Canadian Composers Interview Series with Ruth Watson Henderson

In our new blog series, Canadian Composers Interview with ACNMP board member and organist Matthew Boutda, we endeavour to illuminate the artistic process of select working composers from across Canada.

Ruth Watson Henderson has often been described as a “Canadian national treasure”. She has an international reputation as a leading Canadian composer of choral music, and as an admired pianist and organist.

She has done much to promote the artistry of children through her wealth of compositions for treble voices, using the expertise gleaned over 29 years as accompanist of the Toronto Children’s Chorus under Jean Ashworth Bartle until they both retired in 2007. She has at the same time written a wider spectrum of works for adult choirs –an activity started while she was accompanist of the Festival Singers under Dr. Elmer Iseler.

Her works are commissioned, performed and recorded worldwide, by such well-known choirs as the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, Exultate Chamber Singers, and the University of Toronto choirs. Ms Watson Henderson also writes for piano, organ, and other instruments. Her organ work, “Celebration”, won a worldwide competition honouring the Royal Canadian College of Organists’ Centennial, thus earning the piece a première at Westminster Abbey.

Recognized for her lifetime of service to music, Ruth has been paid many great tributes by the music community.  She received the National Choral Award for Outstanding Choral Composition for “Voices of Earth”, and the Distinguished Service Award by the Ontario Choral Federation.

Matthew: Tell me a bit about your musical background.

Ruth: I got started very early on! My mother was a church organist and so I started playing the piano when I was 2, and by the time I was 4, I was making progress. I was very fortunate to study with Alberto Guerrero and we had wonderful classes where his students came to play for each other. Glenn Gould was a contemporary of mine who didn’t like to socialize! He was quite the character!

Matthew: What is your fondest musical memory?

Ruth: I got to play something at Carnegie Hall when I was studying at Mannes in New York City. I was also an usher there and able to hear all sorts of concerts.

Matthew: What is your inspiration for composition?

Ruth: I learned almost everything I know from accompanying fine choirs and sitting through their rehearsals. You learn a lot when you are playing for rehearsals because you can listen to all of the individual lines. I started working with Elmer Iseler, playing for the Festival Singers and singing through rehearsals with him was just wonderful because I could hear how the counterpoint moved and fit together.

Matthew: How has your musical style changed?

Ruth: It hasn’t changed a big deal, but it depends on the choir I am writing for! For example, I could write more counterpoint for professional choirs. For amateur groups, I tend to be pretty straightforward. For me, everything depends on the text. Before I write anything, I try to get a good text, which is where my ideas derive from.

Matthew: How often do you compose now?

Ruth: I don’t compose as much anymore, but I still keep up my playing! The fingers work much faster than my brain these days!

Many of Ruth’s works for piano, organ, and choir are included in our Contemporary Showcase syllabus, including this one for Treble Voices: