Norman Symonds | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Norman Symonds

Norman Alec Symonds, composer, clarinetist, saxophonist (born 23 December 1920 near Nelson, BC; died 21 August 1998 in Toronto, ON).

Norman Alec Symonds, composer, clarinetist, saxophonist (born 23 December 1920 near Nelson, BC; died 21 August 1998 in Toronto, ON). Norman Symonds was a composer who moved to the forefront of the Canadian third-stream movement in the 1950s under the influence of his teacher, Gordon Delamont. Combining the improvisation and colour of jazz with the structure and orchestration of classical music, Symonds’s major compositions include Concerto Grosso for jazz quintet and symphony orchestra (1957), Autumn Nocturne (1960), The Nameless Hour (1966) and The Democratic Concerto (1967). He also explored electronic and choral idioms, composed works for television and stage, and wrote such expressionist pieces as Big Lonely (1975) and The Gift of Thanksgiving (1980), both inspired by Canada’s natural beauty.

Early Years and Career

Raised in Victoria, BC, Symonds began playing the clarinet in his teens. While serving in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1938–45, he played in Halifax with a Dixieland band led by saxophonist Charles “Bucky” Adams. He studied clarinet, piano, theory, and harmony at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music) from1945–48, then composition privately with Gordon Delamont. He worked as a clarinetist, saxophonist, and arranger in the Toronto dance bands of Leo Romanelli, Bobby Gimby, and Benny Louis, and also led a jazz octet from 1953–57. The octet performed at the 1956 Stratford Festival and at various times included Ed Bickert, Ron Collier, Ross Culley, Bernie Piltch, Jack Richardson and Jerry Toth.

Third Stream Compositions

As the leading figure in the Canadian third-stream movement (a synthesis of classical music and jazz), Symonds wrote several jazz works employing classical forms. These included Fugue for Reeds and Brass (1952), Fugue for Shearing (1957), two Concertos for jazz octet, and others for jazz groups or soloists, as well as string or symphony orchestras. His Concerto Grosso was premiered and recorded in 1957 by Ron Collier’s quintet with the CBC Symphony Orchestra under Victor Feldbrill. It was also performed that year by the Collier group with the Tri-City Symphony in Davenport, Iowa, and in 1966 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). After that performance, John Kraglund, writing in The Globe and Mail, called the work “more successful than most scores in this hybrid idiom.”

Symonds composed many other third-stream orchestral works of note. Autumn Nocturne was premiered in 1960 by a CBC string orchestra with tenor saxophonist Rick Wilkins as soloist. The Nameless Hour (dedicated to Albert Camus) was premiered in 1966 by the TSO under Feldbrill and featured the flugelhorn player Fred Stone. After Symonds revised the piece for other solo instruments, it was recorded by an orchestra under Collier with Duke Ellington on piano. Also in the same vein were The Democratic Concerto (1967), commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and Impulse, commissioned by R.W. Finlayson for the TSO. Impulse integrates elements of jazz but does not use jazz musicians in its performance. It was also performed by the National Youth Orchestra (NYO).

Several of Symonds’s other works also drew on jazz, including Opera for Six Voices (presented in 1961 on CBC radio), the mixed-media incidental score for Man, Inc. (produced at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre in 1970), Black Hallelujah (a CBC Television collaboration with Russ Little in 1971), and Lady in the Night (produced in 1977 by the Toronto Co-Opera Theatre with Julie Amato in the lead and Symonds as conductor).

Canada Council Fellowship

In 1969 Symonds embarked on a five-month, 25,000 mile road trip across Canada with the aid of a Canada Council senior fellowship. The experience proved to be a creative watershed. Symonds called it “one of the most important things I’ve done in my life in terms of the harvest I've reaped from it.” Much of his subsequent work was strongly evocative of the vastness and wonder of nature. His reminiscences of the trip were the basis of the 13-part CBC radio series “Travelling Big Lonely.” Broadcast in 1971, it was scripted and narrated by Symonds and later issued by RCI on a 13-LP set of audio recordings.

He also completed the orchestral work Big Lonely (commissioned, premiered, and recorded by the NYO) in 1975 and composed such pieces as The Story of a Wind and The Land (for CBC TV), Four Images of Nature (for the Guelph Meistersingers), Forest and Sky (commissioned by Ontario Federation of Symphony Orchestras for the Niagara Symphony Orchestra), and From the Eye of the Wind (commissioned by The Esprit Orchestra).

Influence of Nature

Symonds’s nature pieces depart in some essential ways from his third-stream works. They are more expressionist in their sombre yet strong colour and their concern with conveying feelings directly. Like his jazz works, they make effective use of ostinato (the repetition of a short melody or rhythm) and other patterns. The instrumental timbres are carefully judged, but the purpose is different. The result is typically a full-bodied, moody, but essentially simple statement distinct from the relaxed dialogues of his third-stream pieces.

Other Notable Commissions and Recordings

Some of Symonds’s other notable commissioned works include A Diversion (for Canadian Brass in 1972), Quintet for Clarinet and Synthesizers (for the Canadian Electronic Ensemble in 1977), Charnisay Versus LaTour, an opera written for student audiences (produced by the Canadian Opera Company for Prologue to the Performing Arts in 1972), The Canterville Ghost (for the Shaw Festival Theatre Foundation in 1975), At the Shore (for the Festival Singers in 1976), and The Gift of Thanksgiving (for Imperial Oil, premiered in 1980 by the TSO under Andrew Davis).

Symonds also wrote the music for the Stratford Festival’s 1981 production of The Taming of the Shrew. His composition Three Atmospheres was recorded by the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in 1987. Nameless Hour and Fair Wind can be heard on Duke Ellington’s 1967 recording North of the Border (re-released by Attic Records in 1995). His works have also been recorded by accordionists Joseph Macerollo and Joseph Petric, and by the Canadian Brass.

One of Symonds’s many interests was theatre music for young people. With the creative participation of public school classes he developed two plays with music, Laura and the Lieutenant in 1974 and Sam in 1976, both performed by the students upon completion. Symonds described and discussed these creative workshops in a series of CBC Radio broadcasts in 1979. He was also the writer and host of several programs on the CBC Radio series “Music of Today” (1975–76) and co-host with Norma Beecroft of the CBC Radio summer series “Ad Lib” (1976).

Symonds was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers (CLComp), for whose 25th anniversary in 1976 he prepared a CBC Radio documentary. A number of Symonds’s recordings, compositions and publications are held at Library and Archives Canada.

Selected Compositions

Stage, Radio, and TV

Age of Anxiety, radio play (Auden). 1959. Jazz tentet. Ms.

Opera for Six Voices, radio opera (J. Reeves). 1962. Six voices, jazz band, string orch. Ms.

Tensions, ballet. 1966. Jazz quintet, orch. Ms.

The Story of a Wind (Concerto for TV). 1970. V, narrator, jazz ensemble. Ms.

Man, Inc., mixed-media stage work (J. Languirand). 1970. Jazz orch., three voices, percussion, dancers, actors. Ms.

'Charnisay Versus LaTour' (or The Spirit of Fundy), opera (Symonds). 1972. Ms.

The Land (Concerto for TV). 1973. Narr., voice, jazz ensemble. Ms.

Laura and the Lieutenant, musical play for school children (Symonds). 1974. Kerby 1976

The Canterville Ghost (Wilde). 1975. Narr., instr. ensemble. Ms.

Lady of the Night, opera (H. Alianak). 1977. Ms.

Episode At Big Quill, radio theatre. 1979. Youth choir and actors, percussion, narrator. Ms.

The Fall of the Leaf, oratorical music drama. 1982. Four actor-singers, choir, jazz quartet. Ms.

Sylvia, music theatre. 1990. Six singer-actors, jazz quartet. Ms.


Concerto Grosso. 1957. Jazz quintet, orch. Ber. (rental). RCI 181 (Ron Collier Quin.)

Autumn Nocturne. 1960. Saxophone, string orch. Kerby, B&H (rental)

Pastel Blue. 1963. Str. orch. Kerby 1973, B&H (rental). CTL S-5030 (Hart House O)

The Nameless Hour. 1966. Improvised instrumental solo, string orch. Ms. CBC SM-34/CBC SM-104 (Fred Stone flhn.)/Decca DL-75069/MPS-BASF 21704 (Ron Collier Orch.)

Democratic Concerto. 1967. Jazz quartet, orch. Ms.

Impulse. 1969. Ms. RCI 477 (Boris Brottconductor)

Three Atmospheres. 1971. Ms. Centrediscs CMC-2987 (NACO)

Big Lonely. 1975, rev 1978. Kerby 1975, B&H (rental). RCI 431 (NYO)

Forest and Sky. 1977. Ms.

The Gift of Thanksgiving. 1980. Orch. Kerby 1980, B&H (rental)

Spaces I 'The River'. 1980. Str. orch. Ms.

'Sylvia': An Adult Fairy Tale. 1982. Jazz quartet (orch.), jazz soloists. Ms.

On An Emerald Sea. 1983. Ms.

The Eyes of Bidesuk. 1987. Acc., jazz orch. (band). Ms.

From The Eye of the Wind. 1988. Ms.


Fugue for Reeds and Brass. 1952. Ms.

Fugue for Shearing. 1957. Pf., jazz ensemble. Ms.

A Six Movement Suite for Ten Jazz Musicians plus Four Songs and Incidental Music (Auden). 1959. V, jazz tentet. Ms.

Fair Wind. 1965. Jazz ensemble (band). Ms. Decca DL-75069 (Ron Collier Tentet)

A Diversion. 1972. Brass quintet. Kerby 1972. CBC SM-320/MMG 1123/Umbrella UMB-DD5 (Canadian Brass)

Bluebeard Lives. 1975. Str. quintet, tape. Ms.

Quintet for Clarinet and Synthesizers. 1977. Ms. RCI 484 ( J. Campbell)

Elegance. 1982. Perc. Ms.

Salt Wind White Bird. 1984. Four fl. Ms.

Also two concertos for jazz octet (1955, 1956), Hambourg Suite (1956) and other works for jazz group.

Choir and Voice

Deep Ground, Long Waters (Symonds). Med (low) voice, fl., piano. Kerby 1972

At the Shore: A Sea Image (Bible). 1976. SATB, percussion. Kerby 1979

Four Images of Nature (Shelley, Symonds, Bible). 1976. SATB, bass, percussion. Ms.

Harvest Choral. 1979. SATB. Kerby 1985

Lullaby. 1979. SATB. Kerby 1985

Pity the Children (Symonds). 1979. SATB. Kerby 1980

Lady Elegance. 1986. Med voice, piano. Ms.


“clJasAsiZcaZl = Third Stream Music,” CanComp, 37, February 1969.

“The Spirit of Fundy,” OpCan, Winter 1971.

“Solving A Problem: How to Find a Good Libretto,” CanComp, 68, March 1972.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading