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Barbara Pentland: Biography

Barbara Pentland
1912 - 2000
Region: British Columbia

Barbara Pentland

BARBARA PENTLAND (1912-2000) was born in Winnipeg and began to write music at the age of nine, an activity which was met with strong disapproval from her conventional and socially prominent parents. She nevertheless continued to write surreptitiously during her school years in Montreal and was eventually "allowed" to study composition while at finishing school in Paris.

On her return to Canada, parental indifference and ill health continued to frustrate her progress as a composer until 1936, when she received a fellowship enabling her to continue studies at the Juilliard Graduate School in New York, where her teachers included Frederick Jacobi and Bernard Wagenaar; and at the Berkshire Music Centre, where she worked with Aaron Copland.

During the Second World War years Pentland became an instructor at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto, but found her professional advances vanishing as male colleagues returned to re-claim their places in the post-war musical life of central Canada. In 1949, she was invited by Harry Adaskin to join the just- founded music department of the University of British Columbia; when the department was re-organized along American lines by G. Welton Marquis in the later 1950s, she became disenchanted with academic life?choosing to resign, over the principle of academic standards, in 1963.

Pentland's earliest works are flavoured by the chromatic tradition of the French late-Romantic school of Franck and D'Indy. In the 1930s she became concerned with avoiding the textures and idioms of 19th century music; at that time, she was greatly impressed by the linear focus of early music, and of Gregorian chant in particular. As she began to embrace modernists aesthetics, her work became neoclassical in spirit?inspired, if not influenced, by Copland, Stravinsky, and Bart*k. After her contact with Schoenberg's pupil Dika Newlin in the late '40s and her introduction to the music of Webern and a sojourn at Darmstadt in the mid-'50s, she adopted serial techniques.

By the middle years of the 20th century Pentland saw herself as a committed high modernist and a steadfast partisan of contemporary values. In Canadian terms she was analogous to Elizabeth Lutyens in the United Kingdom or Ruth Crawford Seeger in the United States; she shared their concerns not just about the struggle for the new, but the particular problems of a finding a place as a woman in the overwhelmingly male milieu of the international avant garde.

Her preferred brand of modernism drew on the textures and organizational principles of the Webern school but was suffused with a lyricism that was expressly individual. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pentland continued her explorations investigating such then current trends as microtones, 'found' texts, directed improvisation, and tape.

In later life Pentland was awarded honourary doctorates from Simon Fraser University and the University of Manitoba and named a member of the Order of Canada. Though Pentland was recognized by scholars and many fellow composers as one of the most significant figures in 20th century Canadian music, her work was rarely popular with audiences or a broad spectrum of performers Despairing of any productive reconciliation between new ideas and the commercial-driven values of choirs and orchestras, she wrote her last works almost invariably for members of a loyal coterie of performers in Vancouver and elsewhere who celebrated the quality as well as originality of Pentland's work. Her final years were clouded with ill health, and at the time of her death in the winter of 2000 she had been unable to compose for almost a decade.

David Gordon Duke


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