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A musical tribute to Canada

[Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, painted by Maxwell Newhouse]
Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, painted by Maxwell Newhouse.

Over the years, John Burge, composer and professor of composition and theory at the Dan School of Drama and Music, has created several pieces that bring various aspects of the Canadian experience to life.

His latest work pays tribute to Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation and is a joint commission by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYOC), the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and The Kingston Symphony Orchestra. It is called Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, and it’s based upon four paintings of the same name created by Maxwell Newhouse in 1975 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Canadian flag.

The original artwork focuses attention on the iconic maple leaf in the centre of the Canadian flag as it progresses through the four seasons: beginning in full summer splendor with the normal rending of the flag; the leaf falling in the autumn canvas; absent in winter; and returning anew in spring as a small sprig.

Not a complex painting perhaps, but the impact is clear.

IN HIS OWN WORDS
For more on the creative process and inspiration behind John Burge’s composition Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, read his first-hand reflection published in The Conversation.

“It’s such a simple concept,” Dr. Burge says, “but one that resonates deeply with many people who view it for the first time.”

Dr. Burge was tasked with writing two versions of the piece – one for a large Romantic orchestra and another for a smaller orchestra. Written together, Dr. Burge has spent much time over the past two and a half years creating the piece to reflect the artwork and meet the requirements of the commissioners.

Mr. Newhouse has shown complete support for Burge’s musical interpretation of his artwork and even painted two new smaller versions of Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag for Dr. Burge, including one that currently adorns the wall of his office in Harrison-LeCaine Hall. Throughout the music-writing process, actually having the artwork at hand provided many points of inspiration as well as a reminder of the task ahead.

“I don’t think Max intended this, but the subconscious effect of having his artwork in my home and university office meant that every time I looked at the painting, I was reminded that I had to get composing the music even if I really didn’t have time on that particular day to work it,” he says. 

The smaller orchestra piece premiered on May 13 in Saskatoon, while the Kingston performance is set for October 22 at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. The NYOC will perform the larger scoring of the piece three times during its summer tour: July 20 in Stratford; July 23 in Montreal (which will be recorded by CBC for broadcast on a later date); and August 13 in Nanaimo. 

After taking in the premiere performance in Saskatchewan, Dr. Burge feels confident that the message that he found in the painting comes through in the music as well.

“Canada is a big country with lots of nationalities, ethnicities, and Indigenous peoples, and yet in composing this work I was struck with the thought that there are perhaps two things underlying the music that most Canadians can agree upon," he says. "First, there is a strong sense of pride in the maple leaf as a beautiful emblem for our country. Secondly, we seem preoccupied with the weather and, by extension, the changing seasons. Dealing with the environment and making the most of what can be both a harsh and nurturing climate seems a particularly Canadian trait. To have a piece of music that combines the flag with the seasons is, I think, a perfect pairing.”

Dr. John Burge

And while it was a labor of love there were challenges along the way.

Foremost, Dr. Burge explains, is that the piece could not be longer than 20 minutes in order to fit the NYOC’s programming demands. With four movements in the range of five minutes each, he struggled to meet the target and with the deadline just months away he still had too much music. 

Then he had a breakthrough.

“It was around Christmas time, and I still had all the sketches spread out on my piano. I had been playing through the piece for six months, basically finished, and I still had a minute and a half to two minutes extra,” he says. “I just knew that I had to go back and make cuts – an often painstaking process for any artist. The 'eureka' moment occurred when I realized that since summer is the most precious and shortest time that we experience, I had to make it the shortest movement as well. Instead of making little cuts to all four movements I took a big pair of scissors to summer which now clocks in at three minutes and 30 seconds, or even shorter if the conductor and players are really inspired to play quickly. As a result, I could keep the slightly longer movements that remained intact and the entire piece takes just under 20 minutes. If I’m proud of anything it’s that I was able to make the piece stay within the 20-minute goal.”

For more information about the musical creation of Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, visit John Burge’s website. 

The July 23 Montreal performance at Maison Symphonique will be streamed live and later archived on CBC.