Rhapsody for 14 Strings (1983)
- Composer: Forsyth, Malcolm
- Conductor: Foster, Lawrence
- Performance Date: 2001-11-07
- Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Dec 08, 1936 -
A great variety of colors, textures and effects can be derived from “just” a string orchestra. Forsyth demonstrates this magnificently in his fifteen-minute Rhapsody for Fourteen Strings, a work in which at times each player has an individual part to play. Learn more
Born in Pietermaritzburg (near Durban), South Africa, December 8, 1936;
now living in Edmonton
Malcolm Forsyth was born in South Africa and obtained his Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Cape Town. In 1968 he immigrated to Canada after spending the 1960s teaching at the University of Cape Town, playing trombone in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra and writing orchestrations for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Forsyth has been a naturalized Canadian since 1974.
The move to Canada
Why did Forsyth come to Canada? “I moved because there was no future for me [in South Africa] since I was English by birth, and the government was over the moon with nationalism. You had to be an Afrikaaner to get anywhere. And I needed to get into North America where so much was happening.” In Canada, Forsyth continued his musical career by playing trombone - initially as bass trombonist, later as principal - in the Edmonton Symphony (1968-80) and by accepting a position at the University of Alberta, where he taught for 34 years before retiring in 2002. Over the past few years Forsyth has also led an increasingly active life as conductor.
The African connection
Many of Forsyth’s compositions are heavily attuned to singing and dancing, especially that of indigenous peoples of Africa (particularly the Zulu).His first major work composed in Canada was Sketches from Natal (1970), in which he explores the tribal rhythms of his native South Africa. For the inaugural concert of the Natal Philharmonic (Durban) in 1982, he wrote ukuZalwa (a Zulu word meaning “rebirth”). In the Piano Concerto are found frequent passages of pounding bass notes on a single pitch and in the Symphony No. 1 a simulated Zulu work song. Siyajabula! We rejoice! (1994) was composed in celebration of the arrival of democracy in South Africa. The movements of his Third Symphony, subtitled African Ode, are entitled “Tree of Life,” “African Dawn” and “Dance-Song (based on a Gambian melody).” “Forsyth’s Africanism lies deep in his psyche,” writes Kathy Primos, a South African who wrote her Master’s dissertation on Forsyth, “and, in common with most people who have lived in Africa, will always remain a haunting part of his cultural identity. … [His] output is consistently shot through with textures built around or supported by persistent and frequently layered ostinatos characteristic of the intricate interplay of African polyphony.”
The Canadian connection
Canada too has exerted a strong pull on Forsyth’s musical consciousness. One of his most frequently performed compositions inspired by Canadian culture has been an orchestral suite called Atayoskewin (1984), meaning “sacred legend” in the Cree language. In this imaginatively scored work he evokes the “brilliant sunshine and crystalline air” of northern Alberta in winter. Another frequently-heard work is the Three Métis Songs from Saskatchewan (1975). In Canzona he incorporates a North-American Indian incantation. For concert band he wrote a three-minute piece with the quirky title of The Oh Canada Thing, or, A Dominion’s Dilemma (1992).
Other orchestral compositions
The NAC Orchestra has played no fewer than five works by Forsyth: Sagittarius in 1976, Symphony No. 2 in 1978, Atayoskewin and ukuZalwa, both in 1995, and Electra Rising in 1997. The latter work has become his most frequently performed composition over the past few years. The composer’s daughter Amanda, principal cellist in the NAC Orchestra, is the featured soloist in this work. One of his more recent orchestral – and most unusual - works in a catalogue numbering about 150 compositions is a rare Double Concerto for viola and cello, premiered in October of 2004 in Edmonton. When the Jack Singer Concert Hall opened in Calgary in1985, Forsyth was the natural choice to provide the fanfare Novum Spatium. His Six Olympic Fanfares were performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.
Recent works include a Lyric Essay for oboe, bassoon and piano (2008) and a work for solo violin and orchestra called Trickster Coyote – Lightning Elk, premiered by the young Mohawk violinist Tara-Louise Montour and the Edmonton Youth Orchestra in 2008. For Forsyth’s 75th birthday year in 2011, the NAC Orchestra and the Edmonton Symphony are collaborating on a commission for a major new work for chorus and orchestra. The text will consist of poems by Canadian poets.
Commissions and awards
Commissions from Canada’s most prestigious musicians, performing ensembles and musical organizations continue to pour in. Over the years he has written works for Maureen Forrester, Judith Forst, Alain Trudel, Lawrence Cherney, Canadian Brass, the Montreal Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony, the Montreal International Musical Competition, the CBC, the Canada Council, the Canadian Music Centre and others. Electra Rising won Forsyth his third Juno Award in 1998. Additional honors and awards include Composer of the Year in 1989 in recognition of over one hundred performances of his works within a three-year period and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2003. Also that year Forsyth was inducted into the Order of Canada.
Forsyth’s artistic credo
Forsyth’s approach to composition can be summed up in these words, highly encouraging to a listener: “I have always had a sense of responsibility to the audience, coming from a deep sense of belief. I am myself a dedicated audience member, dedicated to the idea of concert music that does sweep people away. I’m never happier than when I can be transported by a performer or performance. Everything I’ve done is with that experience in mind: changing the space that the audience sits in for those brief few moments.” Kathy Primos extends this credo in her observation that “his music mirrors his insatiable zest for life experience and this strong desire to communicate it.”
Concert Program Notes
Malcolm Forsyth: Born in Pietermaritzburg (near Durban), South Africa, December 8, 1936; now living in Edmonton
The Rhapsody for 14 Strings was commissioned by Stephen and Sue Jane Bryant for their chamber music series in Edmonton. The composer conducted the Debut Ensemble in the first performance on April 18, 1983. The scoring is for fourteen solo parts (4 first violins, 4 second violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass) but with frequent doubling as in a chamber orchestra for strings. The four sections are played as one continuous movement. The composer describes them as follows:
Lento, pensato (4/4), in which the material of the entire work is presented, viz., a descending pattern of whole and half steps, a repeated E-minor chord, and a motif in the violas based on so-called “horn” fifths.
Allegretto giusto (6/4), wherein various ostinatos present themselves and jazz-like figures cascade in violins and cellos.
Lento, come prima (4/4): an elaboration of the first section, incorporating an extended interlude for solo violin.
Allegretto, leggero (6/8): further variation and development in a fairly complex chain of events. Rhythmic ostinatos are again much to the fore; there is a new theme in the violins, and cross rhythms abound. The piece ends by simply and restfully fading into silence.Robert Markow
This Year in History: 1983
History, Politics and Social Affairs
- On January 1, the metric system of weights and measures is officially adopted by the federal government.
- More than 80,000 across the country protest against the arms race as the U.S. plans to test the cruise Missile in Canada.
- Bill 101, protecting the French language in Quebec, is ruled unconstitutional.
- Brian Mulroney replaces Joe Clark as leader of Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.
- American President Ronald Reagan signs a bill creating a federal holiday on the third Monday of every January to honor American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nature, Science and Technology
- The ARPANET officially changes to use the Internet Protocol, creating the Internet.
- Soft bifocal contact lens invented.
- Apple, Inc. releases the Apple Lisa personal computer.
- The immunosuppressant cyclosporine is approved by the FDA, leading to a revolution in the field of transplantation.
The Arts, Literature and Entertainment
- Canadian pianist Glenn Gould dies.
- Porky’s, the highest-grossing film in Canadian history (over $100 million), receives the Golden Reel Award.
- The Canadian Film Development Corporation changes its name to Telefilm Canada.
- The National Art Therapy Council of Canada is founded in Ottawa.
- Quebec author Gabrielle Roy dies.
- The film Never Cry Wolf is adapted from Farley Mowat’s eponymous book.