Barbara Pentland | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Barbara Pentland

Pentland, Barbara. Composer, pianist, teacher, b Winnipeg 2 Jan 1912, d Vancouver 5 Feb 2000; ATCM 1931, composition diploma (Juilliard) 1939, honorary LLD (Manitoba) 1976; honorary LL D (Simon Fraser) 1985.

Pentland, Barbara

Pentland, Barbara. Composer, pianist, teacher, b Winnipeg 2 Jan 1912, d Vancouver 5 Feb 2000; ATCM 1931, composition diploma (Juilliard) 1939, honorary LLD (Manitoba) 1976; honorary LL D (Simon Fraser) 1985. A heart disorder curtailed her physical and social activities in childhood and forced her to develop a life of the mind. Composition provided a natural exercise for this, but Pentland's first written attempts, shown to the piano teacher with whom, at nine, she had begun lessons at Rupert's Land Girls' School in Winnipeg, only prompted disapproval. Teacher and parents regarded her desire to compose as eccentric and, probably, too 'exciting' for a delicate child. She continued to compose, though she kept to her efforts private. Her teenage works were informed by a study of the French Revolution and by the heroic music of Beethoven.

Pentland's first encouragement to compose came from Frederick H. Blair, who taught her piano and theory 1927-9 while she was in Montreal attending a boarding school. Formal studies in composition, at last with parental permission, began in 1929 with the Vincent d'Indy pupil Cécile Gauthiez, in Paris, where she attended a finishing school. Gauthiez, who continued to teach her by correspondence for a year and a half after her return to Winnipeg in 1930, trained her in French academic polyphony and the chromaticism of Franck, both of which shaped her work in the ensuing decade, surviving even in the Piano Quartet of 1939. In Winnipeg 1930-6, Pentland continued practical studies with Hugh Bancroft (organ) and Eva Clare (piano) and was more active as a performer than at any time previously or later. This phase culminated in a formal debut as a concert pianist 21 Sep 1936 at the Royal Alexandra Hotel.

Sensing a need to develop her skills as a composer, she won a fellowship to the Juilliard Graduate School in 1936 where, for the next two years, she submitted to a course in 16th-century counterpoint under Frederick Jacobi. At the same time, steady encounters with the new music of the day - of which so much more could be heard in New York than in Winnipeg - incited her to fresh rebellion. Leaving Jacobi, she spent her third year at Juilliard searching for freer and more individual means of expression under the encouraging guidance of Bernard Wagenaar. The works of Hindemith and Stravinsky became a significant influence at this time, combining, as they did, the strong counterpoint which her studies with Gauthiez and Jacobi had taught her to respect and the harmonic resilience and freedom she had come to crave.

Back in Winnipeg 1939-42, Pentland assimilated what she had learned. While teaching privately and examining for the University of Manitoba she also composed the incidental music for a radio play, Payload; a two-piano 'ballet-pantomime,' Beauty and the Beast, for the Winnipeg Ballet; the piano pieces, Studies in Line; and the Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra. During the summers of 1941 and 1942 she studied at the Berkshire Music Center with Aaron Copland. The textural transparency and rhythmic vitality of Copland's music prompted in Pentland the desire for similar leavening in her own, and set her on the road to the neoclassicism (beginning with the Coplandesque Variations and the Concerto) which pervaded her work until the mid-1950s.

Seeking exposure for her music Pentland moved in 1942 to Toronto where she supported herself teaching composition and theory at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (1943-9; her pupils included George Crum and Alan Detweiler). She developed a name as a radical, along with such contemporaries as John Weinzweig and the young Harry Somers. The 'radical' image was sustained by the premiere (Toronto 1945, by Harry and Frances Adaskin) of the Concerto in a violin-and-piano reduction and the premieres, also in Toronto, of the Song Cycle on Poems of Anne Marriott (1947, by Frances James and the composer), the Sonata Fantasy (1948, by the pianist Harry Somers), and the Octet for Winds (1949, CBC radio). Pentland premieres were not confined to Toronto during those years. The Piano Sonata was introduced in 1947 by Marie Knotkova in Prague, the Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1948 by Frank Thorolfson and Chester Duncan in Winnipeg, and the String Quartet No. 1 in 1949 by the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

Though her style was growing closer to a break with tonality, Pentland's first serious consideration of serialism came during her visits (1947, 1948) to the Edward MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire where Dika Newlin, a disciple of Schoenberg, interested her in that master's development and application of strict 12-tone principles. The Octet for Winds, her first deliberately serial work, was the result. The Concerto for Organ, the Symphony No. 2, the Sonata for Solo Violin, the orchestral piece Ave atque vale, the String Quartet No. 2 (chosen to represent Canada at the 1956 ISCM festival in Stockholm, but not performed), and the other works composed between 1949 and 1954 all show the influence of the Schoenberg technique.

In 1949, Harry Adaskin invited Pentland to take up a position teaching theory and composition at the University of British Columbia. She visited Europe again (Darmstadt, in 1955), and in 1957 took a year's academic leave, in Munich. She resigned her teaching post in 1963, at least in part because of disagreement over curriculum changes. From 1963, she retained her base in Vancouver and independently pursued her composition and teaching career.

Pentland's mature style - exploiting serial possibilities in a free but uncluttered way, and sound combinations in a sensitive but unsensual and, certainly, unsentimental way - became established in all essentials in 1955. In Darmstadt, Pentland had come into contact with a further major influence on her style: the music of Anton Webern. The delicate sonorities, the concision of the structures, and the pellucid qualities of thought and texture in this music appealed to Pentland's intelligence as the Schoenberg ethic could not. The Webern influence was noticeable immediately in the glacial and elegant Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra and the cogent, agile Symphony for Ten Parts; indeed, it pervades virtually all her works of the succeeding decade.

Pentland continued to refine and 'season.' She incorporated quarter-tone inflections and a procedure for continuity she called 'aleatory zones' (controlled-chance sections somewhat on the model of Lutoslawski). These devices are featured notably in the String Quartet No. 3, 4, and 5, in Mutations, and in Tellus.

Though the large catalogue of her works testifies to an independence of mind, Pentland composed on commission for the Forest Hill Community Centre, Toronto (Colony Music), the CBC (Variations on a Boccherini Tune; the Trio for violin, cello, and piano; News; Mutations; Interplay; and Occasions), Gordon Jeffery (Concerto for Organ and Strings), the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through a Canada Council grant (Symphony No. 4), the Vancouver RCMT Alumni Association (Suite Borealis for piano), the University of British Columbia Chamber Music Ensemble (Trio con alea), the Hugh McLean Consort (Septet for brass, organ, and strings), the Baroque Strings of Vancouver (Res musica), the Vancouver New Music Society (Disasters of the Sun), NMC (Eventa), the Okanagan Summer School of the Arts (Quartet No.4), and Days Months and Years to Come (Magnetic Band) (Tellus).

In 1982 Pentland said she treats 12-tone serialism 'as a governing principle' rather than a 'straitjacket.' Consistently with this, the opening passages of a later work such as the String Quartet No. 4 or Tellus reveal a clear 12-tone set but subsequent passages draw on this and its various transformations only in a free and selective fashion. The wide spectrum of instrumental effects in both these works, including ornamental quarter-tones, is striking. Their transparent, almost pointillistic, detail is a carry-over from her studies of Webern. In both, there are interesting extra-musical aspects as well. Unusually, Pentland's prefatory note in the score of the Quartet suggests particular associations: the work 'starts in a mood of quiet mystery - like dawn or life,' and attention is drawn to 'suggestion[s] of bird sound' and 'sounds of nature.'

In response to a need articulated by the Toronto piano teacher Rachel Cavalho, Pentland began to produce a variety of teaching material for piano, including many short pieces and three graded books (Music of Now, Waterloo 1970, Avondale 1986) which accustom the student to such 20th-century commonplaces as tone clusters, additive and alternating rhythms, retrograde and inverse canons, dissonance, polyphony, and various kinds of serial construction.

Aware that her work may have seemed austere, Pentland neither revised nor regretted it. She once remarked (Northern Review, 1950) that "all audiences are more intelligent than they are brought up to be by the musicians who are responsible." Her position on other musical matters was similarly unobsequious. Interviewed by Musicanada in 1969 she described, with irony: "What comes from outside the country must de facto be superior. Prime example: the opening of our multi-million-dollar National Arts Centre with an imported French ballet company dancing to a score by a Greek composer conducted by an American born in Germany!"

In the Northern Review article cited above, Pentland, in an oft-quoted inflammatory statement, identified hers as 'the first generation of Canadian composers. Before our time music development was largely in the hands of imported English organists who, however sound academically, had no creative contribution to make of any general value.' But she had not many illusions, either, about her own generation 'slowly bringing forth our own manner of speech.' Her defence was measured: "At least we've started something, even if it still leaves [us] in the difficult role of pioneer."

Pentland's output covered a remarkable span of over 60 years and touched on virtually all standard media and genres, including incidental music for radio plays and film scores (e.g. The Living Gallery, 1947). Her list of piano-solo works in particular is probably the most extensive among Canadians of her generation. Non-traditional techniques are present, such as in News (1970) and Disasters of the Sun (1976), which incorporated prepared-tape parts. She told an interviewer in 1982 that both her musical interests and physical limitations (a spate of illness, declining eyesight) had led her to concentrate on solo and chamber works to the exclusion of larger media such as the orchestra.

Pentland was fully at home with the abstract (or 'absolute') prototypes of Western music. In their biography of Pentland, Eastman and McGee list close to 100 instrumental pieces written by her 1930-80; of these approximately 60 per cent have classical genre-titles (Symphony, Ricercar) - a trait evidenced as late as the Canticum, Burlesca, and Finale for piano (1987). Non-classical titles are often equally abstract (Interplay, Phases), and evocative titles usually suggest a general mood or tone-painting quality (Vista, Arctica, Tides), short of any out-and-out impressionistic or programmatic approach. Overt extra-musical connections in her work exist mainly in incidental, dramatic, and vocal pieces. Her musical comments deal with some of the large moral issues of the age: war in general and the Vietnam War in particular (News); feminism (Disasters of the Sun); the rape of the environment (Tellus, Ice Age).

Pentland occasionally performed in public, eg, in October 1978 she performed Three Duets after Pictures by Paul Klee, with Robert Rogers, at the University of British Columbia. She also recorded some of her own works, such as Fantasy and Shadows (RCI 242). She was featured on Radio Canada International's Anthology of Canadian Music (ACM 25 RCI, 1986).

In her eighth decade Pentland gained new recognition through the publication of a study of her life and work in the Canadian Composers series, the release of a volume devoted to her music in the RCI Anthology of Canadian Music series, and the continuing devotion of such loyal performers as Phyllis Mailing, Robert Rogers, and the Purcell String Quartet. Her affinity for the poetry of Dorothy Livesay (librettist of her only opera The Lake) - solidified dramatically in Disasters of the Sun for mezzo soprano, instrumental ensemble, and tape - was reiterated with brief intensity in Ice Age for soprano and piano. Pentland's last known composition was Adagio for cello and piano (1991); Alzheimer's disease prevented further activities.

Pentland was awarded the Diplôme d'honneur by the CCA in1977. The citation noted that she had been faced "with ultraconservative attitudes both towards female composers and new means of expression. However," it added, "intolerance from the unthinking has never deterred Pentland ... [She] has contributed to all major categories of music and her catalogue of works is impressive." The citation quoted her remark "There is an element of daring in all great art" and stated "Such an element runs through much of the music of Barbara Pentland. "

The City of Vancouver declared 27 Sep 1987 "Barbara Pentland Day," honouring the composer on her 75th birthday. On the same date the Vancouver New Music Society mounted a tribute concert, "Pentland 1987," with performances of six of her chamber works, later broadcast on CBC radio. On 6 Nov 1987 the pianist Elaine Keillor gave a solo recital at Toronto's Music Gallery consisting of works by Pentland and John Weinzweig, under the title "The Mother (and Father) of Us All."

Pentland was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1989, and became the first composer named to the Order of British Columbia (1993).

Writing in Musicworks in 1998, David Duke noted that Pentland's piano work is her best known (with performances by Glenn Gould, Anton Kubálek, and Angela Hewitt), her chamber and vocal works are less so, and that her orchestral works are less often performed than those of other major Canadians of the twentieth century. Among the musicians that have performed or recorded Pentland's work are pianists Keillor, Rogers, and Rachel Cavalho; mezzo-soprano Phyllis Mailing; harpist Erica Goodman; and the flautist Kathryn Cernauskas. Pentland's work has been featured on CBC radio, and in 1976 on the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1958 Pentland married John Huberman, son of the violinist Bronislaw Huberman. She is a member of the CLComp, and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. She donated her papers to the NL of C.

Selected Compositions

Stage, Radio, and Film
Beauty and the Beast, ballet-pantomime. 1940 (Winnipeg 1941). 2 piano. manuscript

The Lake, chamber opera (D. Livesay). 1952 (Vancouver 1954). Sop, alto, tenor, bs, small orch. Ms

Incidental music for radio plays and the NFB film The Living Gallery (1947). Ms


'An experiment in music,' CRMA, vol 2, Aug-Sep 1943

'Canadian music 1950,' Northern R, vol 3, Feb-Mar 1950

"On becoming a composer," CFMTA Newsletter, Feb 1976

"Looking ahead," CFMTA Newsletter, July 1976


Lament. 1939 (Winnipeg 1940). Full orch. Ms

Arioso and Rondo. 1941 (London 1945). Full orch. Ms

Holiday Suite. 1941 (Vancouver 1948). Chamb orch (string orch arr 1947). Ms

3 Symphonies: No. 1, 1945-48 (Montreal 1947 'Adagio' only); No. 2, 1950 (Toronto 1953); No. 4, 1959 (Winnipeg 1960). Full orch. Ms

Variations on a Boccherini Tune. 1948 (Toronto 1948). Full orch. Ms

Ave atque vale. 1951 (Vancouver 1953). Full orch. Ms

Ricercar for Strings. 1955 (Vancouver 1958). Str orch. Ms

Symphony for Ten Parts 'Symphony No. 3,' 1957 (Vancouver 1961). Sm orch. BMIC 1961. RCI 215/RCA CCS-1009/6-ACM 25 (Chamb ensemble of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

Strata. 1964 (Vancouver 1968). Str orch. Ms

Cinéscene. 1968. Chamb orch. Ms

Five-Plus 'Simple Pieces for Strings.' 1971. Str orch. Ms

Res musica. 1975 (Vancouver 1975). Str orch. Ms

Soloist(s) with Orchestra

Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra. 1942 (arr violin, piano Toronto 1945). Ms

Colony Music. 1947 (Toronto 1948). Pf, string. Ms

Concerto for Organ and Strings. 1949 (London, Ont 1951). Ms

Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra. 1956 (Toronto 1958). Ber (rental). RCI 184/6-ACM 25 (Bernardi piano)

News (news media). 1970 (Ott 1971). Virtuoso voice, orch. Ms

Variations concertantes. 1970 (Montreal 1971). Pf, orch. Ms


Sonata for Cello and Piano. 1943. Ms

5 String Quartets (1945, 1953, 1969, 1980, 1985). (No. 1) BMIC 1963, others manuscript. (No. 1) RCI 141/6-ACM 25 (Montreal String Quartet)/Col MS-636 (Canadian String Quartet)/(No. 3) RCI 353/6-ACM 25 (Purcell String Quartet)/(No. 4) Centrediscs CMC-0782/6-ACM 25 (Purcell Str Quar)/(No. 5) Cedar 1066 (Purcell Str Quar)

Vista. 1945. Vn, piano. BMIC 1951

Sonata for Violin and Piano. 1946. Ms

Octet for Winds. 1948. Ww, brass ensemble. Ms

Weekend Overture for Resort Combo. 1949. Cl, trumpet, piano, percussion. Ms

Solo Violin Sonata. 1950. Ms

Duo for Viola and Piano. 1960. Ms. RCI 223/RCA CCS-1017/6-ACM 25 (S. Humphreys viola, H. McLean piano)

Canzona. 1961. Fl, oboe, harpsichord. Ms

Cavazzoni for Brass (transcr from 3 organ hymns by G. Cavazzoni). 1961. Brass quintet. Ms

Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. 1963. Ms. RCI 242/6-ACM 25 (Pentland piano, A. Polson violin, J. Hunter violoncello)

Variations for Viola. 1965. Ms

Trio con alea. 1966. Str trio. Ms

Septet. 1967. Hn, trumpet, trombone, organ, violin, viola, violoncello. Ms

Reflections. 1971. Acc. Ms

Interplay. 1972. Acc, string quartet. Ms. Mel SMLP-4034/6-ACM 25 (Macerollo accordion)

Mutations. 1972. Vc, piano. Ms

Occasions. 1974. Brass quintet. Ms

Phases. 1977. Cl solo. Ms

Éventa. 1978. Fl, clarinet, trombone, violin, violoncello, harp, 2 percussion. Ms

Trance. 1978. Fl, harp (piano). Avondale 1988. 6-ACM 25 (Aitken)

VariableWinds. 1979. 4 versions for solo winds. Ms

Elegy for Horn and Piano. 1980 (rev 1985 for violoncello, piano). Ms

Commenta. 1981. Hp. Avondale 1988

Tellus. 1982. Fl, violoncello, percussion, celesta. Ms. 6-ACM 25 (Magnetic Band)

Qunitet for Piano and Strings. 1983. Ms. Cedar 1066 (Rogers piano, Purcell String Quartet)

Intrada and Canzona. 1988? Rec quartet. Avondale 1989


Rhapsody 1939. 1939. Ms

Studies in Line. 1941. BMIC 1949. RCI 134 (Newmark)/CCM-2 (Cavalho)/Lon T-5697 (78) (Godden)/RCI 496/6-ACM 25 (Hewitt)

Variations. 1942. Ms

Piano Sonata. 1945. Ms

Sonata Fantasy. 1947. Ms

Dirge. 1948. BMIC 1961

2 Sonatinas (1951). Ms

Two-Piano Sonata. 1953. 2 piano. Ms

Interlude. 1955. Wat 1968, Avondale 1986

Toccata. 1958. BMIC 1961. RCI 242 (Pentland)/CBC SM-162 (Buczynski)

Three Duets after Pictures by Paul Klee. 1959. Pf 4-hands. Ms. RCI 242/6-ACM 25 (Pentland, R. Rogers)

Fantasy. 1962. BMIC 1966. RCI 242 (Pentland)

Echoes 1 and 2. 1964. Wat 1968, Avondale 1986. CCM-2 (Cavalho)

Maze/Labyrinthe, Casse-Tête/Puzzle. 1964. Wat 1969, Avondale 1986

Puppet Show. 1964. Pf 4-hands. BMIC 1965

Shadows/Ombres. 1964. Wat 1968, Avondale 1986. RCI 242/6-ACM 25 (Pentland)

Three Pairs. 1964. BMIC 1966. CCM-2 (Cavalho)

Hands across the C. 1965. Wat 1968, Avondale 1986. CCM-2 (Cavalho)

Suite borealis. 1966. Ms. Mel SMLP-4031 (Kubálek)/Centrediscs CMC-1985/6-ACM 25 (Rogers)

Space Studies. 1967. Wat 1968, Avondale 1986. CCM-2 (Cavalho)

Music of Now, Books 1, 2, 3. 1969-70. Wat 1970, Avondale 1986

Vita Brevis. 1973. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1985/6-ACM 25 (Rogers)

Ephemera. 1974-78. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1985/6-ACM 25 (Rogers)

Tenebrae. 1976. Ms

Vincula. 1983. West Coast Review, vol 20, Jan 1986. Centrediscs CMC-1985/6-ACM 25 (Rogers)

Horizons. 1985. Ms

Canticum, Burlesca and Finale. 1987. Ms

Several other short pieces for piano and 1 work for harpsichord Ostinato and Dance (1962). Ms


'Ballad of Trees and the Master' (S. Lanier). 1937. SATB. Ms

'Dirge for a Violet' (D.C. Scott). 1939. SATB. Ms

Epigrams and Epitaphs, rounds (various). 1952. 2, 3, 4 voices. Ms

'Salutation of the Dawn' (Sanskrit). 1954. SATB. Ms

'What is Man?' (Ecclesiasticus 18). 1954. SATB. Ms

Three Sung Songs (Chinese, transl C.M. Candlin). 1964. SATB. Ms


Song Cycle (Marriott). 1942-5. Sop, piano. Ms. ('Wheat' and 'Mountains') RCI 20/6-ACM 25 (F. James)

At Early Dawn (Hsiang Hao). 1945. Ten, fl, violoncello. Ms

Three Sung Songs (Chinese transl C.M. Candlin). 1964. Med voice, piano. Ms

Sung Songs No. 4 and 5 (H'Sin Ch'I-Chi, transl C. M. Candlin). 1971. Mezzo, piano. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-1083/6-ACM 25 (Mailing)

Disasters of the Sun (D. Livesay). 1976. Mezzo, 9 instr, tape. Ms

Ice Age (D. Livesay). 1986. Sop, piano. Ms

Approximately 10 other songs (1932-79), all manuscript

Also several other works, including student compositions, listed in Eastman and McGee

Further Reading