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Reviewed by:
  • The Music of Harry Freedman
  • Robin Elliott (bio)
Gail Dixon. The Music of Harry Freedman University of Toronto Press. viii, 190. $45.00

Harry Freedman was an industrious and gifted composer who wrote over two hundred works during his nearly sixty-year-long career. His initial professional training was as an artist (at the Winnipeg School of Art) and his first love in music was jazz. After serving in the RCAF during the Second World War (he played clarinet in the Central Silver Band), he used his rehabilitation grant to study music at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, where his teachers included John Weinzweig. He soon landed a job playing the English horn with the Toronto Symphony, a position he held from 1946 [End Page 389] until 1970. For the past thirty-five years he has been a full-time composer, writing up to ten commissioned works a year.

Gail Dixon has been studying the music of Freedman for twenty-five years. She notes that the present book 'is designed primarily as a study of [Freedman's] music, and only secondarily as a biography.' The biographical information offered is indeed slim. Freedman's wife, the outstanding soprano and pedagogue Mary Morrison, is mentioned in passing, but there is no mention of their daughter, the multitalented musician Lori Freedman. We get no sense of Freedman's relationship to the musical world around him, which is sad, given that he is one of the most engagé composers of his generation.

Dixon discusses fifty or so of Freedman's compositions in detail here, outlining his career chronologically in five chapters, framed by an introduction and conclusion. Nearly every work from his early career is discussed in detail, but only eight representative works from the past twenty-five years are chosen for analysis. Her rationale is that his style and technique as a composer evolved rapidly early in his career, but by the 1970s he had reached a consistent approach, and so a few works give an accurate idea of the rest.

Dixon makes much use of set theory in this book, as advanced by Allen Forte of Yale University. It is a method of analysing non-tonal music that groups the pitch content of a composition into collections of between three and nine elements each, in order to calibrate recurring or related pitch structures, both harmonically and melodically. Other musical features (rhythm, timbre, dynamics, articulation, etc) receive much less attention, and broader contextual issues (significance, performance, reception, social/cultural influences, etc) are almost entirely ignored. This kind of analysis had its day in the sun about thirty years ago, but the practical value of set-theoretical analysis is widely questioned today. It is frankly unsuited to the job of casting light on Freedman's work as a composer, because (as Dixon mentions several times) Freedman himself regards timbre as more important than pitch in his work; he often uses graphic notation, aleatoric and improvisatory sections, and other types of indeterminate pitch structures.

Even when Dixon's set-theoretical approach works best, much of the time what it offers is detailed and complex description masquerading as analysis. Her methodology is simply wrong-headed and deliberately obscure. In 1976, Freedman wrote a work titled The Explainer, in which he pokes fun at pretentiousness and the excessive use of jargon in descriptions of contemporary music. Alas, much of this book reads like just the kind of writing that Freedman lampoons in The Explainer.

Dixon has expended considerable intellectual effort here, but achieves little real musical insight. The concluding chapter, though, provides an engrossing description of Freedman's compositional process, and offers an [End Page 390] excellent summary of his styles and techniques. It is a great pity that the rest of the book is nowhere near as good. [End Page 391]

Robin Elliott

Robin Elliott, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto



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pp. 389-391
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