Music at the Séminaire de Québec

The Société Ste-Cécile, which was to serve as the hub of musical activities at the seminary - and indeed, to play an important role in the artistic life of Quebec - was not formally established until 200 years later.

Séminaire de Québec

Séminaire de Québec. Teaching establishment founded in Quebec City by Mgr François de Laval, the first bishop of New France. The Grand Séminaire was created in 1663 to provide for the training of an indigenous clergy. The Petit Séminaire, begun in 1668, was originally a prepatory school for future priests, but offered, after 1759, a classical education leading to the liberal professions. As early as 1666 Bishop Laval is believed to have introduced a course in church music into the seminary's program.

The Société Ste-Cécile, which was to serve as the hub of musical activities at the seminary - and indeed, to play an important role in the artistic life of Quebec - was not formally established until 200 years later. It came into being as a student instrumental group in 1833, but was not given permanent status or named until 1869. (It is not to be confused with the Société Sainte-Cécile founded in Montreal by A.J. Boucher in 1860 or the Société musicale Sainte-Cécile.) Much later, in 1927, its regulations defined it as follows: 'The Société Sainte-Cécile, Brass Band or Concert Band, is a musical society made up of pupils boarding in the adult division of the Petit séminaire de Québec'; its purpose was to 'initiate the students into the art of instrumental music, to develop their appreciation of it, to make them proficient in playing an instrument and also to enhance public gatherings.'

In the spring of 1833 in the Petit Séminaire Adam Schott organized an orchestra which performed during the end-of-year examination period. The first official concert was given 15 Aug 1834 at the time of the public examinations. Schott was replaced by James Ziegler Jr, commander of the 66th Regiment, who transformed the orchestra into a military band 1836-8. The program of a concert given 6 Apr 1837 contained Boieldieu's overture to The Caliph of Bagdad. The leadership of the society changed hands fairly often. Its musical directors were Vincent Mazzocchi 1838-41 and Charles Sauvageau 1841-4; Ziegler returned 1844-8 and was followed by James Ross 1848-58, a certain Sprake during the summer of 1858, Father Sébastien Morel 1858-9, Sprake again 1859-61, Célestin Lavigueur 1861-5, Charles J. Millar 1865-7, Lavigueur again 1867-8, E. Rochette 1868-73, Father Georges Frazer 1873-5, Henry McKernan ca 1875-82, and Father Thomas Marcoux1882-4. Among those who taught at the seminary during this period were Sauvageau 1841-9, Antoine Dessane 1849-50, Louis Sigismond Pfeiffer 1851-2, and Lavigueur for 30 years. Morel had come from Europe to be organist-choirmaster at the cathedral. Ross, Sprake, and McKernan were regimental band directors; McKernan also taught English and bookkeeping at the seminary.

Joseph Vézina took over as music director 1884-1924. Vézina made some radical changes. He excluded wind instruments so that the band could play at religious ceremonies, but in 1900 he readmitted the woodwinds. Even after 1914, when the ensemble had become little more than a military band, Vézina slowly directed the repertoire towards classical non-religious works (such as excerpts from Weber's Der Freischütz and medleys of Verdi and Donizetti operas). A report of a meeting of the society 1 Jun 1897 described the repertoire played until then as follows: 'quick steps, galops, some waltzes, that was in reality the sum total of the program of almost all its music sessions.'

Father Pierre-Chrysologue Desrochers, a music teacher at the seminary, euphonium player in the society, and its deputy conductor, gradually took over the position of director, which he held until his death in 1947. Robert Talbot replaced him briefly. Around this time the Société Sainte-Cécile began to decline. Father Marc Letarte was director 1947-50 and 1951-60, and Edwin Bélanger, teacher at the seminary for 22 years, served as interim director in 1950-1, but between 1960 and 1962 the ensemble was left to its own devices. Its last director was the violinist Claude Létourneau 1962-ca 1967. With him ended the activities of this society, the oldest of its kind in Canada. The more relaxed attitude towards the students' use of leisure time and the boarders' freedom to come and go from the school had made mandatory rehearsals virtually impossible.

A. Bégin, Ernest Gagnon (piano, organ), J.-A. Gilbert, T.F. Molt, G. Raineri, and M. Range are some of the others who taught at the seminary at different periods. Edwin Bélanger, Émile Larochelle, and Joseph Vézina are among the best-known students.

The library of the seminary holds an important collection of both manuscript and printed scores, mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.


Further Reading

  • Vézina, Raymond. 'La Société Sainte-Cécile,' Aspects de l'enseignement au petit séminaire de Québec 1765-1945 (Quebec City 1968)