HARRY SOMERS, O.C., was born in Toronto, Ontario, and showed an interest in music only in his early teens. He engaged in intensive piano studies, which were so productive that at the age of 16 he entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where he studied piano with Reginald Godden and Weldon Kilburn and composition with John Weinzweig, receiving scholarships in 1947 and 1949. In the late 40’s, he went first to San Francisco to continue piano with E. Robert Schmitz, and then to Paris to study composition under Darius Milhaud (1949-50).
Somers was known not only for his great versatility but also for his tremendous productivity. His music includes works for orchestra, choir, voice, instrumental ensemble and piano, as well as for stage, film and television. His best-known work is the opera Louis Riel, commissioned for performance during Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967, and performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Washington, D.C. during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.
Somers decribed his artistic development: “Over the years I’ve worked consistently on three different levels with three different approaches to composition. On one level my approach has been what I call ‘community music’ or ‘music for use’: For example music for amateurs and music for school use. On a second level I’ve created ‘functional music,’ in the specific sense: music for television, films and theatre, where the composition has to work in company with another medium and serve the demands of that medium. On a third level I have created without consideration for any limitations, sometimes completely experimentally, sometimes extending the line of a particular direction on which I had been working through a series of works.
In short, the first two levels relate directly to the environment and society, in the broad sense, in which I live at the moment, and in which I function as a craftsman; the third relates to a more restricted audience (though I’m not convinced it need be so) and my personal development as an artist.”
In 1971, Somers, who had become one of Canada’s most internationally-known composers, was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. He had received honorary doctorates from the University of Ottawa (1975), the University of Toronto (1976) and York University (1975). Harry Somers passed away on March 9, 1999.