Canadian composer and conductor Stephanie Martin is associate professor of music at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design; director of Schola Magdalena (a women’s ensemble for chant, medieval and modern polyphony,) conductor emeritus of Pax Christi Chorale; and past director of music at the historic church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto.
On that Sunday my ‘Missa Chicagoensis’ gets its Canadian premiere, conducted by Aaron James at the Oratory of Philip Neri on King street in Toronto. Up the street a ways, at the very same time, Matthew Whitfield conducts the Toronto premiere of my Pentecost motet ‘Dum complerentur’ at St. Thomas’ Anglican church on Huron street.
They say it never rains but it pours.
Both of these pieces were commissioned, recorded for Youtube and published by Fr Scott Haynes and his stellar choir at the church of St John Cantius in Chicago. I am so pleased that, after two years, they are coming home and being sung by two such accomplished choirs here in Toronto, under the direction of two such fine conductors.
I’d like to be in both places at once …
Here’s the video of ‘Dum complerentur’. The words describe how the Apostles are quietly gathered for the feast of Pentecost, when they suddenly hear the sound of a great wind from heaven, and tongues of fire flame up on their heads, and they can miraculously understand foreign languages. They are filled with the Spirit. For the premiere in Chicago our Toronto ensemble ‘Schola Magdalena’ joined with Fr Scott’s choir for this video, so you may see some familiar faces if you’re a Torontonian.
Caveat: The last line of this fine birthday song, written for Rob Castle, Cantor at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, long ago, needs no word of explanation for those of you familiar with the traditional, rousing, Toronto birthday toast, “Here’s to so and so: he’s a horse’s ass.”
No disrespect is intended.
In fact it’s a badge of honour – in certain circles – to receive this sobriquet from friends and family.
To further curate the text, please understand that ‘clivis’, ‘pes’ and ‘torculus’ are the names of neumes: musical signs used in the notation of Gregorian chant.
One last note. The tune “ST BASIL” was written by Healey Willan and is usually sung to the words ‘Immortal, invisible’ etc…
Rob’s 50th Birthday Paean sung to the tune ‘ST BASIL’
O Robert, we love you, though you’re very old.
We pledge you our friendship through Hot, Warm, and Cold.
You sing like an angel, you run like a fox,
And sometimes your thinking is outside the box.
Your sense of adventure can take you away
To distant locations: Shanghai or Taipei.
Your journeys are MARV’LOUS, yet sometimes you’re vexed
When monkeys alarm you and snatch off your specs.
Who would have predicted that you’d lead a choir
Of men in ecclesiastical attire?
Or that you’d drive speedily from York down to us
To croon out your clivis, pes and torculus?
Now this lovely quatrain has come to an end.
We wish you the best our dear, generous friend.
Your wonderful guests will now all raise a glass,
(rit…) And sing you this honour: “He’s a horse’s ass.”
I was shuffling my way to work in the freezing cold and suddenly realized I had forgotten to pack my lunch. Annoyed with myself, I stopped by a convenient and friendly little corner café to buy a sandwich.
As I watched the proprietor slowly assemble the required ingredients, toast the bread, spoon out the pre-made sandwich filling with an ice-cream scoop, apologize that I wouldn’t be getting any lettuce since the romaine had been recalled, squeeze out the mayo, and carefully cut the completed creation in half horizontally, I wondered “is this actually saving me any time at all,” and furthermore, “couldn’t I build my own sandwich for much less money, and cut it diagonally, as any civilized sandwich maker should?”
I decided to do the math and see how much my practice of making a homemade sandwich was actually saving me. I share it with you so you can make an educated lunch choice this week.
I have overheard math students on the subway to York U saying that it’s important to ‘show your work’ to get full marks – so here’s the calculation:
A loaf of bread contains about 20 slices of bread, so my math represents the portions required to make 10 egg salad sandwiches at home:
1 loaf of bread – $3.50 (this is Toronto, mind you)
1 carton of eggs – $3.50
6 tablespoons mayo – .$50
Quantity of diced onions – $.50
Total for 10 sandwiches = $8.00
If this math is about right, one egg salad sandwich produced at home costs about 80 cents. Compared to the café’s $6 concoction, I save $5.20 each time I russell up my own lunch at home.
So if I make my own lunch 5 days a week, and refrain from the temptation of buying the convenient café sandwich, I save $26 a week, $104 a month, probably pretty close to $1000 dollars a year, give or take.
I ran the numbers on a tuna fish sandwich and the savings are a bit more modest. But still.
This may be small potatoes, but imagine all the glorious things that can be done with a spare thousand dollars. Eh?
Seems when I have trouble in life, some Earthly Angel comes along to give me direction.
Such an EA (Earthly Angel) descended last month, shortly after my Dad died.
Catherine Daniel has been busy travelling and singing Wagner, Strauss and other big opera roles. She also takes time to develop new Canadian works of a more modest nature. If you attended the workshop of our opera Llandovery Castle you would have heard her creating the role of Margaret Marjory “Pearl” Fraser in June of this year.
Cathy asked me to arrange a hymn for her upcoming recording project Sacred Christmas.
Her request was the hymn ‘Picardy’ to the well-known text ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ which happened to be a favourite hymn of mine since I was a kid. So I jumped to the task Cathy had set for me – an a cappella arrangement for 8 voices, SATB/SATB. I felt completely at home working this out.
I have found in the last 7 years, focussing on a detailed, intricate task gives my scattered brain focus, an aching heart relief.
While I was working away on Cathy’s project, I realized there was more to this job. I realized I was actually writing in memory of my Dad, and that Cathy Daniel was, de facto, my EA.
Thanks Cathy, and all the best on your recording project and for allowing me to share this music.
My Dad passed away last week. Friends and family sent him to his eternal rest yesterday with a service in his country church, filled with lusty hymn singing and thoughtful words. I’d like to share my brother Kevin’s eulogy, reprinted here verbatim. Rest in Peace, Abner Martin.
Our family thanks every one for your attendance here today and for the many expressions of sympathy and tributes to dad that we have received.
My Father suggested that I might, possibly make a few remarks on his life at his funeral. He had strong ideas about funerals; that they should be for worship of God, a meditation on the meaning of our lives and the life beyond and for sure he didn’t want his funeral to be a celebrity roast. Many of you will know him from his musical life; I believe he wanted me to talk mostly about the other sides of his life. So I will speak of his health, family, farming and faith and a few facts you may not know.
I speak of his health because it seemed to his children that poor health played a large part of Dad’s life and character development. He suffered Crohn’s disease from young adulthood and in debilitating periods he was often hospitalized. The treatment of heavy doses of steroids was nearly as bad as the disease. When he was 50 he had most of his intestine removed. Nine years later he suffered a major heart attack. And in this last year and a half he experienced declining function of his liver and kidney. So many of his accomplishments were achieved while experiencing a lot of physical and emotional pain; he had a significant amount of courage and a strong will. We children will acknowledge that he was very strong willed. Many people have said that Dad was very engaging in conversation. I think we found many of his conversations to be quite one-sided. I should say that for most of his last 20 years he was in surprising good health and enjoyed it with great appreciation.
He was born at his parents Annanias and Susannah’s farm which is just kitty corner to the church here. If you would make the short walk to Lakeshore Optimist Park you’ll see the foundation of the Martin farmhouse re-asserting itself and you can find the exact spot where Abner, his brothers and sisters, and his father before him, were born.
His family, until the time of Abner’s birth, were members of the Old Order Mennonites that met at Martin’s Meeting House. Noteworthy, the last 5 years that they attended there, Annanias drove his car to church when all other members drove horses; an illustration of the rebellious side of this branch of the Martin family. They attended St. Jacobs Mennonite Church thereafter and he had opportunities to develop music leadership skills; as a song leader and a junior choir director when he was 15. But his first foray into conducting was actually at Martin’s schoolhouse where, in grade 2, he lobbied hard to be given the baton to lead the school rhythm band.
A story to illustrate what it was like to grow up in the Martin family in that era. We children first heard this story from other relatives about 20 years ago; Dad confirmed the details and told it himself with increasing relish and embellishment in more recent years. One wintery Saturday afternoon when Annanias and Susannah had gone to town, Lloyd, 14, and Abner, 8, decided to harness a Holstein heifer to a sleigh and train her to pull them about. It didn’t go so well for Lloyd and Abner; control was soon lost, and the heifer dashed about the yard, over the barn hill, and towards a partly open stable door. At this point Abner could see what was coming and bailed out, while Lloyd tried valiantly to rein in the beast. The heifer sped through the door; Lloyd and the sleigh did not. When their parents returned from town, and Annanias stood, surveying the wreckage, with great mystification, Abner ran forth to say, “You can’t blame this all on Lloyd. This was the heifer’s fault”.
Annanias and Susannah sent their 3 youngest children to Rockway Mennonite High School where Abner participated in activities including male quartet, mixed octet and choirs. A precocious lad, he was also served as president of the student council while in grade10. Of course, the most important accomplishment of his Rockway years was meeting and falling in love with our mother, Shirley. Since those early days she has always been his greatest supporter and advocate, the strength that held our family together , in good times and the worse times and especially in sickness and in health.
After Rockway, not yet 18, he headed to Goshen College in Indiana. It made news back home in Waterloo County when he was selected, in his freshman year, as the baritone soloist with the Elkhart Symphony in Brahms’s Requiem. After 2 years at Goshen, Love called him home and he and Shirley were married in July, 1955. That same year he had an idea to start a choir that would sing sacred music not “usually covered “in the Ontario Mennonite churches. Shirley suggested they could be called Menno Singers. He led the choir while completing degrees at University of Toronto. Always in a hurry it seems, by the time he was 24 he had 2 children, a high school teaching job and had purchased a house in Tillsonburg. A few years later it was back to Waterloo to teach at Waterloo Collegiate and then after his parent’s farm had been sold, but before it was developed into Lakeshore Village North, to the home farm.
My father and I farmed together for about 40 years; we started when I was 7. We would buy beef calves from the West and feed them over the autumn and winter months in the old dairy barn and sell them in the spring. During those summers Abner studied for a master’s degree at Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY. Importantly, among those western calves were a few straw-colored animals who always grew faster than the others; these calves were cross-bred Charolais, a breed from France and rare in Eastern Canada. After doing careful research, in 1968 we bought our first 4 purebred Charolais cows.
One of his professors at Eastman, George Proctor, had become head of Music at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick; he invited Abner to apply for a position there. Abner interviewed, accepted the job offer, and bought a house, sight unseen by Mom and moved his family east. We arrived on a cold, grey day in August with ominous clouds building above the vast Tantramar marshes. How could our father have torn us away from bucolic Waterloo County to grow up in this desolate swampland? Audible sobs were heard from three corners of our automobile. (Even the Charolais cows had been allowed to stay behind in Waterloo).
And yet those were 4 of the best years of our family experience. Every member seemed to thrive, with both parents conducting choirs and being involved in the university and wider community and the children developing their own musical, scholastic and athletic talents with camping and hiking trips to explore the geography and folklore of the Maritimes. And too, there was a long line of friends and relatives from Ontario who came for a visit or dropped in while passing through.
During our Maritime sojourn we can also see another example of his boundless courage; in the summer of 1972 Dad was studying with some eminent conductors in Europe and took our entire family with him for 3 months. We visited the art
galleries, concert halls, museums, castles and cathedrals. We travelled with an early version of ‘Tourmagination’ and learned about our Anabaptist roots. We were even wined and dined by the French Association of Charolais breeders who must have been under the mistaken impression we were there to buy some expensive French cattle.
In 1973, Abner decided if he was ever to realize his childhood dream of raising Holsteins it was time to make another move, this time to a beautiful farm near Atwood Ontario. It helped that he had a captive workforce of teenagers. During the next 23 years he took great satisfaction from working the land and raising dairy cows; our family expanded with children-in –law and 3 grandchildren. Dad took delight in coaching his grandkids to show their 4H calves and supporting another generation of musical talent. The early years on the farm were also the Mennonite Mass Choir years; Dad had come back from the east with a great vision for spreading good choral practice throughout the community. A favourite memory; after the concerts, the huge choirs and camaraderie and post-concert celebrations we would make our way home and Dad would head out to the barn in his formal conducting wear to make a last check on the cows. Due to his health problems he gave up leadership of Menno Singers and Mass choir n 1979. His professional musical accomplishments were done at age 44.
Finally, a few words about Abner’s Christian faith. Over the years he held membership in Mennonite churches at St. Jacobs, Listowel and Waterloo North. He valued the community he experienced in each place. A memory from Listowel; he was having one of his bouts with Crohn’s and 17 members of the congregation showed up with tractors and plows to complete our fall plowing in one morning. We attended the United church in Sackville and later Dad grew to really appreciate the ritual of the Anglo/Catholic tradition and the Matins service here. He marked as important accomplishments collaborations with several Catholic churches and in presenting Ernest Bloch’s Jewish Sacred Service. He served the wider Mennonite church as a member of the Bi-national Commission on Christian Education in the 60’s, and trained up a good many congregational song leaders. He taught Sunday School lessons. All indications of a man of faith and a respecter of tradition and authority even if he could be somewhat rebellious. In his view, if you wanted to challenge tradition and authority you should make sure your arguments were sound and solid.
In his personal faith though he could be inscrutable and oblique. In family discussions he might say, “I’m not telling you what you have to believe”, and when pressed, often by Cori, he might give examples of how the church’s understanding of a faith concept had changed and evolved, and finally when there was no way out he could say,” I’ll keep with those who search for Truth and be careful of those who have found it”. In his last months he thought much about faith and doubt versus certainty; at the same time he become somewhat mystical in his understanding and in his last few days he received a transcendent experience that pointed to a beautiful adventure yet to come. He died with a peaceful spirit.
Sometimes in our teenage years our family would gather around the piano and sing together. We were a little taken aback when Abner introduced the hymn “Sometimes a Light Surprises” to us and said that it was a fair statement of his faith. The writer William Cowper was a strong evangelical believer and like our dad suffered from serious health issues. Cowper himself had periods of deep depression and grave doubt about his own salvation. Dad could identify with the idea of discovering faith and healing while singing and that music could express truth beyond the meaning of words. The remaining verses of the hymn speak to other aspects of spiritual life and the flocks and herds mentioned in verse 4 are understood to be Charolais or Holsteins. We’ll be singing this hymn according to the previous red Mennonite Hymnal version; the one dad taught us.
As we sing this hymn together you might imagine the Abner Martin family gathered together in our little, lonely Mennonite outpost beside the great salt water marsh in New Brunswick learning our father’s faith. But, remember to watch your phrasing, diction, and breathing.
Thank you again for being here today.
The cat looks me straight in the eye
With her wide cat’s eyes; big, round, green, and slightly wild.
I’m on a stool in the kitchen, after day’s long work,
Finishing my humble dinner, listening to CBC radio.
The cat assesses the situation.
I am stationary – quietly eating.
She fervently desires to jump up and dine with me.
Adjusting paws, dodging head side to side,
Preparing hairy limbs to shoulder the leap,
Whiskers twitching, striped, serpentine tail twisting,
She covets my higher position.
But is the risk too great?
She looks me up and down, sideways, crosswise, backward and forward.
‘Should I jump?’ her tiny feline mind is calculating.
Just as I turn to take a sip,
She aborts the mission,
Saunters casually away,
As if she never even cared.
My imaginary friends Stephanus and Maximus often help me work things out. They usually time-travel between a medieval university and ancient Rome, but here they are in present day Toronto, and they’ve just attended the new opera HADRIAN
Stephanus: Thank you once again Maximus for inviting me to the opera!
Maximus: My pleasure Stephanus. I’ve been a devoted Operagoer all my long life, so it’s nice to share this with a younger person. I do hope you enjoyed it?
Stephanus: Y- yes. But my head is still spinning. I’m not sure I understand the message. Hadrian makes a bargain with the gods. He gets to go back in time and spend two precious days with his lover, but after that, he must sign a contract to massacre the Jews? Any musician knows, if you play the gig before the contract is signed, you’re in for trouble.
Maximus: Ha ha. Quite true Stephanus. But there’s more here than meets the eye. Many clever layers of meaning. Did you feel that Antinous was a Christ figure?
Stephanus: You may have attended opera all your life, but I went to Sunday school! I get the mash up of Biblical and pagan allusion. I recognize the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ Antinous leaps up to an elevated position, and preaches about forgiving your enemies. Then Turbo betrays Antinous, the sacrificial lamb, with a kiss before wringing his neck. But why would a Christ figure sacrifice himself to save the man who would murder his own people? Then again…
Maximus: Very well, enough theology. What about the music?
Stephanus: That powerful orchestra was absolutely thrilling, although sometimes I couldn’t hear the singers. I’m curious about the love scene. In every other opera I’ve seen, the lovers are actually singing to each other. Here there was only the orchestra and choreography. The review in the Star said that was unnecessarily over-done.
Maximus: There’s more here than meets the ear. I believe this passage is a homage to Murray Schafer.
Stephanus: Murray who?
Maximus: Honestly Stephanus, sometimes I wonder how you were brought up! Schafer is the most Canadian of all Canadian composers, and Wainwright’s love scene is a musical allusion. Those luminous sustained strings and that slowly unfolding two note theme draw on the model of Schafer’s ‘Apocalypsis: Credo’. It’s another clever layer of meaning. The text of ‘Credo’ is by the 16th-century astronomer Giordano Bruno. The unsung text “Lord God is universe” is a subconscious commentary on the words of librettist Daniel MacIvor – ‘Antinous is my God’ – in other words, for Hadrian, Antinous was everything. The whole universe.
Stephanus: That music was peaceful and other-worldy. Yet the gentleman beside me was squirming – I think he was uncomfortable during that scene.
Maximus: Ha! Was he also uncomfortable when two characters were murdered before our eyes? Why should an expression of tenderness be more offensive than brutal violence? Was this more disturbing than common place scenes in opera? Dulcinea, violently raped on stage; Carmen, Lucretia, Wozzeck’s Marie, brutalized by men; Dido, Tosca, Butterfly committing suicide! Yet rarely is there a warning to audiences that they might be offended.
Stephanus: So is this a big deal? Is this the first gay Canadian opera?
Maximus: Oh far from it. Brad Walton had a 35-year lead on Rufus Wainwright when he wrote his own libretto and music for ‘The Loves of Wayne Gretzky’ a brilliant opera that will never see the MainStage while its superstar protagonists are all still extant. Tapestry Opera and several of Toronto’s 14 independent opera companies nurture queer operatic works. But this is the first on the COC stage – the most prestigious venue for such things, so you are correct Stephanus. It is a big deal. It’s the first Canadian opera commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company this century.
Stephanus: So, if this opera is so important, and we loved the music so much, why are people so uptight and critical about it?
Maximus: Well Stephanus, that is because Rufus Wainwright is rich and famous. It’s easy to throw stones at a giant. They provide such an easy target.
This June our new opera Llandovery Castle was mounted in a workshop production, commemorating the nurses, doctors, medics, staff and crew of the Canadian hospital ship torpedoed in the Celtic Sea on June 27, 1918.
Alisa Siegel created a documentary about this WWI tragedy for Michael Enright’s CBC radio show, The Sunday Edition. Our two workshop performances at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Toronto had full houses. And thanks to that strong audience, generous donors, and a Canada Council grant, we also had financial success.
Now we want to share the highlights with you. Thanks to videographer Darren Bryant and Limberlost Films you can watch a summary of our 80 minute opera in just 8 minutes.
Best wishes for those going back to school, church choir, community singing – whatever your thing is, I hope you feel all the energy and goodwill that singing brings.
Occasionally an email or FB message will come my way from a distraught music director looking for repertoire. Sometimes they are even looking for my music! So this blog is a guide of where to find my published pieces.
Biretta Books in Chicago have been a splendid patron, commissioning, recording and publishing new liturgical works mostly in Latin. These works are written for the professional choir at St. John Cantius church in Chicago, like Missa Chicagoensis, a complete SATB setting of the Latin mass, motets for Christ the King, Christmas, Palm Sunday, Ascension, Pentecost and Compline, as well as Requiem for All Souls, commissioned by Ruben Valenzuela in San Diego. Fr Scott Haynes and his musicians are doing great things for Canadian music – they also publish many works by Healey Willan that have fallen out of print.
Renforth Music in Halifax has my anthology Sacred Songs for Small Choirs which provides simple canons, additive canons and flexible music designed around the church year. It also contains the song I wrote in a workshop with residents of the new Toronto YWCA.