CELEBRATING THE WEST COAST COMPOSERS: ELLIOT WEISGARBER (1919-2001)
by Karen Suzanne Smithson, the composer’s daughter
Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century, Vancouver was home to composer Elliot Weisgarber, best known for his pioneering work in the field of world music. His profound study of Japanese music in particular led to the foundation of the ethnomusicology program in the School of Music at the University of British Columbia in the late 1960s. This article celebrates his remarkable life, following on the concert of his music performed at the Canadian Music Centre in Vancouver in April 2017.
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY:
Elliot Weisgarber was a native of New England where he began clarinet studies as a young boy. He soon discovered an inclination and aptitude for originality and began composing seriously while still in high school. When he pursued his post-secondary education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he earned degrees in both clarinet performance and in composition, studying with Edward Royce, Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. Later he did post-graduate work with Halsey Stevens in Los Angeles and spent a landmark summer in the famous class of Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France. The composer was led by his teachers to a very deep well of musical influences that included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Debussy and Bartok, to name but a few. In his middle years, this European and North American inheritance would be joined by something that was, then, far more exotic.
In 1960, after serving for many years at the University of North Carolina, Weisgarber was invited to join the faculty of the newly-formed music department at the University of British Columbia. Always fascinated by whatever was over the next hill, he was delighted by the prospects of transplanting to the west coast and by the mysteries that might be found still further across the ocean. To this point, the only Asian music he had ever heard had been a recording of Indonesian gamelan played in Bernard Rogers’ class at Eastman. He had been enchanted by it at the time but had no opportunity to pursue it more deeply. Now in Vancouver, he was at Asia’s door in a city with an already sizeable Asian population and a university that featured Asian studies in its programs.
Weisgarber had the opportunity to meet University of Washington ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias and to hear his gagaku (Japanese court music) ensemble perform at UBC, and became determined to learn to play a Japanese instrument. As a woodwind player, he decided on the shakuhachi, the vertical bamboo flute. UBC Japanese language professor Kenji Ogawa arranged to have one purchased for him in Japan, after which Weisgarber began spending his annual academic breaks there, studying shakuhachi as well as the stringed instruments, koto, shamisen and biwa. He was eventually granted the status of master in the prestigious Kinko school of shakuhachi, one of the first foreigners, if not the very first, to be granted this honour. His 1968 article in Ethnomusicology is still regarded as the subject’s English-language authority.
Weisgarber’s studies in Japan revolutionized the latter half of his career as a composer. The Japanese experience had appealed to something in his soul that craved simplicity, even asceticism, and melded with his own mature musical style which had already been fuelled by an enormous range of interests and a deep love of the musical traditions imparted to him by his teachers. The result was entirely unique: few of his works from the mid-1960s onwards are free of Japanese influence.
A journalist in Madison, Wisconsin perhaps summed up his creative impulse best in his review of the premiere of Weisgarber’s 6th String Quartet.
“[Weisgarber] is conservative for his century in the way Samuel Barber was. And his music gains audience appeal for it. His strategy of drawing on folk music, Asian instead of European, is the same one that earlier 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Bartok used so effectively to find new material.” — Jacob Stockinger, Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, Feb. 15, 1982
As Canadian Music Centre (BC) Director Sean Bickerton pointed out at the recent concert, Weisgarber’s emotional appropriation of Japanese influence into his own creativity is all the more poignant and remarkable when one considers the times in which this occurred. In 1960, barely ten years had passed since Japanese-Canadians were allowed to return to their rightful homes after being shamefully incarcerated by the Canadian government during World War II. That the Japanese presence in Vancouver was palpable enough to affect Weisgarber greatly is a testament to the enormous resilience of this community in Vancouver’s cultural life.
Weisgarber’s extensive catalogue of compositions spans seven decades and virtually the entire gamut of traditional “classical” forms, with the exception of opera. The lion’s share of his 449 separate compositions consists of chamber music and solos for orchestral instruments, followed by vocal works and orchestral music. There are also choral pieces and works for keyboard, one piece for concert band and several for Japanese instruments. He also composed scores for dramatic productions, film, radio and TV.
Weisgarber disliked ‘labels’, but even he would have agreed that his creative career can be described in terms of various ‘periods’. He himself wrote emphatically ‘June 1, 1960 The End of the Greensboro Period’ at the double bar of his Suite for Oboe and Piano – the last work he composed in North Carolina. The ‘Greensboro’ works (1944-1960) reflect the spirit of the times in which they were written, though Weisgarber never embraced the atonal techniques of many of his contemporaries. His adventurous harmonies perhaps bear greater resemblance to the later works of Paul Hindemith. Like Hindemith, his music was firmly rooted in tonality but the tonal centres were apt to shift quickly. Accordingly, he adopted Hindemith’s practice of using accidentals instead of key signatures and continued to do this even when his key centres settled into a less restless structure.
The first work he composed in Vancouver was, interestingly enough, a score of incidental music for a UBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Good Woman of Szechuan. The Asian setting of the play appears prophetic in every way! In the next four years, Weisgarber’s smoldering interest in Asia was lit fully ablaze. He began intense study of the Japanese language and acquired some elementary skill on his newly-purchased shakuhachi. Hints of this intense study begin to appear in his composition during these early years of the 1960s, but it was not until December 1964 that a short song Waka – for soprano and shakuhachi (or western flute) – became his first toe-dabbling in transcultural composition. He regarded his one-movement Sonata for Violoncello Unaccompanied, completed in June 1965, as his first serious transcultural piece. Although the intensity of his involvement with Japan was ultimately to wane by the end of the 1970s, there can be no doubt that many of Weisgarber’s subsequent works still reflect this influence. Truly, the move from North Carolina to British Columbia constituted a sea change (if not a fault line) in the composer’s career.
As the decades went by, the composer traveled extensively all over the world and showed an uncanny ability to absorb other cultural roots in his music as well. In the 1990s, for example, he fell in love with the work of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, took Spanish classes, and set to music a large number of Neruda’s poems (Canciones del Sur, Amor, y del Mar) (1996-2000). Performers and listeners alike might assume that the composer had spent his life immersed in Latin American culture. The dedicatee of this work, American soprano Laura Butler Frank, addressed the composer’s phenomenal ability to adapt to each cultural calling: ‘…when [Weisgarber] is setting John Gould Fletcher, you know he is American. When he’s setting Rilke it’s post-Strauss — it’s German! And when he’s setting Hardy, it’s English. How he achieves this, I don’t know.’ This statement also speaks to Weisgarber’s own personal hope that his listeners would not limit him to being solely a Japanese-influenced composer.
If there is one thread that weaves Weisgarber’s entire oeuvre together from beginning to end, it is his quest for the poetic. For him, music and poetry were inseparable, a perfect bonding of emotion and expression. This lyricism is the characteristic of his art with which he most thoroughly identified himself. If there is no text, the music itself becomes the poetry.
His is truly a unique body of work that, to a large extent, still awaits discovery.
SELECTED WORKS (in chronological order):
Omnia Exeunt in Misterium (1943-1993): This masterpiece is the result of 50 years of development from the very beginnings of Weisgarber’s career to within a decade of his death. It is a song cycle on settings of six poems by George Sterling, a poet that the composer and his then girlfriend Betty/Beth Setter discovered together in their literature class at Eastman. In 1943, Beth, a lyric soprano, became Weisgarber’s wife and, over the next three years, was the recipient of two beautiful songs set to Sterling’s poetry (In Autumn and At the Grand Canyon). In 1976, Weisgarber set four more Sterling poems and revised the original two – creating a full cycle of six songs for soprano and piano. The cycle was orchestrated initially in1980; its final revised version appearing in 1993. The premiere of this work — fifty years in the making — was given in Prince George, BC in November 1994.
In Country Sleep (1957): In Country Sleep is a stunning rendering of Dylan Thomas’ 1947 poem of the same name. It is the poet’s prayer for his young daughter, an incantation full of fairy tale imagery and a terrifying catalogue of life’s fears that lie ahead, from which the poet invokes the child’s protection. It is a dark poem that places the child in a dream, deep beneath the overhanging ‘pouncing boughs’ of a Little Red Riding Hood forest with the wolf in his ‘lair of the flocked leaves’ wearing his ‘baaing hood’. Nightmarish images of birds, ghosts and animal eyes confront the sleeping child in a boiling cauldron of ancient lore. But throughout is the knowledge that the nightmare can be conquered: the dark forest is also a happy “squirrel nimble grove”, “the country is holy” and “faith is deathless”.
Just as Thomas’ poem was inspired by his 4-year-old daughter as yet untouched by life’s cruelties and sorrows, Weisgarber’s setting of the poem was written in the fall of 1956 as a gift for his own daughter’s second birthday. The composer’s music joins the poet’s prayer in that lyric bond so characteristic of Weisgarber. Scored originally for tenor voice, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass and piano, it was revised in 1962 and orchestrated. The original’s use of a double bass rather than cello, in addition to much of the piano part being written in the bass clef for both hands, underscores the darkness of the poetry and pulls the listener into the heart of the dark forest of the poet’s dreamscape. As I was the little girl who was given this beautiful gift so many years ago, I have imagined the viola solo that opens and closes the work to be my father’s voice while the tenor sings in the poet’s stead. This piece remains an abiding favourite of mine.
Kyoto Landscapes (1972): This magnificent work for large orchestra was written for and performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Its six movements evoke the spirit of some of the composer’s most beloved locations in the city of Kyoto and conclude with a brilliant transcription for western orchestra of a piece from the classic Japanese court orchestra repertoire (gagaku).
Six Miniatures After Hokusai (1972): These six short pieces for violin and piano evoke the spirit of the works of Katsushika Hokusai, master of the Japanese wood-block print. The “soundscapes” depict selections from Hokusai’s famous collection “The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. In 1995, the Miniatures were rescored for violin and harp. Four of these now comprise a set entitled Views of Mount Fuji.
Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon (1978): This work was the centrepiece around which the program for the recent CMC concert was planned. Written while the composer was enjoying a lengthy stay in England it became, quite naturally for Weisgarber, an English piece, in the tradition of such composers as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and essentially free of earlier Japanese influences. Performers have dubbed it a ‘symphony for woodwind quintet’ due to its depth and difficulty.
Quartet No. 6 (1980): No list of Weisgarber’s selected repertoire can be complete without a mention of his 6th String Quartet. Written as a ‘summing up at 60’ it takes performers and listeners on a twenty-five minute ‘tour’ of Weisgarber’s life’s work. A series of nine sections (or ‘tempi’) are linked together by a musical idea that had haunted him from his earliest days and eventually takes the shape of a theme from his settings of Robinson Jeffers poems (Seven Poems of Robinson Jeffers, 1973). Each features inspiration from a different area of his experience. Tempo VI is based on a North Indian raga; in Tempo VIII, the cello is featured playing in a rough style of Japanese shamisen music, the viola plays a melody heard at Shinto shrine festivals while the first violin intones fragments of austere shakuhachi music. Tempo IX includes a song from central Java that was ‘one of the first non-western things I can remember from my youth.’
Quintet “Aotearoa” for Clarinet & String Quartet (1988): This delightful piece was conceived on a holiday in New Zealand while the composer was out for a walk and heard the calls of the tui bird for the first time. The tui makes a great variety of calls and the birds have noisy conversations with one another. For Weisgarber the music of these birds was irresistible and moved him to compose not only this Quintet but also a set of “32 Concert Etudes for Clarinet”.
Ama Dablám (1994): for solo piano: The ethos of this work is rooted in the Himalayan landscape around Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of the World), known more prosaically by Europeans as Mount Everest. Ama Dablám, a peak in the Everest group, is a sublime tower of rock and ice revered for countless centuries by the Sherpa people of the region. The absence of time signatures coupled with the use of dotted bar lines suggest metrical and rhythmic freedom, the sense of timelessness. The dominating, repeated, sixteenth-note figures are suggestive of the drumming patterns found in Buddhist ritual, variations of which are found all across Asia from the Himalayas to Japan. The sustained deep bass tones bring to mind the ominous sound of great bells, the roar of long Tibetan trumpets and the chant of lamas as they intone the mystic syllable om at an incredibly low pitch.
© Karen Suzanne Smithson 2017
- ‘The Honkyoku of the Kinko-Ryu: Some Principles of its Organization’, Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, vol. 12 no. 3, Sept. 1968
- ‘Mayonnaise on the Sashimi’, Canadian Composer, 44, Nov. 1969
- ‘A Composer Explains his ‘Trans-cultural’ Music’, Canadian Composer, 88, Feb. 1974
- Elliot Weisgarber: Catalog of Works, Karen Suzanne Smithson https://www.musiccentre.ca/node/31314
- Night, Vancouver Chamber Choir, Centrediscs, Canadian Music Centre, WRC8-6403, 1990
- Sonatine, Playing Tribute, Aulos Trio, CanSona Arts Media, 1998
- Immanences, Erica Northcott, soprano; Rena Sharon, piano; Laura Butler Frank, soprano; Peter Breykin, piano, Hermissenda Recordings HR0214, 1998
- Miyako Sketches, Coastal Waves, Canadian Music Centre, WRC8-7233, 1998
Photo Credits: Bruce Mason, UBC Reports, Canadian Music Centre, and unknown