“Robert Turner – a personal reflection”
I got to know Bob Turner when he was already in his retirement years. I wasn’t a student of his at the university but certainly knew of him by reputation. I always admired his music. It had both sparkle and substance, and showed the firm hand of a master. It always seemed just right for whatever medium had enlisted his talents, whether it was for chorus, string quartet, symphony orchestra, solo harp or piano. It was music that engaged the mind and senses as it ebbed and flowed, wandering through every manner of development and digression.
I would see him at concerts and we would chat casually. He was a very down-to-earth man, and despite some opinions to the contrary, actually quite easy to engage in conversation once the social formalities had fallen aside. He led a life enveloped by music, Sara and his family, books of all kinds, and wonderment at the richness of the world around him. Those seemed to be the terms of reference which sustained his existence and nourished his art. Even though Bob’s health had declined in his latter years, he would always greet you with a chuckle on his breath and a twinkle in his eye. He loved to look out the window and count the cars or watch a flock of birds rushing upwards into the sky. Just a few weeks before he passed away, Sara and I sat with him at the piano at the seniors home where he was residing and he played through a few simple piano pieces. The words had disappeared, but the music remained.
And what a great legacy of music Robert Turner left us, running the entire spectrum of feeling and reminiscence. It is music that is exuberant and joyous, humorous and playful, passionate, reflective, melancholic, nostalgic, and tragic. It is the colour and energy of his Opening Night overture, the rollicking boisterousness of the second movement of his Manitoba Memoir and the mystical incantation of the third. It is the power and intensity of his Third Symphony’s first movement, the Mahleresque longings of the second, and the dazzling synthesis of the third. In short, Bob’s work is a triumphant example of what music was always intended to be – a journey into the most expansive recesses of the human psyche.
But at the same time, Bob was a composer rooted in the environment where he lived – his music is of the land and of the heart. It is music that belongs to the land which produced and nurtured him – Canada and the prairies; it is music that is bound to the great composers of the past and to our own North American continent; and perhaps most significantly, it is music that is grounded in the lilting airs and ballads of his ancestral home, of the British Isles and Scotland:
“How fitting he would pass in the wake of Robbie Burns Day – Scotland’s pride. I’m reminded of Bob’s big antique wooden chair from his father – they had brought it all the way from Scotland. He had a Scottish soul I think, and once again, his going on that day is poignant. Coincidence? I think not. Bob seemed to live his life by numbers and patterns, notes and a sense of order larger than what meets the eye; from arranging simple playing cards to ordering sounds into soaring orchestral works…” * [Holly Harris, personal communication, January 27, 2012.]
It is truly a privilege to have known Bob personally. I will remember him fondly as he leafed through one of the meticulously annotated scores taken from his comprehensive library, avidly looked to Sara for clarity and guidance, or just gazed out the window, wistfully contemplating the world from his still boyish but all-knowing point of view.