Eleanor Daley is a renowned Canadian choral composer and has held the position of director of music at Fairlawn Avenue United in Toronto since 1982.
Daley has published more than 150 sacred and secular works and composed hundreds of additional unpublished pieces. She was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 2022 for her contributions to Canadian music and choral culture.
On falling for choral music:
I started playing in a rhythm band when I was four, piano at five, and carried on from there. My parents were very supportive and encouraged practice when I would have rather been outside — I’m glad they persevered. It wasn’t until I went to Queen’s University as an organ major that I became smitten with choral music. I became the accompanist for my teacher David Cameron’s community choir. He selected Healey Willan’s Rise Up, My Love, [My Fair One], and I was hooked. This piece was a whole new world.
On beginning a compositional journey:
Composing began truly by accident, through necessity. My mother saw an ad for the Fairlawn music director position in a newspaper and told me to apply. There was only one book of introits [opening or invitational songs], so I started writing little introits for the choir, then quartets, descants and psalms. Conductor colleagues then programmed me or commissioned me to write pieces, and it went from there. I’m glad we only had that one book of introits — otherwise who knows where I’d be.
On faithful music:
My first connection to church as an employee was the United Church, and I have no regrets about that whatsoever — they’re more open theologically and with social justice. I identify more with the United Church, although there is such great music in the Anglican Church as well. My first compositions were all sacred. When writing church pieces, you try to say what you have to say in the shortest time possible because, at least in most churches, you can’t do a 10-minute anthem.
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On the inspiration:
I almost always choose the text first, because if it doesn’t speak to me, I have no interest in setting it to music. I’m thrilled to have a choir that will sing my music, and I’ve often been inspired to write a solo for a particular voice, because I know it so well. It’s a really fabulous thing, to write an introit on a Thursday morning and hear it sung on Sunday.
On the future of church music:
One of the biggest shifts over the years is the language in hymns. I find with some of the newer hymns there are fewer metaphors and more direct language — I think with mixed success. All I know is that church music has survived for hundreds of years, and I don’t see it disappearing anytime soon.
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On the Order of Canada:
I’m just over the moon. I feel very humbled to receive it — it’s such a great honour, and I think there are many other people who are more deserving, but I’ll take it. Two women from Fairlawn that I’ve known for decades spearheaded the nomination over three years ago. When I received the news from Ottawa, I was stunned. I don’t think it’s entirely sunk in, to tell you the truth. I still get speechless and teary-eyed. I’m just so thrilled for my mother, because it made her very happy.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Kate Spencer is a writer in Halifax.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s September 2023 issue with the title “Celebrated composer Eleanor Daley on what inspires her work.”
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