Undiscovered Gems of Canadian Pedagogical Piano Literature: The Works of Violet Archer, Jean Coulthard, and Barbara Pentland
Canadian composers Violet Archer, Jeanne Coulthard, and Barbara Pentland were three amazing women composers representing different parts of Canada: Archer from Quebec, Coulthard from British Columbia, and Pentland from Manitoba. Even though they came from and represent the broad, expansive country of Canada, they did have some commonalities: all three were writing at a time when composition was not considered a woman's right and destiny; all three showed an interest in music at a very early age; all three were dedicated to the art of music and studied it intensely; all three went outside of Canada to pursue music study, get degrees, and professional employment; all three were influenced by American and European composers; all three were invested in writing quality educational piano music for young pianists; and all three died the same year, 2000, within weeks of each other.
While they wrote works for all instruments, instrumental combinations, as well as media, Archer, Coulthard, and Pentland were heavily invested in writing educational piano music. Their works may be considered premier works of educational music for young pianists and they provide a window into the creative efforts of these pedagogical Canadian piano composers.
Teachers may find repertoire for all three composers listed on the Canadian Music Centre website. In addition, two valuable resources list the works of these three composers: Maurice Hinson's Guide to the Pianists Repertoire (4th ed.), and Jane Magrath's The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature. While there are minor discrepancies between these two sources, both can help piano teachers to learn more about the music of these three Canadian composers. The literature presented in this article was selected for its level (intermediate to later intermediate), quality of composition, uniqueness and contribution to educational piano music, and of course, its worthiness of inclusion in the piano teaching repertoire. At the conclusion of each composer will be a short list of educational piano pieces with publishers as applicable. This list has been compiled from the above sources and represents the intermediate to late intermediate repertoire.
Violet Archer (1913-2000)
Violet Archer was a composer, teacher, pianist, organist, and percussionist. She was born Violet Balestrerl in Montreal, Quebec, her last name changed by the family in 1940 from Balestrerl to Archer. Violet started piano lessons before the age of ten—her commitment to music was very passionate even then. She wrote her first composition by the age of sixteen. She entered the McGill Conservatory where she studied organ with J.J. Weathersied, piano with Dorothy Shearwood-Stubbington, and composition with Claude Champagne and Douglas Clarke. She earned her Licentiate degree from McGill in 1934 and the Associate Diploma of the Royal Canadian College of Organists in 1938.
Archer's early career included teaching piano and music theory as well as playing percussion for the Montreal Women's Symphony. Her formal debut as a composer was made possible by Douglas Clarke, the conductor of the Montreal Women's Symphony, who selected her Scherzo Sinfonico to be premiered on one of their concerts. Shortly thereafter, Sir Adrian Boult, conductor of the British Broadcast Company Orchestra selected her work, A Joyful Overture, for a BBC broadcast in 1942. With these two prestigious premieres under her belt, she was well on her way for recognition as a distinguished composer.
Archer's determination and commitment to compositional study was realized through studying with some of the greatest composers of the day: Bela Bartok (1942) in New York; and Paul Hindemith (1948-1949) at Yale, where she earned a bachelor's and master's degree in composition. In addition, Archer was determined to study other instruments above and beyond the piano and organ: she studied the clarinet and also stringed instruments, adding these skills to her already burgeoning knowledge of composing for other instruments. After completing her Master of Music degree from Yale, she taught at the University of North Texas, Cornell University, and the University of Oklahoma. Throughout her career she would receive prestigious grants for continued study and was awarded the Alberta Life Achievement Award, the Canadian Music Council's Composer of the Year Award, and the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal.
In addition to educational piano music, Archer wrote works for solo instruments, chamber combinations, orchestral pieces, choral works, and pieces for piano and voice. Her 280-plus compositions are marked by a neo-classical style, sometimes dissonant, and contrapuntal textures with a hint of folk style. Nicholas Slonimsky describes Archer's music as ". . .structurally strong, polyphonically disciplined, and generally kept within organized tonality with occasional dodecaphonic episodes." Her music is delightful, captivating, and offers fresh new sounds for the young pianist. Of interest for the intermediate pianist are the Habitant Sketches, Studies in 20th Century Idioms (Four Little Studies), and Three Miniatures for Piano. All of these collections are forward-looking in their use of contemporary techniques and all of them were composed in Archer's later career. These collections are also significant historically: they provide a glimpse into the piano literature of the day and the concepts that were being taught and studied. Furthermore, Archer went out on a limb, so to speak, to craft these highly unusual pieces with the intent that they would become standard teaching pieces for piano students. They are a valuable resource for teaching contemporary sounds to an intermediate student.
Four Little Studies (1964) contains four short pieces ranging in length from eight measures to twenty-four measures. All of these pieces embrace contemporary sounds and are cast as character pieces. "Simple Song" is exactly that: a lyrical melody in the right hand supported by open fifths in the left hand, and only eight measures long! Never mind that the key of choice is F-sharp major: the melody and shifting left hand open fifths suggest a pentatonic sound.
"Follow the Leader" has the look of Bartok: the right hand begins, and the left hand follows, as the title suggests. The imitation by the left hand is tonal, not every interval is exact as first executed by the right hand. This piece certainly follows up on the development of independence between the hands for the student and teaches imitation as well.
"Bouncing Lightly" sports staccato thirds that are the basis for this eleven-measure piece. Archer indicates a grazioso touch for the alternating thirds which do not maintain a consistent rhythmic pattern. This is an effective study piece reinforcing bitonality.
Closing the set is "A Little Different". While the piece is bitonal, the concept is not as clear as in the previous pieces, which is maybe why it was given the designated title. The left hand supports the right-hand melody primarily with open fifths, deviating twice to present a countermelody. The sound is improvisational to a certain degree, as if the student is "trying something out."
The Habitant Sketches (1982) offers the pianist wonderful character pieces full of fresh and creative sounds. All of these pieces feature Archer at her most tonal moment. The "Jig" (Excerpt 1), cast in 6/8, uses five-finger patterns explicitly that fit the hand of the young pianist. Modal in sound, the dance-like character is conveyed through jaunty rhythms.
Excerpt 1: "Jig" by Violet Archer, mm. 1–4.1
The "Church Scene" (Excerpt 2) opens with bell-like sounds marked under a tempo of "very broadly." The use of 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths provides an ethereal sound, in addition to the fact that this introduction is bitonal. Archer marks a cantabile passage "with plainsong inflection of shading" followed by a chordal hymn-like section before returning to the opening material.
Excerpt 2: "Church Scene" by Violet Archer, mm. mm. 1–4.
"Christmas in Quebec" (Excerpt 3) is a charming piece using paraphrases on "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Mendelssohn). Set in G major, the melody is in the left hand for most of the time. Scalar patterns abound in the right hand and add sparkle to the piece. The student will be challenged when the hands cross and un-cross in a moment's notice.
Excerpt 3: "Christmas in Quebec" by Violet Archer, mm. 1–3.
Three Miniatures (1965) is a collection of three short, one-page character pieces all featuring bitonality or multiple tonalities. These are, by comparison to the Habitant Sketches, much more tonally challenging for the ear. They are, however, excellent teaching pieces for this concept. "Dreaming", cast in 6/8, offers a leisurely journey through bitonality: each hand embraces a different key and is always stationed in a five-finger pattern. Use of the damper pedal enhances the effect of a dream-like quality.
"Dark Mood", marked Poco Allegro, Peasante, features clashing intervals of minor seconds in the left hand that persist throughout the piece. Rhythmically strident, this piece will challenge the ear and the student's ability to count precisely. The dissonance and driving succession of notes help to contribute to the dark texture and mood.
Archer wrote a few more advanced works, such as the two sonatas, the Six Preludes, and the Four Bagatelles. The listing below may serve as a guide for discovering more of Archer's works.
Selected Educational Piano Pieces:
Eleven Short Pieces (Peer International)
Rondo (Peer International)
Four Little Studies (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Habitant Sketches (Berandol/Canadian Music Centre)
Three Miniatures (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Theme and Variation (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Dancing on the Seashore (Alberta Keys Music Publishing)
Studies in 20th Century Idiom (Canadian Music Centre)
Sonatina (Boosey & Hawkes)
Six Preludes (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)
Jean Coulthard was a pianist, composer, and music educator. She was born in Vancouver, B.C. into a musical family. Her father was a prominent and influential musician and her mother was a very fine pianist who taught lessons in their home. Jean studied with her mother, who introduced her to the piano music of Debussy and Ravel, which would have a profound impact on Jean throughout her life. Jean continued her piano studies with Jan Cheniavsky and theory with Frederick Chubb. She won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music (1928-1929) studying piano with Kathleen Long, theory with R.O. Morris, and composition with Ralph Vaughn Williams.
Following college graduation, Jean taught private piano lessons in her mother's studio. In 1930, she headed the music department at St. Anthony's at Queens Hall. During this time she also broadened her compositional horizons through brief visits with Arthur Benjamin, Bernard Wagenaar, Gordon Jacob, and had her work appraised through lessons with Darius Milhaud, Bela Bartok, and Nadia Boulanger. In 1947, she was appointed a lecturer at the University of British Columbia where she taught composition, and by 1957, she became a senior instructor there. Interestingly, the music department needed a teacher for music theory and Coulthard hired Barbara Pentland. Following her teaching stint at the University, she traveled to Paris and London, the latter allowing her to study more completely under Gordon Jacob.
Coulthard officially retired in 1973: at this point, she had written and published a vast amount of works for nearly all instruments and instrumental combinations. By the end of the century, she was internationally recognized as one of the most significant composers of her sex. Coulthard held the titles of Honorary Doctorates from two universities. In addition, she was named the Freeman of the City of Vancouver, Officer of the Order of Canada, and Composer of the Year by PRO Canada.
Coulthard's compositional style is most often tonal with slight diversions into chromaticism and dissonant polyphony. The influence of her mother's love for impressionism, specifically the works of Debussy, is prevalent in her music.
While she wrote a good amount of piano music, two collections for the early to middle intermediate pianist are especially endearing and worthy of study: Four Piano Pieces and Pieces for the Present. Both collections offer short character pieces for the pianist that are simply delightful to listen to and play.
Four Piano Pieces (1952) is a smaller collection, featuring four short contemporary character pieces that deserve playing. "Little Song of Long Ago" features a haunting melody set in the key of D Major, although bitonality over-rules the given key signature. Following is "Pleading": the interval relationship in the melody, a minor 2nd, is what really evokes the "pleading" character. No matter that the piece is cast in A Major because the pieces ends in E Major! Coulthard captures the essence of the third piece, "The Spies," with triplet patterns in the left hand accompanied with open chord patterns in the right hand—4ths and 5ths. In addition, both hands are in different key zones! Staccato-note chords add to the mysterious effect. Closing this collection is "On the Lawn." Of all the pieces, this piece romps around the keyboard and is the most tonal. Cast in 6/8, the hands stay within five-finger patterns and triad-chord shapes. The student gets to play scalar patterns that alternate between the hands— which sounds very cool. These pieces are delightful and could be programmed for a recital, festival, or competition. They are very worthy of playing and provide fresh sounds for the young pianist.
Pieces for the Present (1973) is a collection of eight character pieces for the middle intermediate pianist. They offer technical and musical challenges as well as some contemporary idioms. A few of the pieces appear dated, such as "Television Story Time," but all are excellent for teaching and learning. "Where the Tradewinds Blow" (Excerpt 4) is written in 6/4 time and features the F natural minor scale, and variants thereof, which provides the tradewinds effect. There are several register changes and the crossing of the left hand over the right hand.
Excerpt 4: "Where the Tradewinds Blow" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–4.2
"Promenade of the Bird Watchers" (Excerpt 5) features jaunty rhythms, off-beat accents, and the use of bitonality to convey the quirky nature of the birds. A crisp staccato touch is needed to complete the total effect.
Excerpt 5: "Promenade of the Bird Watchers" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–4.
Polytonality abounds in "Far Above the Clouds" (Excerpt 6). Section A features open fifths in the left hand accompanied by triads in the right hand. Section B presents lilting scale patterns in the right hand to be played an octave higher over an ostinato pattern in the left hand. The scales seem to help to suggest a floating quality. Section A returns to close the piece.
Excerpt 6: "Far Above the Clouds" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–4.
Coulthard's "Black Boy Dances" (Excerpt 7) shows the influences of Debussy's Le Petit Nègre. Highly chromatic with syncopated rhythms, the middle section, which is marked "back to time" features whole-tone scale passages. This piece will challenge the student rhythmically, but will also be fun to play because it has so much character.
Excerpt 7: "Black Boy Dances" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–3.
"Television Story Time" (Excerpt 8) is a throwback to the "good old times" when children, and even their families, would sit together to watch a show on the television. This piece features a Good Character, which is labeled "Moderately, with grace," and a Bad Character, marked "Faster and Agitated." The Good features flowing lines while the Bad features abrupt triplet rhythms and dissonant chords. The show ends, of course, with a Happy Ending—marked by a distant and far-away snippet of the Bad Character. This is a great character piece!
Excerpt 8: "Television Story Time" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 20–24.
Marked "Very smoothly and not too fast," "The Mountain Snow Trail" (Excerpt 9) offers the pianist triplet figures in the right hand and a singing melody line for the left hand. While the pattern will trade hands throughout the score, the triplets will remain constant: they will never stop until the end. They, in essence, help Coulthard portray a snowy mountain trail.
Excerpt 9: "The Mountain Snow Trail" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–3.
"The Mathematician" (Excerpt 10) is quaintly portrayed by a pointillistic texture that moves across the keyboard appearing in different registers. Marked "Pedantically," staccato playing is required to render the sound for the Mathematician. Scattered throughout the score are several places marked "mournfully:" maybe the Mathematician is pondering a difficult exercise?
Excerpt 10: "The Mathematician" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–3.
Students and teachers alike will find "Grandfather's Clock" (Excerpt 11) a delightful piece. The student will enjoy having the opportunity to reach inside the piano and pluck the lowest C—the grandfather clock chime. Long pedal points help to sustain the chime's sound, and Coulthard also marks the duration of seconds for each measure.
Excerpt 11: "Grandfather's Clock" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–3.
The last piece in this collection, "Dance of the Clogs" (Excerpt 12), is set in 6/8 time with fluctuating rhythmic groupings. The accents in the left hand might suggest a clog stomping.
Excerpt 12: "Dance of the Clogs" by Jean Coulthard, mm. 1–4.
Selected Educational Piano Pieces:
Pieces for the Present (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Three Dances for Piano (Canadian Music Centre)
White Caps (BMI)
Four Studies for Piano (Canadian Music Centre)
Sonata for Piano (BMI)
Quiet Song (Canadian Music Centre)
Four Piano Pieces (BMI)
Early Pieces for Piano (Canadian Music Centre)
Aegean Sketches (BMI)
Twelve Preludes (Canadian Music Centre)
Daredevil (Canadian Music Centre)
Noon Siesta (Canadian Music Centre)
Requiem Piece (Avondale/Canadian Music Centre)
Barbara Pentland (1912-2000)
Barbara Pentland was a pianist and composer. Born in Winnipeg, she suffered a heart disorder from birth that limited her physical and social activities. Because of this, she was not involved with other students her age. Her solitude helped to develop her intellectual skills through much reading. She started piano by the age of nine and showed a keen interest in composition—which was strongly discouraged by her family as they thought it was too eccentric for her and her "delicate position." Despite her family's attempts to dissuade her from her passion, she continued to compose throughout her teen years. It was during this time that, through much reading, she became fascinated with the French Revolution and the works of Beethoven, the latter whose influence can be found in some of her compositions around 1925. Frederick Blair, an organist and conductor, taught her piano and theory while at a very strict boarding school in Montreal. He strongly encouraged her to compose, and the family finally realized her passion and relented, allowing her to study composition in Paris with Cecil Gauthiez.
When Barbara returned home from Paris, she continued her studies with Hugh Bancroft and Eva Clare and then started her career as a concert pianist. In 1936, she entered the Juilliard School where she completed her graduate studies, working with Frederick Jacobi and Bernard Wagenaar. Barbara also had the opportunity to study composition with Copland at Tanglewood. She accepted two teaching positions: the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and the University of British Columbia. The position at the RCM was somewhat short-lived: during the second World War, most of the men were serving for the country, thus positions such as what she held were often-times staffed by women. Once the war ended, there was not a need for her there, as the return of the male teaching force ousted many women academicians such as herself. Pentland stayed at the UBC for a period of time, becoming disenchanted with the academic atmosphere by 1950 and then resigned.
Pentland's writing style, which was influenced by D'Indy and Franck, began as somewhat neo-classic then shifted more to serialism later in her life. Webern's works attracted her greatly, as well as the integration of microtones, and later, direct improvisation and the use of tape in performance. Because of her style, her works were often dismissed as "difficult" and she had a hard time placing herself as a distinguished composer in what was considered a man's field.
Later in life, Pentland was awarded honorary doctorates from Simon Fraser University and the University of Manitoba and named a member of the Order of Canada. Pentland wrote symphonies, works for small instrumental combinations, choral works, and works for solo piano. Pentland's pedagogical works for piano represent a significant part of her music due in part to a piano teacher, Rachel Cavalho, in the Toronto area, who encouraged her to write for young pianists. Her early style in her piano works is characterized by the neo-classical influence of Hindemith. Later works exhibit more linear styles and economy of notes and textures.
Of special interest is Pentland's Music of Now series (1970). This method is devoted exclusively to and based on contemporary techniques. The three books are highly organized not only in presentation of material, but they include steps for practicing and learning the pieces. Book One introduces basic notes and rhythms, and offers the student pieces that are in close-patterned positions. Included are optional percussion duets for some of the pieces. Book Two moves the student into the black keys while also introducing tone clusters. More advanced rhythms are explored and even some contemporary idioms are introduced, such as silently depressing a chord. Book Three presents more complex rhythmic structures and pieces. The books are very detailed and the care, thought, and presentation of each concept is very thorough. This method should be considered a historical work of value and interest. Teachers wishing to use this method might consider using it with a bright and more mature student.
Hands Across the C (1965), for the intermediate student, is a delightful collection featuring three contrasting pieces which span the entire length of the keyboard. The "melody" is generally passed from one hand to the other. In addition to the solo pieces, there are preparatory studies to establish the concept of each piece. Pentland states in her preface that the pieces are in a specific form, such as binary or ternary. These pieces are forward thinking in terms of tonality and compositional techniques.
"Sparks" (Excerpt 13) is in binary form and contains two themes derived from a tone row and its inversion. This piece moves the pianist all over the piano and demands specific phrasing that is often different in each hand. The end result is that the piece and the pianist will sound terrific! The study piece for "Sparks" is "Skips."
Excerpt 13: "Sparks" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–4.3
"Mist" (Excerpt 14) features a long melody set in ternary form. This piece is based on a tone row with inverted and retrograde sets. The damper pedal adds a wonderful touch— providing a cloudy sound as well as mystery. The study piece for "Mist" is "Slurs."
Excerpt 14: "Mist" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–4.
The last piece, "Seashore" (Excerpt 15), is cast in ternary form and features arpeggiated patterns passing to and from each hand. There are rhythmic complexities that make it a challenge and also make it fun—especially the measures marked with a "Mexican rhythm." The rolling arpeggiated patterns sound like waves rolling in off the shore and students will sound quite impressive playing this piece. The study piece for "Seashore" is "Stretches 1 and 2."
Excerpt 15: "Seashore" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–3.
Pentland's Space Studies I (1968), for the later intermediate pianist, are also a great find and deserve more recognition. The four pieces in this collection all explore contemporary concepts and suggest some form of outer-space idiom. "Frolic" (Excerpt 16) is subtitled with "study in use of wide compass," meaning: this piece moves the pianist all over the keyboard! A staccato touch is required for nearly all the notes with the exception of some notated two-note slurs and accidentals.
Excerpt 16: "Frolic" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–5.4
"From Outer Space: In Space" (Excerpt 17) utilizes chord clusters in the left hand and an atonal melody in the right hand. Pentland states that this is a "study in use of pedal for connecting wide-spaced melody and for vibration of overtones to enrich harmony."Marked "mysteriously," this piece is very effective for conveying an outer-space feel.
Excerpt 17: "From Outer Space: In Space" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–5.
"From Outer Space: Beeps" (Excerpt 18) is a study in rhythm. Pentland includes preliminary rhythmic studies in the score and provides practice pointers on how to use the rhythm.
Excerpt 18: "From Outer Space: Beeps" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–3.
"Quest" (Excerpt 19) is a study in contrapuntal phrasing and has the look of an early piece out of Bartok's Mikrokosmos. The patterns for the hands are very tidy. Pentland suggests varying dynamics by playing certain phrases louder and/or softer, and indicates this in the score with A being played more loudly than B equating to: A is mf and B is p. Then she suggests reversing this, and indicates when and how in the score. The writing is very expressive and will build the student's ability for playing contrapuntal music.
Excerpt 19: "Quest" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–6.
The last piece, "Balancing Act" (Excerpt 20), provides the student with a study in rhythm. Similar to "Beeps," Pentland provides preliminary rhythms to help secure the rhythmic precision in the piece. She also provides what I might call "anchoring notes," found in the left hand in measures 1-2 and then stated at various times throughout the score providing regularity.
Excerpt 20: "Balancing Act" by Barbara Pentland, mm. 1–4.
One additional set to consider is the Maze/Labyrinthe, Casse-Tête/Puzzle (1969). This two-piece collection is highly chromatic and atonal: Pentland indicates the shifting five-finger patterns which are notated at the bottom of each score. The Maze and Casse-Tête feature highly independent and chromatic lines, the latter features two-note slurs and staccato articulations. These pieces are challenging for the ear, however they would build excellent readers and develop good independence between the hands.
Selected Educational Piano Pieces:
Five Preludes (Canadian Music Centre)
Studies in Line (Canadian Music Centre)
From Long Ago (Canadian Music Centre)
Three Pairs (Canadian Music Centre)
Shadow Ombres (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Maze/Labyrinthe and Casse-Tête/Puzzle (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
Hands Across the C (Avondale/Canadian Music Centre)
Space Studies (Avondale/Canadian Music Centre)
Music of Now (Waterloo/Canadian Music Centre)
During their day, Archer, Coulthard, and Pentland set the bar for future women composers by setting the example of good scholarship, study, and writing in a variety of styles that were not "feminine." Their music is as fresh today as it was then and should be recognized as quality educational music for young pianists. Teachers and students need to be encouraged to step out of the box to explore pieces like these.
1. Excerpts 1–3 are from Violet Archer: Three Scenes—Habitant Sketches (Berandol Music Ltd./Canadian Music Centre). Reprinted with permission.
2. Excerpts 4–12 are from Jean Coulthard: Pieces for the Present (Mayfair Music Publications). Reprinted with permission.
4. Excerpts 16–20 are from Barbara Pentland: Space Studies (The Avondale Press/Canadian Music Centre). Reprinted with permission.
Association of Canadian Women Composers Directory of 1987. Available through the Canadian Music Centre.
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Hinson, Maurice. Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire, fourth edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
Magrath, Jane. The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature. Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing Company, 2005.
MacMilan, Keith and John Beckwith, eds. Contemporary Canadian Composers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Pendle, Karen. Women and Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Pendle, Karen. Women In Music: A Research and Information Guide. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2005.
Pugh, Aelwyn. Women in Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Rowley, Vivienne. A Pedagogical Analysis of Solo Piano Music of the Canadian Composer, Jean Coulthard. Boston University, MUS AD.
Slonimsky, Nicholas. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. New York: G. Schirmer, 1958.