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Jean Coulthard: A Life in Music

By William Bruneau, David Gordon Duke

Review By Janette Tilley

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 149 Spring 2006  | p. 96-7

William Bruneau and David Duke’s Jean Coulthard is a long overdue tribute to an artist and teacher whose career in Vancouver spanned more than seven decades. Composer, pianist, and music educator, Jean Coulthard (1908–2000) was a significant figure in Vancouver’s musical life. From her earliest days teaching piano in the 1920s to her final years as a composer of international renown, Coulthard remained close to Vancouver and the Canadian west coast. In this, the first book-length biography of Jean Coulthard, Bruneau and Duke place the composer within her social, political, and cultural milieu to construct a portrait of a Vancouver artist.

Coulthard grew up in Vancouver’s wealthy Shaughnessy neighbourhood, where her musical talents were encouraged and cultivated by her musical family. Her mother, a singer and teacher, ran a successful music studio and was a significant figure in Vancouver’s developing cultural scene. It was through her mother that Coulthard was exposed to the music of the French composers Debussy and Ravel. After brief studies in London (1928–29) and later New York (1944–45), Coulthard joined the recently founded Music Department at the University of British Columbia in 1947, where she taught music theory and composition until her retirement in 1973. Coulthard’s years at UBC were not without their difficulties, as Bruneau has explored elsewhere (“Music and Marginality: Jean Coulthard and the University of British Columbia, 1947-1973,” in Challenging Professions: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Women’s Professional Work [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999], 96-116). The years after her retirement were some of the most productive of her career and brought Coulthard national as well as international recognition. She drew inspiration from a variety of sources, from Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare to Emily Carr and Canadian folksongs. Her music is often lyrical, and although she eschewed atonality and experimentation for their own sake, her music is never derivative but, rather, explores modern sounds as a means of personal expression.

The eight chapters of this book trace Coulthard’s family life and career in roughly ten- to fifteen-year increments. Breaking with musicological tradition, Bruneau and Duke do not divide Coulthard’s biography according to musical style. This may be partly owing to the fact that Coulthard’s out put does not easily fall into neat, chronologically distinct periods. Rather, they recognize major career and family events as defining moments. Without the imposition of artificial periods, Coulthard’s biography seems fluid and natural. Coulthard’s music is placed within the context of her life, rather than the opposite – a life placed around musical achievements – which is so common in musical biography.

Bruneau and Duke tell Coulthard’s story for “general readers and listeners” and “hope to introduce something of the person and musician that Jean Coulthard was” (xi). Anecdotes told by Coulthard as well as photographs and journal entries enliven the narrative. One of the book’s strengths is its intimate and familiar tone, which results from the authors’ access to Coulthard’s private documents, including her journals of the 1930s and personal interviews with the composer held over a six-year period before her death in 2000. Bruneau and Duke were both students of Coulthard, and their affection for their teacher shines throughout the text. Each chapter concludes with a glimpse of a selection of Coulthard’s music from the period under discussion. While musical expertise is not required to understand these excursions into her music, some familiarity with musical notation and terminology is expected.

Serious students of music and its history in British Columbia may find this accessible volume light on specific musical and historical detail. The authors paint Vancouver’s history with broad brush strokes. A timeline of events (167–80) that matches Coulthard’s life with landmarks in Canadian and musical history fills some of the gaps in the narrative. Of particular value to musicians and to those wanting to explore Coulthard’s music are two lists – one a selection of her published and unpublished music (181–4), the other a list of recordings of her music on compact disc (185–92). Given the paucity of published work on Coulthard (the authors list just five items, three of which are by Bruneau himself), this volume offers welcome insight into one of Canada’s important composers.