with the second pianoconcerto :"Somers rarely placed his religious beliefs at the forefront of his compositions ( he once described himself as "more Buddhist than anything), yet occasionaly a deeply spiritual identity is revealed through his music. this is one such work. (Andrew Zinck).


Harry Somers certainly deserves the attention of those who like Varèse, Bartok, Messiaen, André Jolivet, Frank Martin, K.A.Hartmann, Peter Mennin etc.

P.




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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #10 on: November 13, 2012, 07:47:18 PM »
Several years ago I bought Somers third pianoconcerto ( CBC  SMCD 5199). It is a work that I listen to quite regularly. I find it very impressive and emotionally stirring.
It is a late work in Somers' oeuvre ( he died in 1999, the concerto was written in 1996).



Technically it is propably very demanding for soloist and orchestra, yet it definitely isn't flashy.  On the contrary, the overal tone is very serious, almost reverential or dreamlike and it is imbued with a gripping, haunting, incantatory lyricism. The slow movement manages, in my opinion, to suggest silence through sound. The last movement is enigmatic and ends with a question mark ...or is a grimace?

At half an hour, it is a big work (each movement ca 10 mins.). There is hardly any very fast music and often the piano part is tightly interwoven with the orchestra. Somers freely combines dissonance and tonality .

Performers: James Parker, piano and the Esprit Orchestra / Alex Pauk.

I quote from "A window on Somers" a "Centerdisc" (CMCCD 15911) with the second pianoconcerto :"Somers rarely placed his religious beliefs at the forefront of his compositions ( he once described himself as "more Buddhist than anything), yet occasionaly a deeply spiritual identity is revealed through his music. this is one such work. (Andrew Zinck).


Harry Somers certainly deserves the attention of those who like Varèse, Bartok, Messiaen, André Jolivet, Frank Martin, K.A.Hartmann, Peter Mennin etc.

P.

Yes! Finally some life in this thread! :D Thank you for your post. I agree Piano Concerto No. 3 is a fine work. I do need to go back and listen to it again. I also need to take my time with Somers and try not to listen to everything back-to-back, which is a bad habit of mine. Anyway, this recording you pictured above came in the Somers Portrait set I bought not too long ago, which is a must for any one new to the composer. I bought the entire A Window On Somers series yesterday, so I can't wait to hear those. The Merman of Orford is a work I'm interested in. It's described as a work for mime? I'll have to read about the premise of this work as it intrigues me. Another aspect about Somers that I admire is his orchestration. Such fascinating usage of brass and woodwinds.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2012, 08:26:56 PM by Mirror Image »
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #11 on: November 14, 2012, 12:13:39 PM »
I listened to Piano Concerto No. 3 again. It's a fine work no question about it. What I like about Somers' music is it's careful not to reveal it's secrets so easily. This is a composer who rewards multiple listens and periods of contemplation in order to fully digest what was just heard.
« Last Edit: November 14, 2012, 12:15:26 PM by Mirror Image »
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #12 on: November 14, 2012, 01:57:00 PM »


I'm listening to the second pianoconcerto (1956) . It is at ca 48 mins longer than nr 3 and  is cast in 4 movements. Most of it is atonal, but there are frequent "excursions" into tonally-oriented material.

I was, again, reminded of Hindemith and Martin ( and possibly William Schuman) in their most intense, serious manner.

It is a more eclectic work than concerto nr 3  ( dark Bach-like chorales in thunderous brass,  Liszt- or Bartok like piano gestures..) , and possibly strives for a more overtly grandiose effect. It is not "neo" however, nor " à la manière de".It's the sheer intensity of this music that is so overpowering....

The work may be too long. I was quite exhausted after the third movement. The last movement is the fastest however. It's a crazy march that brings the concerto to a brutal finish.

Heavy! But willlisten again - tomorrow.

Peter


















































































































































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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #13 on: November 14, 2012, 02:21:13 PM »


I'm listening to the second pianoconcerto (1956) . It is at ca 48 mins longer than nr 3 and  is cast in 4 movements. Most of it is atonal, but there are frequent "excursions" into tonally-oriented material.

I was, again, reminded of Hindemith and Martin ( and possibly William Schuman) in their most intense, serious manner.

It is a more eclectic work than concerto nr 3  ( dark Bach-like chorales in thunderous brass,  Liszt- or Bartok like piano gestures..) , and possibly strives for a more overtly grandiose effect. It is not "neo" however, nor " à la manière de".It's the sheer intensity of this music that is so overpowering....

The work may be too long. I was quite exhausted after the third movement. The last movement is the fastest however. It's a crazy march that brings the concerto to a brutal finish.

Heavy! But willlisten again - tomorrow.

Peter

I'm really anxious to hear this work, Peter. By the way, you can call me John. Hopefully, this A Window on Somers series will arrive over the next few days. I'm chomping at the bit to hear more Somers. Like I said, The Merman of Orford, in addition to the PC No. 2, are works that I look forward to listening to. By the way, how are those other works on that recording?
« Last Edit: November 14, 2012, 02:24:51 PM by Mirror Image »
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #14 on: November 14, 2012, 02:41:20 PM »
Hi John,

it's late overhere ( Belgium/Antwerp) time for bed! - I listened also to "Those silent, awe filled spaces" will try to comment later!

What I heard by Somers is fascinating .

A demain.

Peter

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #15 on: November 14, 2012, 02:46:31 PM »
Hi John,

it's late overhere ( Belgium/Antwerp) time for bed! - I listened also to "Those silent, awe filled spaces" will try to comment later!

What I heard by Somers is fascinating .

A demain.

Peter

Good night my friend. I look forward to reading your comments tomorrow.
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #16 on: November 15, 2012, 10:00:00 PM »
I'm listening to Piano Concerto No. 2 and I'm quite impressed with it, but I know it's going to take several more listens before everything registers with me. This work has a more austere tone than the third, but it's no less attractive. The second movement contained some gorgeous piano/orchestral passages, especially towards the end. For me, these concerti aren't about virtuosity, but rather about trying to convey a story and the piano is the narrator who's guiding us along this unknown path. The destination? This is what I'm trying to figure out. Somers remains such an enigmatic composer to me. You can tell there's pain and lots of aggression in the music, but where is this all coming from? I will also say that Somers proves to me, yet again, that he's an incredible orchestrator. He really knows how to get a wide array of sounds from the orchestra. I'm on the last movement of the second PC right now, really, really good.
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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #17 on: November 20, 2012, 04:48:02 PM »
I have sampled a number of the Somers discs and other than the PC3 and work for orchestra and harp, I find the string quartets #2 and 3 to be the most interesting. Afraid I have not heard PC2. SQ3 may owe a bit to Bartok but his ability to use the dramatic contrasts in his works is a strong characteristic feature. There are many exceptional moments in these pieces but at times I feel these fairly early works might have been sharpened a bit in his mature years. That is not in any way to down play them or his fine work for solo violin.

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Re: Of Memory and Desire: Harry Somers (1925 - 1999)
« Reply #18 on: November 20, 2012, 04:57:41 PM »
I hate throwing that word "masterpiece" around, but Suite for Harp and Chamber Orchestra is certainly close to "masterpiece status" IMHO. I find what makes the work so compelling is the way he uses the harp throughout and how the harp interacts with the orchestral textures. It's a fairly straightforward piece for Somers, but what makes it so interesting are the textures and subtle chordal shadings he uses, especially in the first movement Lento. If I was a composer, I would seriously study this score up and down. The last movement Allegro has some fascinating rhythms and is quite Neoclassical. I'm not sure if Somers moment in the sun will ever happen, but I think if anyone wants to hear a composer who has quite literally absorbed all the trends of the 20th Century and forged them into a unique synthesis owes it to themselves to listen to a few of his works.
"When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something." - Dmitri Shostakovich