Local history buffs may be familiar with the story of Elinor Dunsmuir, the rebellious fifth daughter of Hatley Castle builders James and Laura Dunsmuir.
But far fewer likely know she was a talented composer, whose musical creations were discovered in a box in the home of a Dunsmuir descendant in England – more or less by accident – several years ago by Craigdarroch Castle curator Bruce Davies.
Fast forward to the present and the Castle, with the help of a couple of dedicated local musicians, has released a 30-track CD along with music books detailing the material, which includes orchestral works, ballets and much shorter pieces.
“For us it’s a chance to take something that might sit in an archive in a basement and put it out to the public,” says Castle executive director John Hughes. He hosted a rather unique CD release party this week at the Castle that saw the late composer’s material performed by the Cascadia String Quartet, soprano Elizabeth Gerow and pianist Jannie Burdeti.
“We’re talking about an unpublished female Canadian composer, with quality product and it really doesn’t belong in a scruffy box in the basement. It’s huge for us to be able to put that out there and share that with the world,” Hughes said.
The CD, La Riche Canadienne: The Music of Elinor Dunsmuir (1887-1938), was a two-year project overseen by the Castle and taken on musically by Gerow and Nicholas Van Giesen, who were introduced to the music in 2014.
Gerow had started performing and lecturing about period music while studying voice at the University of Victoria. Upon learning of Elinor’s compositions, programming the music into her computer to be able to hear it, and beginning to research Dunsmuir further, Gerow was hooked.
“There’s something about her songs; they’re so different than anything I sang at UVic or anything I’ve heard, and that’s why I like singing them,” she said.
The combination of the music, what it seems to reveal about Elinor and her personal heartbreaks and joys, and how it relates to the era in which she wrote it, attracted Gerow to this potentially multi-faceted project. In performing it, she said, “I feel like I’m bringing history alive.”
Gerow has applied to graduate schools in England to work on her master’s degree in music, but she also plans to add a history element to it. Being in Britain will allow her to do further research on Dunsmuir, who lived a significant period of her life there and befriended such artists as playwright Noel Coward.
Ideally, Hughes said, the Castle would like to assemble a travelling exhibit with the material for other museums, as a way to share the music and dig deeper into Elinor’s musical and creative story. “It’s just another step in us doing our job as custodians of the family information and putting it out there.”
The CD and musicbooks are available for purchase at the Castle giftshop, 1050 Joan Cres.
The sounds of history
The Castle’s two antique grand pianos were expertly played by pianist Burdeti for the evening’s performance. One of those, the beautiful drawing room Steinway featuring colourful artwork on the outside case and legs, was most likely played by Elinor Dunsmuir at some point, but not at Craigdarroch. The beautiful instrument was transported there long after the Dunsmuir era from its longtime home at Hatley Castle – where Elinor grew up.