November 27, 1998
Prolific composer one of Alberta's best-loved artists
by Geoff McMaster
Violet Balestreri Archer (b. 1913)
Dr. Violet Archer
Peers of Dr. Violet Archer say she cleared the way for female composers in this country at a time when they weren’t taken seriously. But the prolific composer has no recollection of blazing that particular trail. Her feeling has always been, music doesn’t recognize gender, so why should she?
"I was so deeply involved in music that I couldn’t spend time worrying about not being a man," she says. "The fact was I seemed to get along fine with male composers and male musicians."
Archer remains as productive as ever at 85, with 330 compositions to her credit and more on the way. Since her teenage years, she has been thinking in notes and scales, always far too busy to consider details like marriage and children.
"Violet Archer has been one of Canada’s most prolific and most performed composers since about 1950," says Dr. Fordyce Pier, chair of the University of Alberta’s music department. "Her music is characterized by great craft and an often almost overwhelming intensity and intellectual rigor."
Archer began playing piano at the age of eight and supported herself by accompanying voice teachers from the age of 17. It wasn’t until she went to McGill University to study music in the 1940s, however, that she got the itch to compose. The dean of the music faculty (also conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) tried to dissuade her from such a traditionally male pursuit but was obviously struck by her natural talent.
"I took my first orchestral piece to him, shaking in my boots," she told Encore Magazine in 1982. "He looked at it and said, ‘Well, perhaps we (the Montreal Symphony) can play it’. ..I just about collapsed on the spot!" The Scherzo Sinfonico premiered in Montreal in 1940, marking the start of a brilliant composing career.
After graduating from McGill, she went on to study with two of this century’s most celebrated composers—Bela Bartok in New York in 1942, and Paul Hindemith at Yale University in the late ’40s. She calls this period of her life "miraculous," adding that, to this day, "a vivid remembrance of those two teachers comes to my mind frequently." She was deeply impressed with Bartok’s orchestral arrangements of Hungarian folk music and found him surprisingly receptive to her creative ambitions.
"He didn’t terrify me," she says. "He was very pleasant and spoke very quietly." Archer would follow Bartok’s example by drawing on native Canadian folk songs for her own orchestral pieces. In her personal favourite symphony, the 1987 Evocations, she incorporated Inuit and West-Coast native themes into alternate movements.
By far her most profound influence, however, was Hindemith. "She rather worshipped the man and everything that he had taught her," says fellow composer Dr. Malcolm Forsyth. "And she always taught according to the precepts of Hindemith at the U of A. Her music has that kind of sound—slightly hard-edged...while still very melodic, and traditional in the sense of rhythmic patterns. This really forms the central part of her work."
Archer worked at several U.S. colleges in the 1950s. Besides writing more than 60 works during this period, she also diligently promoted Canadian music south of the border. Returning to Canada in the early ’60s, she joined the U of A’s music faculty in 1962 and established a teaching reputation every bit as impressive as her composition record. Her students use the phrase "tough love" to describe her pedagogical style.
"Entertainment and flattery were not on her agenda," wrote Dr. Brian Harris in a tribute to his instructor. "She was a strict disciplinarian, and fools, particularly lazy ones, were not tolerated gladly."
No doubt this recipient of six honorary degrees will be remembered 50 years from now for the "sheer weight" of her body of work, says Forsyth, which has so far been played in no less than 32 countries. She has composed symphonies, operas, choral pieces, songs, concertos, sonatas, and chamber music and has written for almost every instrument in the orchestra. Since the beginning of her career, she has also taken a keen interest in composing simple works for children, something not every composer is willing to do. She delights in the fact that two such early works, 10 Folk Songs for Four Hands (1950), and Three Scenes for Piano (1946) are still hugely popular among piano teachers.
"So few composers will actually write a simple piece for clarinet or bassoon or something," says Forsyth. "Young kids who play these instruments never get to understand the idioms and language of 20th century music. So that’s been a very big thing in her life."
As with all forms of art, it’s perhaps too early to say what Archer’s lasting legacy will be. It may take another 50 years, says Forsyth, for the world to rediscover the music that’s touched so many Canadians.
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