Updated September 23, 2021
Recognizing that Canadian Art Song Project has not programmed, commissioned or recorded any works by Black Canadian composers since our founding in 2011, I took time to explore some of the song repertoire that we have overlooked. I thought it might be useful for CASP to share what we have learned with other artists, teachers and those curious about the Canadian art song repertoire.
In truth, I have had difficulty finding song repertoire by Black Canadian composers. There are likely a number of reasons for this, including ongoing systemic discrimination towards people of colour in classical music globally, including in Canada. Additionally, this kind of search requires individuals to publicly self-identify as a member of the Black community, as this information has not historically been gathered and published in Canada.
A quick search of the Canadian Music Centre’s website and online database brings up only one Black composer: Oscar Peterson. It is important to note that the CMC relies on composers to apply to become associate composers in order to be listed. When searching for Black Canadian musicians in the Canadian Encyclopedia website, the only composer listed is Nathaniel Dett.
Nathaniel Dett (1882 – 1943) is probably Canada’s most celebrated Black composer of art music to date. I didn’t realize the extent of Dett’s piano / vocal repertoire, as I am most familiar with his choral works and was aware of some of his compositions for piano. But in conversation with Darryl Taylor, African American countertenor and founder of the African American Art Song Alliance, I was directed to an extensive listing of Dett’s compositions through the U.S. Library of Congress. I also found an extensive listing here, which includes almost 20 songs for voice and piano.
In further discussion with Taylor, I was introduced to Maria Thompson Corley. Dr. Corley is a Jamaican-born Canadian who is now based in the U.S. She was raised in Alberta and received both Masters and Doctorate degrees in piano performance from the Juilliard School. In addition to her performing she is a commissioned composer and arranger with works for solo voice / piano and chorus. Her works are best obtained by contacting her directly through her website: www.mariacorley.com.
Soprano Chantale Nurse brought my attention to a couple of other composers of song. Among them are conductor and composer Ted Runcie (b. 1970). Runcie was born in Jamaica and then moved to Toronto with his family when he was young. He studied composition and conducting at McGill University and has written several instrumental and choral works. Although much smaller in scope, Runcie does have some songs written for voice and piano and he has mentioned that he intends to write more. He currently resides and works in Taiwan.
David Bontemps (b. 1978) is a Haitian-born pianist and composer who has been based in Montréal since 2002. David has a number of works for voice and piano and his scores can be found through his website.
Rich Coburn is a freelance pianist, vocal coach, organist, arranger, and composer. He is a founding member of the vocal chamber ensemble Quintus 4. He also trains freelancers to improve their negotiation and communication. Rich recently founded BIPOC Voices, a developing online library of music for instruments and voice by BIPOC/IBPOC composers. He has written a well-crafted set of three songs.
Another wonderful addition to this group of art song composers is world class pianist Stewart Goodyear (b. 1978). His song compositions include settings of texts by Dorothy Parker and were premiered as part of a digital program at Tulsa Opera.
Two other composers who, to my knowledge, have not written for solo voice, but may be interested in future collaborations or commissions:
David Eastmond (b. 1981) holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Toronto, where he focused on clarinet, music education, composition and French language studies. He was a student of clarinet with Peter Stoll and of composition with Chan Ka Nin, John Hawkins, and Christos Hatzis.
Corie Rose Soumah (b. 1996) received a bachelor degree in composition at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal where she studied with composers Jimmie Leblanc and Nicolas Gilbert. Among many other recognitions, she is a prize winner of the 2019 SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers.
This is by no means an exhaustive search for all self-identified Canadian Black composers, but I hope that this is a start for those looking to amplify one segment of the underrepresented voices in the art song repertoire.
Please contact CASP if you know of other composers who should be added to this list or if you want to be in touch with us regarding this topic.
Co-Artistic Director of Canadian Art Song Project