Devilled Swan


Devilled Swan was commissioned by John Beckwith, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, on the event of his receipt of the Toronto Arts Award for music in 1994 from the Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto.  It was premiered by Arraymusic on June 27, 1995.

Devilled Swan is based on the late 18th-century hymn tune China, by Timothy Swan, a highly esteemed American hymnodist who also had a reputation for hard living.  China was immensely popular throughout most of the 19th century, especially at funerals, but it virtually disappeared from use thereafter.  It is in recognition of Professor Beckwith's devotion to hymn scholarship that I use it, or rather abuse it.  Swan's quirky, leaping melody is progressively squashed flatter and flatter, and the chorale’s inner voices become unrecognizably chromatic, while the rhythmically lively sections of the opening collapse into stasis.  It is a kind of musical vivisection of the hymn.  In part, this is a reaction against the text, which tells us not to mourn the dead, but rather to envy their extraterrestrial travels.  It’s also a cheeky salute to my erstwhile teacher, using the same musical materials--octaves, chromatic scales, monotonously regular durations--which John urged us students to handle only with the utmost care.

James Rolfe CA

Toronto composer James Rolfe has been commissioned and performed by soloists, ensembles, orchestras, choirs, theatres and opera companies in Canada and abroad. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the K. M. Hunter Music Award, and the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. The Canadian Opera Company, Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company, Tapestry New Opera, and Toronto Masque Theatre have commissioned and produced his operas. Current projects include a new operatic version of Gogol's The Overcoat with writer Morris Panych, to be premiered in spring 2018 by Tapestry Opera, Canstage, and Vancouver Opera, and a new work for Soundstreams for June 2018.

James Rolfe