Montreal Festivals/Festivals de Montréal

The Montreal Festivals/Les Festivals de Montréal. Concert and opera festivals founded by the Hon Louis-Athanase David and his wife and held annually 1939-65. They grew out of the Festival de musique de Montreal, which, under the auspices of the SCSM (MSO), presented summer seasons of musical events 1936-8 in an attempt to establish in Canada a festival similar to the great annual festivals of Europe. The Festival de musique presented opening performances 15 and 17 Jun 1936 of Bach's St Matthew Passion and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in the chapel of St-Laurent College on the outskirts of Montreal; Wilfrid Pelletier conducted, and the choirs were the Cathedral Singers (Montreal) and the Disciples de Massenet. Bach's Mass in B Minor and Verdi's Requiem followed in 1937, Beethoven's Missa solemnis in 1938.

The Montreal Festivals became incorporated as an independent company in 1939 and began to expand and diversify under the direction of Mme David, who served as president until 1952. Notable among the festivals' early presentations was the Canadian premiere, in June 1940, of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, with Pelletier as conductor and Marcelle Denya and Raoul Jobin in the title roles. Because wartime rationing of gasoline made performances around the periphery of Montreal impractical the work was presented at His Majesty's Theatre.

From 1941 to 1945 Sir Thomas Beecham was associated with the festivals, conducting the Brahms and Fauré requiems, Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, and a series of popular concerts in the Forum. The company formed its own orchestra and in subsequent seasons presented open-air productions of Aida, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Tosca, Manon, Die Fledermaus, and other operas, either at the Molson Stadium or at the Chalet atop Mount Royal. During the winter season, it gave concerts of chamber music, mainly by the McGill String Quartet, as well as a series devoted to French song.

During the presidencies of Paul Gouin, 1952-5, and Robert Letendre, 1956-65, the company ventured into theatre, dance, arts and crafts exhibitions, folk music, operetta, jazz, film, solo recitals, and contemporary music. It continued to operate within the framework of a summer festival, and Canadian content was emphasized increasingly. The responsibility for music was held by Francoys Bernier 1957-9, Roland Leduc 1960-3, and Gérard Lamarche 1964-5. In 1961 Pierre Mercure organized the International Week of Today's Music for the company.

The festivals' record of 30 consecutive seasons (1936-65) may be regarded in retrospect as impressive, varied, and dynamic. In addition to the 1940 Pelléas et Mélisande, Montreal or Canadian premieres worthy of mention are Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in 1946; Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat in 1949; Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher in 1953; Racine's Athalie with music by Jean-Baptiste Moreau and Clermont Pépin in 1956; Ildebrando Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral in 1959; Ravel's L'Heure espagnole in 1961; Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine in 1962; and Gilbert Bécaud's L'Opéra d'Aran in 1965.

The company's offerings were enriched by a roster of internationally known musicians, such as the conductors Emil Cooper, Laszlo Halasz, Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch, Charles O'Connell, and Eugene Ormandy; the pianists Gyorgy Cziffra, José Iturbi, and Wilhelm Kempff; the singers Rose Bampton, Marjorie Lawrence, Grace Moore, Martial Singher, and Eleanor Steber.

Despite steady support from the public and substantial grants from governments, corporations, and individuals, the company accumulated a large deficit over the years. The building of an arts centre, a project it had long championed, was achieved in 1963 with the inauguration of the PDA. After 1965, preparations for the monumental World Festival held during Expo 67 were expected to require all its energy, and the company therefore decided to end its activities. On 31 Aug 1965 Pelletier, who had inaugurated the Montreal Festivals 30 years earlier, conducted Haydn's The Seasons in the PDA. It was the last presentation by an organization which profoundly affected the artistic life of Montreal.

A souvenir of the era may be found on two recordings (78s) produced in 1941 by RCA Victor at the Collège de Montréal under Pelletier by the Disciples de Massenet, the Montreal Festivals Orchestra, and singers Marcelle Denya and Mack Harell: Fauré's Requiem and Mozart's Ave verum K618 (DM-844) distributed worldwide and reissued on LP (LCT-7003, later withdrawn from the catalogue), and Mozart's Agnus Dei K427 (V-185112).