Canada has a wealth of classical music stemming from different musical traditions, inspiring natural landscapes, and the sounds of different cultural groups around the country. Yet despite being our neighbor to the north, Canadian composers aren’t all that well known in the United States.
Ahead of Canada Day on July 1st, we’ve picked 13 Canadian composers to highlight just some of the country’s fantastic musical heritage. Enjoy! And don’t forget to wish your Canadian friends a Happy Canada Day. [Skip to playlist]
1. Jean Coulthard
Considered one of the most influential composers from Canada’s west coast, Jean Coulthard (1908-2000) was a composer and educator known for her romantic, expressive style. Her commissioned works were performed for many occasions all over the world: from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the Vancouver Orchestra’s tour of East Asia.
2. Ian Cusson
Ian Cusson (1981- ) is a Canadian composer working at the nexus of two cultural perspectives: French-Canadian and Indigenous Métis. His musical works explore that intersection on both a personal and historical level, seeking out indigenous points of view, traditional sounds, and the influence of a 21st-century, Western environment. 2021 was a big year for Ian Cusson; he concluded his tenure as composer-in-residence for the Canadian Opera Company and was award with both the Jan V. Matejcek Classical Music Award and the Johanna Metcalf Performing Arts Prize.
3. Robert Nathaniel Dett
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was truly a jack of all trades: a teacher, pianist, choir director, poet, writer, and a composer to boot. Perhaps best known for being an avid advocate for African-American folk music, Dett’s compositions fuse traditions of European classical music with spirituals and other important folk melodies. His book The Emancipation of Negro Music won a literature prize at Harvard University (1920); he received honorary doctorates from Howard University and Oberlin College for his work in uplifting and preserving musical traditions.
4. David Foster
David Foster (1949- ) hails from British Columbia with ties to many areas of the music business: as a composer, singer, pianist, arranger, producer, and music executive. In the orchestral realm, he’s written concertos, film scores, and even the theme song for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
5. Vivian Fung
The music of JUNO-award winning composer Vivian Fung (1975- ) is deeply rooted in the exploration of naturally occurring sounds, from the use of cellphones in her piece about 21st century distractions (Earworms) to incorporating 3 ice blocks into a work about climate change (The Ice is Talking). Her works have been performed by many contemporary music groups around the world, including the Chicago Sinfonietta, Vancouver Symphony, and the Orchestre de Paris.
6. Nicole Lizée
Nicole Lizée (1973- ) has a style that is perhaps best described as half-electronic, half-acoustic. Her background as a filmmaker and DJ often comes into play when creating new works; disparate media like fragmented chunks of the earliest MTV video, electrical glitches, and fully notated DJ techniques are commonly placed in orchestral & other acoustic settings. Lizée’s impressive list of past commissioners include the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Symphony, and more.
7. Alexina Louie
Alexina Louie (1949- ) is one of Canada’s most versatile composers of contemporary art music. She has combined classical music and traditional Inuit throat singing in the Take the Dog Sled Suite; her debut opera, The Scarlet Princess, debuted to sold-out audiences in Toronto. From Sir Andrew Davis to Leonard Slatkin and more, Louie’s works have been performed by some of the world’s greatest musicians. Recently, Louie was presented with a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at the 2021 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.
8. Galt MacDermot
A Canadian-American composer, Galt MacDermot (1928-2018) was most successful in the world of musicals. He wrote the music for Hair (1967) alongside librettists James Rado and Gerome Ragini: a daring musical that caused controversy due to its use of profanity, nudity, and anti-war sentiments. Other works by MaDermot include the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the oft-sampled funk song, "Coffee Cold."
9. Oscar Peterson
As one of the most decorated jazz pianists of all time, the legacy of Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) legacy continues to impact generations of musicians. He released over 200 recordings and has received countless awards and honors. Peterson is known for championing both classical and jazz music, believing both to be integral to the development of a well-rounded pianist. In addition to his work as a performer, Peterson penned many works for jazz piano; his “Hymn to Freedom” (1962) became synonymous with the Civil rights movement of the 1960s.
10. R. Murray Schafer
A prolific writer as well and composer, R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021) was fascinated with the way sound waves behave in different spaces. One of his biggest endeavors — the World Soundscape Project — is an ongoing, international collaboration between researchers that focuses on ecologically balanced soundscapes: in other words, using naturally occurring sounds of a landscape to judge the health of an ecosystem through level of noise pollution, effects of noises on environment, and other factors. Schafer’s musical works also focus on sounds of nature, as well as the effects of dissonance as a musical texture.
11. Howard Shore
If you love the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, you have Howard Shore (1946- ) to thank. Shore has scored the soundtrack to the entire Lord of the Rings series, its sequel trilogy, The Hobbit, and 80 other movies & TV shows. This prolific composer even wrote music for Saturday Night Live, and an opera, The Fly.
12. Ana Sokolovic
Ana Sokolovic (1968- ) is a Serbian-Canadian composer who often creates contemporary instrumental and vocal works through a Balkan lens. She has been extremely active in the advancement of Canada’s contemporary music. In fact, her work has been so influential that on the twentieth anniversary of her 1992 immigration to Canada, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec celebrated her work with 200 events that took place all around the country!
13. Ann Southam
Ann Southam (1937-2010) fully embraced the use of electronics, sounds from vintage technologies, and unique textures in her definitively minimalist style of composition. She often worked closely with dance companies and choreographers, developing over 30 compositions for Toronto Dance Theater alone. Southam was also one of the first people to teach electroacoustic composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music.