September 11, 1925|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Died||March 9, 1999
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Harry Stewart Somers, CC (September 11, 1925 – March 9, 1999) was the foremost English-Canadian composer of his period.
He was born in middle-class Toronto in 1925 but did not become interested in music until his early teenage years, when he met a doctor and his wife, both pianists, who introduced him to classical music. He started to compose at this time with virtually no formal theory or composition training.
In 1942, Somers came under the influence of John Weinzweig, an avant garde composer in a community which was still mired in 19th-century musical traditions. It was Weinzweig who set up a program of traditional harmony study for the young composer as well as introducing him to 12-tone techniques. (Schoenberg had enforced similarly strict lessons in traditional harmony upon his own pupils, even as he encouraged them to explore dodecaphony.)
After World War II, Somers continued his work with Weinzweig, culminating with a suite for string orchestra – North Country (1948).
There followed a period of study in Paris. It was there that Somers heard and was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen (although he was studying with the much more conservative Darius Milhaud). These composers would influence his later music.
Returning home to Toronto in 1950 Somers worked as a music copyist while he honed his compositional talents. By the 1960s he was able to support his family almost entirely by his composition. An important work from the 1950s was Five Songs for Dark Voice.
In the 1960s his music shifted toward atonality, however he never abandoned tonality. Works from this period include Five Concepts for Orchestra (1961) and Twelve Miniatures (1963), "Picasso Suite" (1964). Five Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (1969) shows him clearly working within the choral mainstream. These five accessible arrangements of Newfoundland folk songs have become popular with choirs around the world. Louis Riel, an opera written for the 1967 Canadian centennial, concerning the Métis leader who was executed in 1885, was one of Somers' major works of the sixties.
Somers had an eclectic, personal approach to 20th century styles and composed a large body of work that walked a fine line between an elite modernity and popular appeal. He was a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers, and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971.
- Zinck, Andrew M. 1993. "Bridging the Gap: The Operas of Harry Somers." SoundNotes. SN4:14-24.