The inspiration for the score for Road To Avonlea was the folk music of the east coast of Canada that has its roots in the musical traditions of Scotland and Ireland. It is music that reaches for the heart – deceptively simple harmonically yet emotionally very powerful. Of course, I couldn’t have produced the music for this series without the help of a very strong team of individuals.
The scores for episodes in seasons six and seven were conducted by Christopher Dedrick, and he, too, crafted some beautiful orchestrations. Over the course of the series, Hayward Parrott and Jeff Wolpert recorded to a 24 track tape recorder as backup, in all but a couple of cases the ‘live to two track’ mix was the one used in the shows, a testament to the high caliber of musicians and recording engineers on the project.
A Letter From Composer John Welsman
I used essentially a theme and variations approach to the score of the show, giving the central characters their signature musical sound and tone. As characters were introduced, the music driving their stories was frequently inspired by their particular idiosyncrasies. For Sarah’s Theme, I wanted the music to suggest the kind of freedom of spirit and elegance that the young Sara Stanley possessed – her strength and determination as well as her softness.
The Story Girl Theme was originally composed for scenes of her running freely through the fields near Avonlea in the episode 1.2: The Story Girl Earns Her Name, but after hearing it, Kevin Sullivan chose it for the “Main Title” music for the series.
Jasper Dale’s Theme has the feeling of an old fashioned waltz that, I feel, compliments his rather shy and eccentric character. The musical phrases that play in many of his scenes are gradually revealed in a halting and hesitant manner, not unlike the stuttering rhythm of his speech. For Old Lady Lloyd, the music establishes a nostalgic tone to highlight the fact that, to a large extent, she was a woman who lived in the past. One of my favourite music cues in the series was for the scene where she is seen trekking out in the storm to Andrew Cameron’s house. Glenn Morley did a beautiful job orchestrating this one.
Malcolm’s Theme is the Robbie Burn’s song My Heart’s In the Highland and appears throughout 1.7: Aunt Abigail’s Beau. The closing music for the episode (the last selection in the suite) was one of my more ambitious arrangements inspired in part by the work of Ralph Vaughn Williams. I’ve always looked upon the music for the closing credits as an opportunity to really play – the story is finished, and one is no longer constrained by dramatic considerations.
Peg Bowen is one of my favourite characters – feared by the people of the town, and yet quite lovable once you get to know her. I wanted her theme to work from the point of view of the kids, so the music in her scenes suggests mystery and suspense. The music in 1.12: The Blue Chest of Arabella King sets a similar mood and the inspiration for it came from one of my favourite scores – Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
For the unforgettable Gus Pike, who happened to play the fiddle, the challenge was to find a piece that was simple enough for him to play but which could be made much richer in its full orchestration as underscore. I would frequently consult with a friend, musicologist Anne Lederman, about the traditional music of the period and place. Once, she played a traditional Irish tune for me called Ur Cnoc Cein Mhic Cainte (Gaelic for ‘The Fresh Hills of Cein Mhic Cainte’) and I loved it. My orchestral arrangement of that piece became Gus’ theme.
Captain Crane’s Theme, the traditional east coast song She’s Like The Swallow, was the song Gus Pike’s mother sang to him as young boy. It was natural that the piece that haunted Crane would be orchestrated as score for the episode. My partner, Cherie Camp, and I had produced a recording of the song a number of years ago, and I decided to include it on the soundtrack CD.
I felt that the King Family Theme, again in 3/4 time, had to feel warm and stately like the family it described. This theme, perhaps more than any other, had to withstand the twisting and turning into variations for all manner of scenes concerning the family, from quiet comfort to raucous chases, danger to suspense, humour to sadness.
We conclude the compilation with an excerpt from 5.9: Thursday’s Child, the episode in which Cecily is stricken with tuberculosis. It stands as a favourite moment in the series that still gives me chills – the music happening on screen (Alec singing All Through the Night quietly to Daniel) is transformed and magically supported by the orchestra rising behind it. Another masterful Morley orchestration.
It’s hard to say with certainty how music is ‘heard’ and realised by a composer, transcribed from the mind to the manuscript. But I do know that it’s a thrill to compose for motion picture when every aspect of the production is of such high quality as it was on Road to Avonlea. I’m ever grateful to Kevin Sullivan and Trudy Grant for the opportunity to work on this series, and for the opportunity to bring you this music.
Kevin Sullivan Looks Back At The Music
The ambiance of Road to Avonlea seems like a long-forgotten world, more than ten years after the town and studio sets have long since disappeared and cast members have dispersed around the globe to play other roles and fulfill their careers. However, the nostalgia and energy of that world is instantly revived through the evocative sounds of the production’s wonderfully potent musical score.
Both of these elements are really part and parcel of interpreting characters in the production, which had grown to over 200 and many of them had original musical themes developed for them. Whether a character was an important guest star or a returning principal, the manner in which they presented their character in a given dramatic situation was underscored by a complex structure of beautifully written melodies that made each performer’s artistic contribution to the production evocative of the whole.
The score softened or intensified all of the character’s emotions with wonderful panache and great style. Frequently the score also served to remind the audience from where the character originally developed; especially as in the poignant themes composed for Gus Pike and Jasper Dale. The musical landscape of Road to Avonlea is as distinct as its sets and its cinematic topography.
The remarkable contributions of composers John Welsman and Don Gillis were beyond measure in conjuring atmosphere and creating rhythms that began with traditional influences but soon grew, with the opportunity of longevity, to blossom into dynamic and emotionally powerful original scores for each episode; scores that really supported and shaped the drama. The fact that so many original musical themes and leitmotivs were executed from episode to episode makes this television series unlike any other ever filmed.
The luxury of so much original music enhanced the cinematic quality of the production. As later episodes became more complex in character and story, so too the scores made the series feel like one long, engaging movie.
I was indeed fortunate to have worked with someone as talented as John Welsman, who was perpetually successful at interpreting my ideas about mood and character. Our friendship began in high school and carried on after university when we shared accommodation as roommates.
I was always awed by the fluidity and adaptability of John’s talent, as well as his remarkable lexicon of musical ideas. The foundation for the musical themes in Road to Avonlea actually began long before the series was ever even conceived and long before John was even aware of his musical influence on me.
For Christmas of 1980, John gave me a vinyl recording of the famous tenor Kenneth McKellar, singing a host of songs by Scottish poet Robbie Burns. It was quite a prescient gift, because the tone and melodies recorded therein laid the groundwork for a great deal of what would inspire the musical soundtrack for Avonlea a decade later. I still have no idea why John had decided that I would be interested in either McKellar or Burns.
At the time, I took one look at the dated cover of the album and actually didn’t even listen to it for years. It doesn’t matter, because once I finally did, I was immediately swept away by a suite of exquisite lively and emotional melodies, such as My Heart‘s in the Highlands or My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, that to this day, remain stirring and evocative in my memory.
Not only were Burns’ 18th century songs reminiscent of the rural world I wanted to capture, but they contained stories of mystery, cruelty, love and hope that were much tied to the kinds of tales I had begun to develop for the planned long-running series. The McKellar arrangements on the album were vibrant, modern and thrilling and I constantly drew John’s attention to them as we mutually began to plot a way to develop musical landscape. John patiently listened to all of the ideas and characteristics I wanted him to express, then his subtle instincts and originality went to work to create a whole other poetic reality, as score after moving score infolded across every episode. I am extremely proud to be able to offer an insight into john’s remarkable creativity, with this enclosed selection of original recordings.
This album finally provides audiences the opportunity to revive the wonderful atmosphere John created as a backdrop for the maritime community of Avonlea, and fulfills a long-awaited aspiration on both our parts. I hope this production offers insight for fans and viewers into how a series develops emotional complexity, not only through characterization and drama, but through rich, marvelous sounds.