Having welcomed the visitors on her doorstep, Violet Archer closes the door quickly behind them. Her concern, it turns out, is not so much keeping out the February cold as keeping in the two seven-month-old Siamese cats with whom she shares her home.
The cats, excited by the guests and the picture-making paraphenalia they bring with them, are not on their best behavior. It may also be that they are not finished letting their mistress know, in their feline way, that they were not pleased with her recent absence.
The professor emerita of music, who will celebrate her 80th birthday before the cats reach their first, has just unpacked following a trip to Burlington, Vermont, where she spent a week as visiting artist at an elementary school. And, while her travel bags may be put away, there is little chance of their gathering dust. At the end of March, Archer plans to be in Winnipeg, where her composition "Prairie Profiles" will be performed as part of a concert entitled "Earth Into Sky." In late May, she will head to Ottawa to take part in the annual conference of the Canadian University Music Society, which will award her a life membership.
From 27 July to 1 August, Archer will be back in Ontario as the resident composer at the Parry Sound Festival. The following week she flies to Alaska for an international festival and conference celebrating the work of women composers. Featured in the festival will be one of Archer's bigger works, "If the Stars are Burning."
Clearly, the cats are going to have to get used to her comings and goings.
Born in Montreal on 24 April 1913, Archer was a professional accompanist by the age of 17 and pursued her desire to compose music at McGill Conservatory, earning a teaching licentiate in piano in 1934 and a degree in composition in 1936. Her first orchestral composition was given its premiere performance by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1940, and she hasn't slowed down since. One of Canada's major contemporary composers, she now has more than 300 compositions to her credit.
Allan Bell, '74 BA,'80 MMus, a professor of music at the University of Calgary, describes Archer's output as "truly astonishing;" considering both its vastness and its all-inclusive nature — from two operas and large works for orchestra to short pieces for children. And, points out Dell, who was a student of Archer's at the University of Alberta, the work is always of high quality. "She has no lesser standard for her children's pieces than for her symphonic compositions," he says.
Bell is currently working on a biographical and analytical study of Archer's career and music, and he clearly finds much to admire. "Her music is expressive, intelligent, rigorous, emotional and adventurous," he says. He is also quick to praise her as an "extraordinary and influential" teacher.
Archer began teaching at McGill University in 1943, having studied composition with the renowned Hungarian composer Bela Bartok in New York the previous summer. In 1947, a scholarship took her to Yale University, where she studied for her master's degree under the composer Paul Hindemith. It was during this time that Archer, who came as a visiting music instructor, first taught at the University of Alberta. She returned in 1962, having in the meantime been resident composer at North Texas State College and an assistant professor of music at the University of Oklahoma.
Although she retired in 1978, Archer has regularly been invited back to campus to teach a variety of courses. She also continues to teach music and composition privately, mostly to gifted teenagers and young adults, but her youngest student is only five years old.
And, of course, she continues to compose.
Archer recently completed a set of six songs for children's voices and piano commissioned by the Alberta Kadale Association for its March 1993 annual conference. Her current writing projects include a series of works for wind instruments suitable for performance by students at the elementary and junior level. "There was nothing in contemporary idiom for students of this age," says the composer, who plans similar works for brass instruments.
Archer's largest commission at present comes from the Canada Council, which has commissioned a major work for classical accordian and orchestra. The composition is intended as a performance piece for the the Edmonton virtuoso accordianist Nelli Antoni Peruch,'70 BA, 74 MA.
While she credits Bartok and Hindemith with having greatly influenced her, Archer is recognized as being a writer with a strongly individual and Canadian flavor. Her contributions to 20th century music have been recognized with honorary degrees from the Universities of Calgary, Windsor, McGill and Mount Allison and an honorary fellowship in the Royal Canadian College of Organists.
Other major awards that have come Archer's way include the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, the Order of Canada, the $25,000 Sir Frederick Haultain Prize, and lifetime membership in the Academia Tiberina of Rome. She was chosen "Composer of the Year" by the Canadan Music Council in 1984 and received the Performing Rights Organization of Canada's Award for Outstanding Success in Concert Music, 1981.
An ornamental park in Edmonton has been named in her honor, as have the Canadian Music Centre's Prairie Regional Library in Calgary and the composition scholarship at the University of Alberta.
With this sort of recognition and her 80th birthday approaching, does Archer plan to slow down? Not a chance: "I've got so much to do ... still so much to do. There's no time to stop.
Published Spring 1993.