Jean Coulthard: a pioneering composer of 20th-century Canada

To those of you who are regular readers of my blog, my apologies for depriving you of your usual fare – I’ve been overloaded with homework for my courses over the last few weeks and haven’t had any time to write posts. Ironically, my workload will be lower during finals week than it has been recently, so my weekly posting will resume from now on.

In the mid-20th century, a new “musical generation” of American experimentalist composers gained prominence, led by the likes of John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter. However, their contemporaries north of the border remained in relative obscurity – even today, the works of Canadian composers are rarely performed, particularly outside of the country.

In today’s post, I’ll attempt to help remedy this problem by profiling the influential Canadian woman composer Jean Coulthard. Coulthard and her contemporaries Barbara Pentland and Violet Archer not only contributed to Canada’s musical history through their diverse works but also left a lasting legacy, teaching many of today’s prominent Canadian composers and laying a platform for future generations. (I will likely cover both Pentland and Archer in future posts, so stay tuned!)


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Coulthard at the piano (Vancouver Sun)

Born in Vancouver in 1908, Coulthard received musical training early in life through her mother, a well-known music teacher in the area. At a young age, she heard the work of Debussy and Ravel; both composers would serve as influences throughout her compositional career. Coulthard initiated her formal musical education in 1924, when she began studying piano with Jan Cherniavsky and theory with Frederick Chubb; four years later, on a scholarship from the Vancouver Woman’s Musical Club, she spent a year at the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

After marrying Donald Adams in 1935, Coulthard continued her studies with the likes of Bartok, Copland, Milhaud, and Schoenberg over the following ten years and also spent a year at the Juilliard School near the end of World War II. As she continued to develop her compositional style, Coulthard made ends meet by teaching piano, beginning in 1925 in her mother’s studio and continuing as an independent teacher until 1947. That year, she was hired to teach theory and composition in the newly formed Department of Music at the University of British Columbia.

Although her work was often marginalized by the male members of the department, Coulthard’s time at UBC led to the most productive musical period of her career. Completed shortly after her appointment, Coulthard’s first piano sonata is a colorful, rich work that sadly is rarely performed today.

By the mid-20th century, as serialism (the use of dodecaphony-like methods for duration, dynamics and other aspects in addition to pitch) gained a foothold in then-contemporary North American music, Coulthard felt alienated from the musical “establishment”. However, a year in France, the country that produced so many great late Romantic masters, in 1956 revitalized her, and she continued writing in her own voice for more than three decades. By the time she retired in in 1973, Coulthard had completed a number of large-scale works, including a piano concerto and the symphonic poem Endymion, and taught several now-influential Canadian composers such as Chan Ka Nin and Michael Conway Baker. You can listen to both of the aforementioned works below – special thanks to Corentin Boissier, who has put up six or seven recordings of Coulthard’s compositions along with countless other rare works on his “collectionCB” set of YouTube channels.

After her retirement, Coulthard continued to compose, completing her last major works in the mid-1990s. Having been made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978, she was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1994 in recognition of her contributions to Canadian music. Six years later, she passed away at the age of 92.

In Canada, particularly in her native British Columbia, Coulthard’s place in musical history is secure – in 2008, a series of concerts in honor of her 100th birthday were held in Montreal and Vancouver, and the University of British Columbia, where she taught for 25 years, established the Jean Coulthard Fund for Canadian Music Studies in her honor. However, she and her work remain obscure and very rarely performed elsewhere – it’s a shame that a composer who wrote such lyrical, evocative, and powerful music is so often overlooked.

Thank you for reading – as usual, if you enjoyed this post or any others on my blog, please leave a like and/or a follow. Next week, I’ll resume my weekly posts with a profile of New Zealand’s most famous composer, Douglas Lilburn!

(This post uses information from Wikipedia, a biography from the Canadian Music Centre, and a profile in The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

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