Remembering R. Murray Schafer

(Published with permission of Jon Washburn and Vancouver Chamber Choir)

In my 48 years as conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir, my greatest privilege was to be a colleague, friend and champion of the great and genius Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. “Our Murray Schafer”, as we often thought of him, revolutionized choral music and choral notation during that time and we were honoured to partner with him in so much of it.
Between 1971 and 2019, we sang, toured and recorded 478 performances of 29 choral works large and small by Schafer —

Miniwanka, Gita, Gamelan, Epitaph for Moonlight, A Garden of Bells, Felix’s Girls, Snowforms (2 versions), Fire, Psalm, Magic Songs, The Star Princess and the Waterlilies, Sun, Lu-li-lo-la, Once on a Windy Night, Beautiful Spanish Song, A Medieval Bestiary, Seventeen Haiku, The Enchanted Forest, Vox Naturae, Alleluia, The Fall into Light, Hear the Sounds Go Round, Three Hymns (from The Fall into Light), Imagining Incense, Rain Chant, Chant for the Winter Solstice, Narcissus and Echo
and, lastly, The Love that Moves the Universe.

Conductor, Composer, Raconteur and Champion of Canadian music John Washburn

Twelve of these works were commissioned and premiered by the Vancouver Chamber Choir. We sang the masterwork A Garden of Bells an astounding 86 times and the audacious Once on a Windy Night 46 times. The Love that Moves the Universe, a sublime work for chorus and orchestra became the title piece of our fourth and last all-Schafer CD recording and the focus of our Schafer/85 Birthday Celebration in July 2018.

Over the years, Murray spent a lot of time with me and the choir, including most of the CD recording sessions. He would sit in on rehearsals for premieres and special events like the 12 all-Schafer concerts at EXPO86 in Vancouver, fine tuning occasional details and once asking us to invent words that he could use in his next piece.

He joined the Choir in Helsinki, Finland in 1992 for another all-Schafer concert and two joint workshops, as part of Erkki Pohjola’s first remarkable International Choral Espoo festival. In the new century the VCC joined him and other Canadian professional choirs for several collaborative events in Toronto sponsored by Lawrence Cherney’s Soundstreams organization. And we shared Murray’s repertoire and events with our sister organization in Japan, the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus and its conductor Chifuru Matsubara, who is a major Schafer supporter.

I think that time will prove that singing, recording and championing Murray’s ground-breaking choral music was among the highest contributions the Vancouver Chamber Choir and I made to the Choral Art – local, national and international – during the years that I was privileged to conduct them. To me personally, it was a wonderful chance to know and work together with a truly creative genius, and to help him leave his unique stamp on the musical history of our country and our era. I miss him tremendously already, but look forward to November of this year, when the Choir and I – pandemic allowing – will sing our last premiere of a never-before-heard work by the late and lamented R. Murray Schafer.

Jon Washburn
16 August, 2021