• Headshot of professor emeritus Robert Turner

    June 6, 1920 - January 26, 2012

  • Professor Emeritus, Desautels Faculty of Music



Robert Turner (b. in Montreal on June 6, 1920, d. January 26, 2012), was the son of William Turner, an immigrant from Kirkaldy, Scotland, who eventually became Manager of the Royal Bank of Canada branches in Notre Dame de Grace and Montreal West, and Myrtle (Snowdon) Turner, whose family were prominent British Loyalists who settled in Quebec in the 1830s. Robert studied piano from an early age, owing in part to his father's musical interests in traditional Scottish folk music as well as Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; also, both his grandmothers were proficient amateur pianists. He developed an interest in composition during these lessons, and his first pieces were written without any formal instruction. During high school, Robert’s advanced piano studies with Frank Hanson and Walter Hungerford at the McGill Conservatory of Music led him to study composition and orchestration with Irvin Cooper, who encouraged him to attend McGill University, despite the increasing reservations and declining support of his parents. In his youth Robert enjoyed playing hockey and skiing as well as tennis, canoeing and swimming at his parents' summer home at Morin Heights in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec.

As a scholarship student at McGill, Robert Turner studied music theory and composition with Claude Champagne and Douglas Clarke; he received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1943. Following two years of military service in the cryptology division of the RCAF during World War II, he resumed composition studies with Douglas Clarke. In the summer of 1947, he attended Colorado College to work with Roy Harris; here, he met Sara Scott, a composition major from the University of Louisville studying with Harris. Sara was also specializing in tympani and mallet instruments at university, and playing in the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. During 1947-48 Robert studied composition with Herbert Howells and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music in London. In 1949 Robert and Sara married and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he majored in composition with Roy Harris at Vanderbilt University's George Peabody College, graduating with a Master of Music degree in 1950. Although Robert Turner had completed numerous compositions during these years, the earliest he acknowledges is his String Quartet No. 1, written in the summer of 1949, and premiered under the aegis of Aaron Copland, at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. This first major composition was acclaimed by both Copland and Leonard Bernstein. At Tanglewood, he was studying composition with Olivier Messiaen, and Sara was studying tympani and playing in the orchestra conducted by Bernstein.

In 1952 Robert Turner joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as Music Producer in Vancouver. He also completed the requirements for the Doctorate of Music from McGill University, and received this degree in 1953. From 1952 to 1968 Dr. Turner established a most distinguished reputation among his associates as a music producer and composer throughout Canada. During these years, he was responsible for major CBC programs involving the performance of high quality 'live' music, both classical and contemporary, introducing audiences to a very diverse range of unfamiliar and innovative compositions, written or performed by the finest national and international musicians. In addition to producing weekly programs for the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Avison, Turner supervised chamber music recitals, opera and oratorio productions, and symphony broadcasts for the CBC national network, including performances of works such as Copland's The Tender Land, Frank Martin's Golgotha, Barbara Pentland's The Lake, Douglas Moore’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, and piano works by Arnold Schoenberg played by the renowned Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Turner's first major commission was received from the Vancouver Symphony, and resulted in his writing what has become a classic among Canadian compositions, Opening Night: A Theatre Overture (1955), premiered by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Irwin Hoffman in 1955. Other early pieces subsequently appearing year after year on symphony and radio programs are Nocturne (1956/65), A Children's Overture (1958), Symphony for Strings (1960), and Three Episodes (1963).

In 1968, after having spent a year in Italy composing his first opera, The Brideship, Dr. Turner decided to devote more time to composition, and accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba’s School of Music. He found his work with student composers to be most gratifying. Many of his former students continued studies at graduate schools in Canada and the United States, and/or established reputations as composers in their own right: Peter Allen, Glenn Buhr, Bruce Carlson, T. Pat Carrabre, John Greer, Holly Harris, Rupert Lang, Diana McIntosh, Ron Paley, Robert Rogers, Linda Schwartz, David Scott, and John Winiarz. Turner’s appointment also afforded him opportunities to pursue his wide-ranging intellectual interests in Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, European history, the history of literature in English, modern fiction and poetry, and contemporary theories as well as practices of art and aesthetics. During these years Robert and Sara enjoyed extensive travels and sojourns throughout Europe and North America, and the company of their three children -- Alden, Martin and Carolyn -- all of whom have chosen careers in the arts.

In 1985 Robert Turner retired from teaching, and he is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Manitoba. His second opera, House of Shadows, was completed in 1986, and many of his most significant orchestral works were written in the years following this retirement: Shades of Autumn (1987), Third Symphony (1990), Manitoba Memoir (1991), House of Shadows (1994), and River of Time (1994). During the 1990 season, in celebration of Turner's 70th birthday, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performed five of his major orchestral works under the direction of Bramwell Tovey.

Robert Turner composed over 70 compositions in all forms from symphonic and chamber works to operatic, vocal and ensemble pieces, including three symphonies, four concertos, three string quartets and two operas. He fulfilled a great number of commissions from prominent national and international organizations and soloists, most notably the Canada Council, the Manitoba Arts Council, and C.B.C. Radio. His orchestral works have been successfully performed under many distinguished conductors: Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Karel Ancerl, Gary Bertini, Sergiu Commissiona, Franz-Paul Decker, Charles Dutoit, Agnes Grossmann, Derrick Inouye, Sir Ernest McMillan, Seiji Ozawa, Simon Streatfeld, and Bramwell Tovey.
In recognition of his distinguished, creative, and innovative contributions to Canadian music and culture, Robert Turner received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada (1993), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003) and was appointed to the Order of Canada (2003).