St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations

St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations. Popular annual celebrations in French Canada on 24 June (the feast day of St John the Baptist) or on the days before or after this date. Following a tradition the origin of which is lost in antiquity, many people, among them the Gauls, lit fires to celebrate the summer solstice. According to the Jesuit Relations and the Journal des Jésuites, this tradition was revived on the banks of the St Lawrence in 1636. In 1646 the Journal reported that 'on 23 June the fire for St-Jean was lit at half-past eight in the evening... One heard five cannon shots and two or three discharges from muskets.'

It is not known why St-Jean-Baptiste came to be considered the patron saint of French Canada. One legend has it that a great many French-Canadians bearing that given name persuaded the journalist and patriot Ludger Duvernay to adopt it as the name of the national society of French-Canadians which he founded in 1834. In any case that was the name he chose, and the St-Jean-Baptiste Association (St-Jean-Baptiste Society from 1914 on) of Montreal took the maple leaf and the beaver as its emblems. The founding was celebrated 24 Jun 1834 by a banquet to which 60 guests were invited - Irish, US, and Canadian. Many among them sang their interpretations of patriotic songs, including George-Étienne Cartier who sang 'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!' The celebration became annual, and gradually more elaborate, and spread to other localities in Quebec, in Acadia (1880), and in the francophone regions of Ontario, the Canadian west, and even the USA. The celebrations were suspended 1838-42 because of political troubles.

Quebec City had its first official celebration in 1842. The procession to the cathedral was led by a civic band, the Musique Canadienne, which also played patriotic songs during the ensuing banquet. T.-F. Molt, the regular organist 1840-9 at the Quebec Basilica, was the first church musician to participate in the St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations and ca 1845 he organized a choir for the occasion. The Montreal St-Jean-Baptiste Association was reorganized in 1843 with a parade to mark the festivities. The Temperance Band (Montreal), the first to participate, made its appearance in 1846. Soon, other bands joined: those of the Collège de Montréal in 1847 and the Collège de Ste-Marie in 1850, Joseph Maffré's band in 1851, the Chasseurs canadiens and the Christian Brothers' band in 1868, the Bande de la Cité and the St-Henri and Ogdensburg, NY, bands in 1877, and those of Longueuil, Maisonneuve, and St-Vincent-de-Paul, and the Shamrocks, in 1879. Several musicians dedicated compositions to St-Jean-Baptiste Associations in Quebec City, Montreal, and Ottawa: for example, in Quebec City, Charles Sauvageau's 'Chant canadien' (Aubin & Rowen 1843; repr CMH, vol 7) and 'Chant national' (Le Ménestrel 1844), both for voice and piano; in Montreal, J.-C. Brauneis II's Marche de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Lovell & Gibson 1848; repr CMH, vol 1); and in Ottawa, Célestin Lavigueur's 'A notre saint patron' (1877) for voice and piano. In 1878, the St-Jean-Baptiste Association of Montreal adopted 'A la claire fontaine' as its national song.

A solemn mass was usual in most parishes in Montreal and Quebec City. Thus, at Notre-Dame in Montreal 'the worthy M. Barbarin conducted 200 voices which, with the orchestra, offered up Haydn's Second Mass with masterly hands and throats' (La Minerve, 25 Jun 1868). Other masses were sung in other years: Haydn's in 1869 and 1879, Rossini's in 1870 and 1871, and one by Father Cléophas Borduas in 1893, the 250th anniversary of the founding of Montreal. In 1935, at the church of St-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal, a Mass by Contant and an 'Ave Maria' by Lamoureux were performed; in 1936, a Mass by Descarries.

Twice the celebrations achieved exceptional dimensions. In 1874 60,000 visitors, half of them Franco-Americans, invaded Montreal to celebrate in grand style the 40th anniversary of the founding of the St-Jean-Baptiste Association and to join in a huge national convention of French-Canadians. A hymn, 'Rallions-nous,' was composed by Charles-Marie Panneton to words by Benjamin Sulte. The minutes of the association mention for the first time floats, numbering 15 on that occasion, and also 31 bands in the procession. The choir of the Collège de Montréal sang the eucharist in Notre-Dame Church. A banquet in the hall of Bonsecours Market and a musical jubilee on St Helen's Island were among the memorable events. J.-B. Labelle wrote and conducted a cantata for the occasion.

The celebration in Quebec City in 1880 coincided with another national convention of French-Canadians. Band concerts in the public squares on the evening of 23 June drew enormous crowds. The next day a choir of more than 500 voices performed Gustave Gagnon's arrangement of Du Mont's Messe royale accompanied by the bands of the 9th Battalion and the Union musicale. Calixa Lavallée's national song 'O Canada', composed for the occasion, was performed that day. Some 20 floats took part in a parade of 112 associations and numerous bands from Canada and the USA.

Parades became more and more elaborate over the years. A particular theme was chosen each year. For example, in 1928 34 floats each took for a theme a folksong, and the song was sung by a choir following the float. Also in 1928, on 28 June, Guillaume Couture's oratorio Jean le Précurseur was presented at the Delorimier Stadium in Montreal; it was revived 22 Jun 1964 in a performance at the PDA. The 1931 theme 'Women in Canadian history' included a float representing Emma Albani singing for Queen Victoria.

In 1939, at Lafontaine Park in Montreal, under the general theme 'Canada has remained faithful,' a float illustrated two songs: 'Isabeau ou l'anneau fatal' and 'J'ai cueilli la belle rose'. Folk music was honoured again in 1950 and 1952. Quebec chanson in the world context was featured in the framework of 'The International Personality of Quebec,' the theme of the 1967 celebrations. The following year Gilles Vigneault opened the parade singing 'Mon Pays'. In 1970 a need for change in the format, and considerable political unrest, forced the authorities to put an end to the traditional parade. It was nevertheless revived in 1990 under the theme 'Thirty Years of Quiet Power.'

Many musical activities have accompanied the week-long celebrations. Notable among these have been the promenade concerts, the first of which took place in the hall at Bonsecours Market in 1869. On 25 June La Minerve reported that 'the Orphéonistes de Montréal sang some jolly tunes by Octave Labelle and Zotique Pagé (comic songs full of wit and fun).' Such lively dances as the lancers (a variant on the quadrille), cotillions, and quadrilles were danced. The pattern was repeated in later years with much success; at the Monument national in 1893 such artists as Rosario Bourdon, Victoria Cartier, J.-J. Goulet, and Blanche Labelle took part. A military sketch, Devant l'ennemi, was presented 24 Jun 1879 at a grand dramatic and musical evening at the Theatre Royal; a literary and musical session, during which Oscar Martel played his own Fantaisie coquette, took place 24 June 1880. There were gala evenings in 1898, 1901, and 1903 and evenings of folk music in 1919, at the Monument national. In 1929 a competition for poets and musicians was organized with a view to creating new Canadian songs; the best were presented to the public 22 Jun 1929 at the Delorimier Stadium. Henri Miro's cantata Vox populi was performed on 24 June. Concerts of instrumental and vocal music were presented 1903-48 in parks and public squares, especially in Lafontaine Park.

The celebrations continued more or less in the traditional manner until the early 1960s. In 1964 the Commission des Fêtes du Canada Français was created, and that year 43 chansonniers performed at five bandstands on St Helen's Island, Montreal. Week-long celebrations took place in 1965 and 1968, with international dances, band festivals, and popular concerts.

After 1970 celebrations were held in the streets of Old Montreal, and in 1975 and 1976 on Mount Royal. In 1977, on the night of St-Jean-Baptiste, the team of artists gathered at the Olympic stadium included Colette Boky, Pierre Duval, the Disciples de Massenet, Félix Leclerc, Claude Léveillée, and Robert Savoie. From the end of the 1970s onwards, regions, towns, and villages organized their own activities, engaging noted singers and instrumental musicians as well as local ones. On 24 Jun 1985 Jacques Faubert's Messe de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, commissioned by the Archdiocese of Montreal, was premiered during the traditional mass held in St-Jean-Baptiste Church. It was performed by the soloists Denise Desjardins, Lise Blais, David Doane, and Jean-Clément Bergeron, a 150 voice choir and the organist Gisèle Guibord, under the direction of Jean-Pierre Guindon. In 1990 the show 'Aux portes du pays' was given alternately at the Plains of Abraham and St-Helen's Island. This event, led by the singers Gilles Vigneault, Paul Piché, and Michel Rivard, attracted some 200,000 people.

In 1959 the St-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal initiated its annual acknowledgement of the merits of a composer or performer, the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée.