Alexis Contant | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Alexis Contant

(Joseph Pierre) Alexis Contant. Composer, organist, teacher, pianist, b Montreal 12 Nov 1858, d there 28 Nov 1918.
Contant, Alexis
His major work, Cain, was one of the first oratorios composed by a Canadian.

Contant, Alexis

(Joseph Pierre) Alexis Contant. Composer, organist, teacher, pianist, b Montreal 12 Nov 1858, d there 28 Nov 1918. The son of an amateur violinist, he took piano lessons from his mother, who was born in Chambly and had studied the instrument with Emma Albani. He next worked with the organist and pianist Joseph A. Fowler and first performed in public at 13. When Calixa Lavallée returned from Paris in 1875, he accepted Contant as a pupil. Over the next few years Contant accompanied several artists in recital, including the violinist Jehin-Prume, who advised him to go to Europe to study. The young man's father feared such a journey would endanger his son's religious faith, however, and refused to let him go. From September 1880 to February 1881 Contant taught at the Collège de L'Assomption. Anxious to learn more about music theory, Contant joined Lavallée in Boston in January 1883 and studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Besides substituting occasionally for his ailing master in concerts, he attended many operas and concerts; a performance of Gounod's oratorio La Rédemption made a deep impression on him. Discovering that he was given to uncontrollable attacks of stage-fright, he decided to devote himself to the organ, to composition, and to teaching. He returned to Montreal n June 1883 and had several consultations with Guillaume Couture, but left him following a disagreement. To further his knowledge of composition he began to study and analyse the masterworks of Bach, Gounod, Wagner, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, and Franck. He became organist at St-Jean-Baptiste Church in Montreal in 1885 and held the position until his death. But for the rest of his life his teaching duties were to take most of his time and energy; he taught 1883-90 at the Collège de Montréal, ca 1887 at the convent of Hochelaga, 1900-18 at the Mont-St-Louis College, and 1905-17 at the Conservatoire national, as well as giving private lessons. His studio was attended by numerous pupils, notably Victor Brault, Claude Champagne, Orpha-F. Deveaux, J.-J. Gagnier, Rodolphe Mathieu and Wilfrid Pelletier.

Contant had to reconcile his creative activity with his duties as organist and teacher and his family responsibilities, and until 1900 he had written relatively little. La Lyre enchantée, a 'fantaisie-nocturne' for piano in the style of Chopin, was popular on the concert stage and in the salons. Of his four masses with orchestra, the third was premiered 1 Feb 1903 at the Monument national by a choir of 180 voices and an orchestra of 50 players conducted by Edmond Hardy. The heroic march Les Alliés and two pieces for cello, Romance and Méditation, were also on the program. The concert was a great success and established the composer's reputation; it was repeated in substance in the same hall on 8 Nov 1903. Contant next undertook what was to be his major work and one of the first oratorios composed by a Canadian, Caïn, premiered 12 Nov 1905 at the Monument national under J.-J. Goulet, in the presence of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of Canada. Contant then began to compose a second oratorio, Les Deux Âmes, to a text by Henri Roullaud. It was not completed until 1909 and not performed until 1913 (see Oratorios, Canadian 4, 5). In the mean time, Contant turned to chamber music and produced a Trio for violin, cello, and piano, played first in 1907 and repeated often. His patriotic cantata for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, Le Canada, also was performed that year. In 1912 he completed a symphonic poem, L'Aurore, which displays greater craftsmanship and an increased resourcefulness in both composition and instrumentation. He orchestrated his Méditation for the conductor Agide Jacchia, who performed it at a Sunday concert at His Majesty's Theatre. Wishing to attempt an opera, Contant for his libretto chose Veronica, a play by Louis Fréchette. However, he had only completed the prelude to the first act and sketched the third act when a paralytic stroke cruelly interrupted his activities. From 1914 until his death he wrote little except the song 'Sur Un Crucifix,' to a poem by Albert Lozeau.

Contant was the first Canadian composer of note to receive all his training in Canada. Though he did spend six months in Boston, he worked there with his mentor Lavallée. Largely self-taught, by necessity rather than choice, he worked at his craft by studying the scores of the masters he admired. Such training, acquired only after tremendous effort in a somewhat unfavourable environment, kept him isolated from new ideas. In form and aesthetic, his works resemble those of Gounod, Dubois, or Saint-Saëns, while the elegance of his melodic line often calls to mind Fauré. Although naturally reserved, he felt compelled to compose: 'I write not for glory but rather to satisfy an irresistible need' (Jean-Yves Contant, VM).

Immediately after the premiere of Contant's Messe No. 3, Achille Fortier described it as 'a solidly structured work; a composition of merit whose inspiration reveals itself in an elegant and expressive melody, sustained by a harmony that is both scholarly and discreetly refined' (Montreal La Patrie, 2 Feb 1903). Léo-Pol Morin, on the other hand, was much more severe in his assessment: 'Although... Alexis Contant has always had a certain facility, or better still, a certain fecundity, he has always lacked taste and judgment... his oratorios represent the serious efforts of a musician who is conscientious but bereft of originality of thought or form and with an immature grasp of his craft. Caïn and Les Deux Âmes reveal a lack of craft and an imagination at once generous and in questionable taste' (Papiers de musique, Montreal 1930). Morin went on to charge that Contant's works had 'been written half a century too late' and displayed 'a pretentious and lacklustre verbiage rather than real inspiration'.

Contant was a pioneer whose vision was on a large scale, and although the results of his efforts do not equal his ambitions, he displays a sincerity and honesty worthy of admiration. His works were published in Paris by Hamelle, Haussman, and L. Grus and in Montreal by Archambault, Beauchemin, Joseph-Émile Bélair, A.J. Boucher, L. Cardinal, Édition Belgo-Canadienne, and J.-G. Yon and in LePasse-Temps. Of his major pieces, the Trio for violin, cello and piano is the one most often performed.

On the centenary of Contant's birth, the CBC presented, 13 Nov 1958, a special program of his works under the direction of Roland Leduc and broadcast from St-Jean-Baptiste Church in Montreal, where he was organist for more than three decades. An avenue in Montreal was named for him in 1962. His manuscripts and personal papers were acquired in 1971 by the National Library of Canada and an exhibition of them was mounted in Ottawa in 1979. In 1982 the NL of C published the Alexis Contant Catalogue compiled by Stephen C. Willis.

Contant's sister Marie (Alida), Mme Eugène L'Africain (b Montreal ca 1860, d ?), studied voice with Rosita del Vecchio and Achille Fortier and beginning in 1897 with Romain Bussine at the Paris Cons. His brother Joseph-Albert (b Montreal 1 Oct 1877, d Joliette, Que, 16 Apr 1942), organist-choirmaster, was a pupil of Alexis and of Alcibiade Béique. He held posts in Granby, Chambly, Beauharnois and Joliette and composed some religious works. In 1918 he founded the Zouaves Band in Joliette, which he was still conducting in 1935. A daughter of Alexis, Fleurette (b Montreal 3 Dec 1892, d 14 Apr 1987), studied voice in Montreal with Albert Clerk-Jeannotte in 1912 and with Salvator Issaurel, and then with Félia Litvinne in Paris. Returning to Montreal because of the war, she continued her studies with Béatrice La Palme and began to teach in 1918. Another daughter, Aline, married the painter Georges Delfosse in 1908.

Contant's grandson Jean-Yves Contant (b Montreal 28 Mar 1918) was a CBC radio producer 1938-79 and was responsible for such music programs as 'Adagio' 1945-55 and 'Les Grands Concerts' 1975-7. As part of the latter series, excerpts of Caïn were performed in 1976 in the Salle Claude-Champagne under the direction of Jean Deslauriers.

Selected Compositions

Fantaisie sur des airs canadiens W4. 1900. Ms

Les Alliés 'Grande marche héroïque' W5. 1902. Orch (band or piano). Self-publ 1914 (piano)

Marche pontificale Pie X W6. 1903. Ms

L'Aurore W9, symphonic poem. 1912. Ms. CBC SMCD-5090 (Orchestre métropolitain)

Veronica W41, overture to an unfinished opera. 1916. Ms

Choir And Orchestra

Mass in D Minor W42. 1884. Chor, orch, organ. Ms

Mass in B Flat W45. 1896?. Chor, orch, organ. Ms

Mass No. 2 W46. 1897. Chor, orch, organ. Ms

Tantum ergo W71. 1897. Ms

L'Angelus W72. 1898. Ms

Mass No. 3 W47. 1902. Chor, orch, organ. Ms

Le Canada W110, patriotic cantata (O. Crémazie). 1906?. Bar, chorus, orch. Ms

See also Caïn W39 and Les Deux Âmes.W40


Messe brève en do W44. 1894. TTBB, organ. L. Cardinal 1894

Messe des morts W48. 1908. TTB. Org. L. Grus1908

Messe brève en sol W49. 1910. TTB, organ. Ms

Messe des anges W50. SATB. Org. Ms

Chamber Music

Méditation W12. 1897. Vc (violin), piano or orch. Édn Belgo-Canadienne 1925. RCI 612 (Dubeau)/CBC Musica Viva MVCD-1043 (Tsutsumi)

Romance W14. 1900 Vc (violin), piano. Édn Belgo-Canadienne 1925. RCI 612 (Dubeau)

La Charmeuse W15. 1903. Vc (violin), piano. Édn Belgo-Canadienne 1925. RCI 612 (Dubeau)/CBC Musica Viva MVCD-1043 (Tsutsumi)

Musique W98 (A. Lozeau). 1907. V, violoncello,.piano. Hamelle 1910

Trio W17. 1907. Vn, violoncello, piano. CMH vol 11. RCI 229/RCA CCS-1023/4-RCI 513 (Brandon University Trio)/CBC Musica Viva MVCD-1042 (Hertz)


La Lyre enchantée W19. 1875. ? 1876, Hardy 1896, Yon ca. 1903, Boucher 1938, CMH vol 6. RCI 252 (J. Dufresne)

La Cavalcade W22. 1883. Pf-4 hands (pf-2 hands). Ms

Vive Laurier W26. 1897. Pf (band). Boucher 1897, Yon ca. 1903.

Other works for piano, 2 published in CMH vol 6, and also variations on 'Un Canadien errant'.W25 (1898) and 'God Save the King' W30 (1907). Ms

Other works for voice and piano (7 published in CMH vol 7) and motets for choir and organ (4 published in CMH vol 9)

Further Reading