125 Quatuor Despax

Cendrine Despax, Jean Despax, violins; Maxime Despax, viola; Valérie Despax, cello

Quatuor Despax

With mentors Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, and Brian Manker, cello | Students from R.H. King Collegiate enjoyed the concert

November 17, 2022 | 1.30 pm | Walter Hall, U of T

Tuning Your Mind | 12.15 | Walter Hall, U of T

Music historian Robin Elliott
Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899) and the WMCT’s first 25 years

WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives

For this special season, WMCT artistic director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series that constitutes a reflection upon the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. To accomplish all of this within just five concerts, he has divided that 125-year span into five 25-year blocks. As 25 years is the length of a generation, Simon had the additional creative idea of including, in each concert, musicians who are in a mentor/mentee relationship, thus reflecting the past, present and future of the invited guest artists, as well as of the WMCT itself. For each concert, an anchor work is drawn from one of the five 25-year blocks of time, which provides an opportunity to reflect upon that period in WMCT and world history. Here is some historical background on the first period.

1. 1899 to 1923          

Concert 2: Quatuor Despax, 17 November 2022

Anchor work: Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), 1899

When plans were laid in 1898 for the founding of the WMCT, Queen Victoria, the only monarch Canadians had known since Confederation, had reigned for more than 60 years; in 1896 she had become the longest-reigning British monarch, surpassing her grandfather George III. Canada was a proud Dominion and a loyal member of the British Empire, on which “the sun never set,” so extensive were its constituent global possessions.

Exactly one month before the inaugural WMCT recital, Canada issued the world’s first Christmas stamp, on which the territories of the British Empire were shown in red. “We hold a vaster empire than has been,” boasted the text at the bottom of the stamp. The phrase is a quotation from “A Song of Empire,” a jingoist poem written by Sir Lewis Morris in 1887 for the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. “Nigh half the race of man is subject to our Queen,” the poem continues, “Nigh half the wide, wide world is ours in fee, and where her rule comes, all are free.” Or so it seemed to those safely ensconced at the heart of the empire.

The first WMCT recital was given in a music studio in the Yonge Street Arcade in Toronto on January 23, 1899. Two years later to the day, the front page of the Globe newspaper announced the death of Queen Victoria. News of this momentous event reached Canada almost immediately, thanks to the transatlantic telegraph cables that had been in operation since the 1860s. The worldwide reaction in September 2022 to the death of Queen Elizabeth II gives us some idea of how people experienced the death of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, 121 years earlier. Much of public life in Canada ground to a halt for the two weeks between Queen Victoria’s death and her funeral on February 2nd, 1901, followed by her burial two days later. Public buildings were draped in black, businesses were closed, concerts and other public events were cancelled. The WMCT, though, was quick to resume activities after the official period of mourning was over: a recital of music by Liszt and Wagner was held on February 7th, 1901, just three days after the Queen’s interment.

The death of Queen Victoria was the signal event of the beginning of this 25-year period, but the First World War was the cataclysmic tragedy that left its permanent, indelible mark on this period of world history, shaking Western civilization to its very foundations. The modern technology of military weaponry, combined with the horrors of trench warfare, resulted in an unthinkable level of carnage on the European battlefields. To mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017, I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy (1986), a memorable and harrowing account that describes in unforgettable, haunting detail what it was like to be a foot soldier on the front lines.

Relying on the memoirs of Claude Williams, a 21-year-old medical student from Hamilton at the time of the Vimy battle, Berton writes: “The scenes of death on all sides were not heroic but sickening. Williams passed one man lying in a deep shell hole crying “Water! Water!” The top of his head had been blown off, exposing his brain. Fraser noted it too, and couldn’t help thinking that the brains looked rather like fish roe. That sort of thing was never shown in Victorian paintings of gallant officers expiring slowly in the arms of their comrades … Never again would war be referred to as ‘noble’.” By the end of the war, more than 65,000 Canadians would die in service, about ten percent of those who served; more than 172,000 were wounded. Timothy Findley captured the psychological and physical brutality of the conflict in his novel The Wars (1977), viewing the horrors of the “war to end all wars” through the eyes of Robert Ross, a fictional 19-year-old Canadian soldier. The novel was subsequently made into a movie in 1983, for which Glenn Gould provided the music.

While information on WMCT recitals is somewhat spotty during this period, especially for the initial years of the First World War, we do have a sufficient record of activities to know that the club managed to continue its recitals throughout the war. The club could point to its fund-raising activities, which included an $8,000 donation to the Red Cross, as proof of its relevance during the time of war. During this time, the WMCT was gradually transforming from a mainly private club that offered recitals by its members, to an organization presenting concerts by professional musicians (male and female) from Canada and abroad. The wartime fund-raising efforts benefitted from this new professionalization of the WMCT’s events.

The 15-storey Traders Bank tower at 67 Yonge Street (built 1905–06 and still standing).

Toronto experienced a striking period of growth and transformation during the first 25 years of the WMCT. In 1898, the city’s sidewalks were made of wood and illuminated at night by gas lamps. With the introduction of cheap electricity generated by Niagara Falls in 1911, the last gaslights were replaced by electric lighting. Over the next twenty years wooden sidewalks were replaced too, initially by asphalt and brick ones, and then by concrete beginning in the 1920s. Cheap electric power led not just to brighter and safer streetscapes, but also to economic growth. By 1911, manufacturing was the largest source of employment in Toronto, attracting workers from surrounding rural areas and contributing to the growth of the city’s population, which more than doubled in size during this period, from about a quarter of a million in 1898 to over half a million in 1921 (the growth partly resulted from the annexation of adjacent suburban areas). Despite the growth in population, however, the city remained predominantly white and Anglo; as late as 1931, over 80% of the inhabitants still self-identified as being of British origin. The TTC, formed in 1921, took over private rail lines and began to establish a robust public transportation network. Cars quickly became a prominent feature on city streets; by 1913 there were already 44 car dealers in the city … but there were also 50 carriage services and livery stables, so automobiles had to share the road with horses until at least the 1940s. A series of steel-frame skyscrapers in the downtown core transformed the cityscape dramatically, with each new project aspiring to the title of “Tallest Building in the British Empire.”

Music education in Toronto was dominated by the Toronto Conservatory of Music, incorporated in 1886 and located on the southwest corner of University Avenue and College Street from 1897 to 1963; it would acquire the rival Canadian Academy of Music in 1924. WMCT concerts were held in the concert hall of the TCM off and on from 1903 until 1929. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music was created in 1918 but did not move to its current home until the Edward Johnson Building opened in 1962 (the WMCT began holding its recitals in Walter Hall in the EJB in 1985). Other major cultural institutions founded during these years were the Royal Ontario Museum (1912), the Ontario College of Art (also 1912), and the Art Museum of Toronto (1900; renamed the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1919 and the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966). Coverage of the city’s artistic life was provided by local newspapers and the weekly magazine Saturday Night (founded in 1887) as well as Maclean’s, founded in 1911 with ambitions to become the leading English language newsmagazine in Canada. The city’s first permanent movie theatre opened on Yonge Street in 1906; many cinemas employed substantial instrumental ensembles during the 1920s to provide the soundtrack for silent films, until the introduction of “talkies” in 1927. At the very end of this 25-year period, radio broadcasting became a significant part of Toronto’s soundscape. Radio station CFCA, owned by the Toronto Daily Star, went on the air in 1922. Musical performances were a mainstay of the station from the start; a performance by local musicians including the cellist Boris Hambourg and the pianist Alberto Guerrero on 28 March 1922 was one of the first live music broadcasts in Canada.

The last great representatives of late Romantic European music died just before or during the first half of this era: Anton Bruckner and Clara Schumann (both in 1896), Johannes Brahms (1897), Giuseppe Verdi (1901), Antonín Dvořák (1904), Edvard Grieg (1907), and Gustav Mahler (1911). In their wake, new styles and idioms of composition would soon arise, some of which audiences found perplexing and disturbing. The anchor work for this first 25-year period this season is the sumptuous Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), composed for string sextet in 1899 (the same year the WMCT began giving recitals) by Arnold Schoenberg. Written in a rich, late-Romantic idiom, Verklärte Nacht remained Schoenberg’s most popular work during his lifetime and beyond, both in its original string sextet scoring and in a later version (1917) for string orchestra. The work was premiered in 1902 in Vienna by the Rosé Quartet and friends. It was heard in a WMCT concert by the local de Kresz Little Symphony, led by the violinist Géza de Kresz, in 1934.

It was Schoenberg, though, who would lead the way towards daring new harmonic and expressive resources in European music with his first atonal works beginning in 1908, written in a highly dissonant idiom in which a tonal centre is not present and there are no consonant chords. He went on to systematize a method for writing music in which no tonal centre could be heard, by ordering the twelve chromatic pitches into repeating tone rows so that in theory each pitch would occur with equal frequency. The bewilderment with which the atonal music of Schoenberg and his pupils was received led him to create the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (‘Society for private musical performances’) in Vienna, in which new music could be carefully prepared and presented to sympathetic listeners (mostly other professional musicians who were members of the Society). Schoenberg’s Society presented 117 concerts from December 1918 to December 1921, when it was forced to shut down for financial reasons.

Ad for a concert in which Emmy Heim sang works by Schoenberg and Mahler in Vienna on 28 April 1915. Heim also sang works by Stravinsky for Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in 1919. She first appeared in Toronto in 1934 and moved to the city in 1946, teaching here until her death in 1954.

The musical life of Toronto during these years was quite conservative on the whole, but there were some surprisingly innovative events, such as a performance of music by Schoenberg given by local musicians in 1915. The work heard on that occasion was the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (1905), played by the Academy String Quartet led by the Viennese-born violinist Luigi von Kunits, who in 1922 became the founding conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra, which was renamed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1927. Schoenberg’s first quartet was heard again in Toronto 20 years later, when the Hart House String Quartet, led by Géza de Kresz, gave the work on 14 April 1935 (a year after de Kresz’s performance of Verklärte Nacht for the WMCT). “As the quartet played this work it was difficult to understand the polemical demonstration which is said to have greeted the first performance in 1907,” wrote Pearl McCarthy the next day in the Mail and Empire newspaper. “To understand its mathematics is undoubtedly a task beyond the average music lover, but to listen modestly and take what comes is an enriching experience.” I am confident that this season’s audience will also find listening to Schoenberg to be an “enriching experience” when the Quatuor Despax and guests perform Verklärte Nacht for us on 17 November 2022.

What tumultuous times the WMCT witnessed during its first 25 seasons. But somehow the club continued its operations throughout it all, dedicating its services to the war effort and emerging with renewed strength as the Roaring Twenties began. Little could anyone anticipate in 1923 that even worse troubles lay in store for the next 25 years.

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