10 Of The Greatest Canadian Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Canada is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with over 200 languages spoken including 60 indigenous ones. They also aren’t strangers to the language of music with some hugely talented musicians calling Canada home.

Their wealth of talent when it comes to composers is certainly not lacking and in this post, we’re going to look at 10 of the greatest Canadian composers of past and present.

1. Howard Shore

Howard Shore by Sam Santos (CC BY 2.0)

Both a conductor and a famous composer of film scores; it’s unlikely you haven’t heard his work whether or not you know the name Howard Leslie Shore. 

Shore started on television as one of the creators and the musical director for Saturday Night Live. With the score for I Miss You Hugs & Kisses, he began a path that he would become known for, going on to score more than 80 films. 

With Canadian director David Cronenberg he composed 15 of his films, turning Cronenberg’s The Fly (2008) into an opera that went on to show in Los Angeles and tour throughout Europe.

His stellar work hasn’t gone unnoticed. An officer of the Order of Canada, and the 2011 recipient of Canada’s Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, he has also won four Grammys, 3 Academy Awards, and many other awards for his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A complete list of his works, awards, and interviews can be found on his website.

2. Rufus Wainwright

Born in Rhinebeck, New York but raised in Montreal, Rufus Wainwright is the son of American folk musician Loudon Wainwright III

He takes after his father as a singer-songwriter with a style that has been likened to Leonard Cohen and called ‘baroque pop.’

His legacy, however, is more than just as a pop star. In 1989, at the age of 14, he received a genie award nomination for his song in Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, then a Juno award for his self-titled debut album in 1989 and again in 2002. 

Rufus made his name as an award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist. In 2009, his opera Prima Madonna played in the UK, Canada, and the US, going on to win best new opera in 2011.

The Canadian Opera Company commissioned his 2nd opera called Hadrian. Alongside his composing work, Wainwright has also collaborated with musicians like Elton John and Robbie Williams in rock and orchestral arrangements.

3. David Foster

David Foster by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Born in Victoria, BC, David Foster has tackled all aspects of the music business, even composing the song “Winter Games” for the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary

He has composed instrumental songs for film and TV and partnered with legendary artists like Whitney Houston for collaborations. 

While known for singable melodies and layered sound that uses strings, piano, and orchestral crescendos, Foster has endured throughout the years, even when pop music changes with time. Time magazine even went so far as to call David Foster: “The True King of Pop” in an article from 1994. 

David Foster has won numerous awards, securing 16 Grammy awards, 7 Junos, multiple industry awards, and been inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2007 and the US Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010. 

4. Ann Southam

The first prominent female composer and feminist, Ann Southam (1937-2010), started her composing career at 15 after attending a summer music camp held at Banff Centre. 

Her early work was electronic in a time when women were rarely seen to compose in the genre, drawing from minimalist composers to create pieces for the New Dance Group of Canada.

In 1981, she released her album Glass Houses, showing her style evolution with an album made up of long, 12-tone pieces. She had moved away from electronic music in favor of the piano.

A founding member and first president of the Association of Canadian Women Composers, in 2002, she received the Friends of Canadian Music Award, and in 2010, Southam was named a Member of the Order of Canada

Southam made headlines when she bequeathed $14 million to the Canadian Women’s Foundation upon her passing.

5. Healey Willan

Healey Willan

An organist and a composer, James Healey Willan (1880-1968) composed over 800 works for public consumption, including full band pieces, orchestra, piano and organ, operas, symphonies, and chamber music. 

However, he is best known for his church music above all else, with over half of his works dedicated to choral singing. 

Born in England, he came to Canada in 1913, drawn to Toronto’s St. Paul’s Anglican Church and the Toronto Conservatory of Music. He would become a professor and the church’s organist and choirmaster, respectively.

For his time, he became an ideal for younger composers to look up to and a reassurance that one could make a living through music. He even became the first Canadian musician to appear on a Canadian postage stamp

Wilan received numerous accolades in his lifetime from people of authority, including receiving the Companion of the Order of Canada. 

6. Alexina Louie

Celebrated by some of the most well-known artists, ensembles, and symphonies, Vancouver-born Alexina Louie composes contemporary art music. Her sound blends her Chinese background with western influences and an exotic instrument palette. 

Perhaps the best known of these pieces is Scenes From A Jade Terrace, played by both professionals and students worldwide. 

During an orchestral tour in Nunavik, she was also a guest composer, composing commission pieces such as Take the Dog Sled, which Inuit throat singers performed.

Louie has won two Junos for Best Classical Composition, a Molson Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2019, and the Queenʼs Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee Medals. 

She was named the 2020 recipient for the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. Like many of the composers on this list, she is also an Officer of the Order of Canada.

7. Adnan Sami

Although born in London and raised in Britain, Adnan Khan holds Canadian Citizenship. He is an Indian musician, composer, singer, and pianist who performs both Indian and Western music. 

As a classical concert pianist, he’s been invited to play for royalty like the King of Sweden and heads of state and governments like the Prime Minister of India for countries all over the world. 

In addition to special appearances, he’s also sold-out stadiums and solo concerts showing his popularity exists for many different types of people.

His piano playing and composing have allowed him to stand out as a musician blending Western and South Asian musical styles by playing Indian classical music and santoor music on the piano. 

When it comes to awards, Adnan has received numerous accolades and special recognition from UNICEF and the United Nations for songs he wrote and performed for Ethiopia and Africa, respectively. Then in 2013, the Canadian Parliament awarded him for his contribution to the arts, culture, and music.

8. R. Murray Schafer

Raymond Murray Schafer (1933 – 2021) was a Canadian composer, music educator, writer, and environmentalist known for hearing and exposing the world to the music of nature. 

His crowning achievement is the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, developed first through a course about noise pollution. Then it blossomed into a passion for the acoustic ecology of the world and brought soundscapes to the world. 

Schafer’s compelling work incorporated nature alongside its performers, positioning players around lakes, bringing in choral singers on canoes, and making up languages to sing in. 

His notable albums include Wild Bird and his funny but moving work Alzheimer’s Masterpiece.

The grandest piece he composed was only performed twice, it was called Apocalypsis, and it required 500 performers. The second performance in his memory featured over 1000 players. 

Alongside the accomplishment of his book The Tuning of the World, he was recognized as the first to receive the Jules Léger Prize in 1978 and a Juno in 1991. He became a companion of the Order of Canada among numerous other accolades. 

9. Christos Hatzis

A Canadian-Greek composer, Christos Hatzis is currently the professor of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. 

His work encompasses film scores, writings about composition, concertos, symphonies, and chamber music. 

One of his best-known accomplishments, Constantinople, is a piece that combined eclectic musical stylings, eastern elements, and visual media was performed internationally and hailed by critics as a brilliant piece.

Hatzis often composes around common themes like Christianity, his Byzantine heritage, and the Canadian Inuit culture.

Christos is no stranger to awards and is a recipient of the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award, Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music, and two Juno Awards in 2006 and 2008. 

He is also the 2014 recipient of the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF) Life Achievement Award, an award that seeks to recognize Canadians of Hellenic and Philhellenes descent.

10. Jocelyn Morlock

Winnipeg-born composer Jocelyn Morlock now lives in Vancouver and has written concertos and compositions for some of Canada’s best-known orchestras, including provincial symphony orchestras across Canada. 

Morlock has set precedents with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, first chosen as the inaugural Composer-in-residence and then selected as their first female Composer-in-Residence from 2014 to 2019. 

In 2018, she won a Juno for Classical Composition of the Year for her piece My Name is Amanda Todd. Jocelyn has since gone on to be known as a composer for small ensembles and untraditional pairings like piano and percussion, as heard in her piece Quoi???

Through the 2005 Montreal International Music Competition, she wrote Amore, performed in at least 70 different times, not including a plethora of radio broadcasts.

Summing up our List of Famous Candian Composers

Anyway, thanks for reading our blog post and we hope you were able to learn more about the composers who have shaped Canadian culture and music, as well as what they’ve contributed to society through their work.

These ten names are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Canadian music history, so we encourage you to explore more about these artists’ lives and work.

We’ll also be adding to this list shortly so let us know which Canadian composers we should check out next and we’ll add them.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.