Music in Charlottetown | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music in Charlottetown

The capital of Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Established by 300 French colonists as Port-la-Joie in 1720, it was renamed Charlottetown in 1768 and was incorporated as a town in 1855 and as a city in 1875.

Charlottetown, PEI

Charlottetown, PEI. The capital of Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Established by 300 French colonists as Port-la-Joie in 1720, it was renamed Charlottetown in 1768 and was incorporated as a town in 1855 and as a city in 1875. The site of the 1864 conference that drew up the first plans for the union of British North America, Charlottetown is known as "the cradle of Confederation." With a population of 15 776 in 1986, Charlottetown is the Island's academic, cultural, and administrative centre.

Because of Charlottetown's island isolation its early musical activity depended on amateurs and a few visiting professionals. Singing schools for instruction in church music were organized from time to time, as early as the 1820s, and in the 1840s Miss Charlotte McCormick and a Mrs Jamieson gave piano lessons. Visiting musicians included the Rainer family of Tyrolean singers in 1841 and Baron Rudolph de Fleur, a pianist from Russia, in 1847. Watson Duchemin, a local pump and block maker who had imported organs to the island in the 1830s and made copies of them in the 1840s, built his own organs of quality including the one installed in St Paul's Church about 1850. Chorusmaster of Trinity Methodist Church until ca 1870, Duchemin also wrote some religious music, some of which is in the University of Prince Edward Island library. One of his organs has been restored and is now in the university's Steel Recital Hall.

The Charlottetown Brass Band, the Sons of Temperance Band and the St Peter's Cathedral Boys' Band were active at this time. New bands continued to appear throughout the 19th century, some attached to military units, others to fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Columbus.


Henry W. Vinnicombe, an immigrant from England, conducted an instrumental group as early as 1877. His orchestra accompanied the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas (H.M.S. Pinafore in 1885) presented by S.N. (Sammy) Earle at the Market Hall Stage, using local performers. By the end of the century Charlottetown had its own ''opera house,'' in which Earle staged The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and other operettas.

Henry Watts, an organist who taught music in the schools and directed a massed choir from all the Charlottetown churches in a memorial service in 1901 for Queen Victoria, continued the city's Gilbert & Sullivan tradition with school productions of Trial by Jury and other operettas. In 1926 Roberta Spencer Full came to Charlottetown and with a colleague (E. Lillian MacKenzie, also a church organist and music teacher) mounted Gilbert & Sullivan productions with singers from the local schools and colleges. The Women's Musical Club 1926-42 brought in visiting artists such as Rose Bampton, Nelson Eddy, and a trio from Winnipeg (the Nelson Sisters ), one of whom later became known as Zara Nelsova. In 1940 the club formed a 32-voice choir that, with the help of local male soloists, performed opera excerpts. Roberta Full and Helen Lawson helped establish the Community Concerts Association, which sponsored concerts annually 1931-77. ACT (A Community Theatre) performed Gilbert & Sullivan operettas under the music direction of Owen Aylward 1997-2001 and Carl Mathis 2002-3.


In 1946 the Women's Institute of Prince Edward Island (first president, Jessie Beck) founded the Prince Edward Island Music Festival. Now known as the Prince Edward Island Kiwanis Music Festival Association, it oversees four local festivals in the province (see Competition festivals). The festival season culminates with the Provincial Festival, which features adjudicators' recommended performers from the local festivals. Students in all age categories (Junior to Advanced) compete for many awards and scholarships and the opportunity to advance to the National Festival.

In 1955 Prince of Wales College (established in 1834 and amalgamated in 1969 with St Dunstan's University to form the University of Prince Edward Island) presented The Mikado, led by E. Lillian MacKenzie, music director at the college. This was the beginning of an annual spring festival of Gilbert & Sullivan productions that continued until 1969 and included Trial by Jury, The Pirates of Penzance, and H.M.S. Pinafore.

The Confederation Centre, completed in 1964, became the home of the Charlottetown Festival, with its popular stage musical Anne of Green Gables.

Choral groups in Charlottetown have included, in addition to church choirs, the Serenaders, a women's choir directed by Roberta Full, and the Charlottetown Chorale. The Confederation Centre of the Arts choirs consist of an adult choir, the Confederation Singers, performing two major concerts per year of large choral works and the Youth Chorus, performing a full concert semiannually in Charlottetown and does considerable travelling. Both choirs are under the direction of Donald Fraser.

Musical Education

Around the middle of the 20th century, the singers and teachers Raoul and Marguerite Raymond, the organist Flora Rogers, the singer Barbara Roper and the violinist Kathleen Hornby were among other individuals who contributed to musical activity in the city. During the 1960s standards in musical education and performance increased apace. Christopher Gledhill, music director of the Prince Edward Island Department of Education 1961-77, directed choirs, was organist-choirmaster at the Kirk of St James, and was the first president of the Prince Edward Island Music Educators' Association. William Bartlett took over the directorship from Gledhill in 1977, making further improvements in music education. Bartlett retired in 1995. Others active in music education were Royston Mugford , Gerard Rutten and Roger Jabbour. The establishment of the Music Department at the University of Prince Edward Island in 1969 provided a stimulus and focus for many musical activities in the city. The department now sponsors some 50 or more concerts annually by students, faculty and guest artists.

The Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchestra is a community orchestra made up of professional, semi-professional and amateur musicians. Sunday-afternoon concerts are held in the Confederation Centre of the Arts Mainstage Theatre. Conducted by James Mark, the symphony offers four concerts each season.

The turn of the 21st century saw a growth in ensembles and concerts. In 2005, the Summer Noon Hour Organ Recitals at St Peter's Cathedral, under the direction of Alan Reesor, featuring local, national and international performers, celebrated its 25th anniversary. A Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO) Centre was re-established in 1987. The Prince Edward Island Registered Music Teachers' Association, a branch of the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers Association, was established in 1997. Both of those groups provide concerts and workshops for the public and professionals. Artistic director Frances McBurnie, of the Summer Noon Hour Concerts at the St James Presbyterian Church, presents young local and national performers, both vocalists and instrumentalists. Several seasonal music series are held at historic Beaconsfield.

In 2002, the group eklektikos, specializing in the performance of new Canadian music, was established with Dale Sorensen as artistic director. A branch of the Alliance for Canadian New Music Projects, established in 1997, has sponsored an annual Contemporary Showcase.

Folk Music
Traditional country music also enjoys great popularity in Charlottetown, as it has throughout the Island. The city's radio station CFCY was the original home of Don Messer and His Islanders. Recently, fiddling has taken on a new approach; an example is the energetic performing style of Richard Wood. The Benevolent Irish Society sponsors ceilis, in which Celtic music is performed. The Acadian folk group Barachois 1995-2003 performed at folk festivals in Canada, the United States and Europe.

Diverse Scene

The city offers many performing opportunities, including barbershop quartets and choruses, and the Charlottetown Jazz Ensemble. In the late 1990s, an eight-member group of young Charlottetown musicians, the Jive Kings, performed an eclectic mix of swing, jazz, big band and Latin music. A number of performers and groups in the popular music genre began to make their mark at the end of the 20th century. These include the Chucky Danger Band, the group Mars Hill with Dean Dunsford (part-time musician from an extremely musical family) and Catherine MacLellan (following in the footsteps of her father, Gene MacLellan, as a singer/songwriter). Christine Forgeron and Chas Guay, an acoustic duo (voice and guitar), perform a fusion of roots, jazz and blues. The guitar and percussion ensemble Este Mundo emerged in 1998 specializing in a synthesis of Spanish, classical and pop styles. The release of their premier CD led to the group winning the East Coast Music Awards for Instrumental group of the year in 1999. In 2001, Charlottetown hosted that awards' gala.

Musicians from Charlottetown
Two natives of Charlottetown who have achieved distinction as composers are William Keith Rogers and Walter MacNutt. Conductor Charles Hutton received his schooling in Charlottetown. Nancy White was born in Charlottetown, the rock band Haywire was formed there, and folk singers Teresa Doyle and Lennie Gallant have lived in the Charlottetown area.

Further Reading