Czech Music in Canada

Perhaps the first musically important immigrant to Canada from what later was to be known as Czechoslovakia was Wilhelm Labitzky (violinist, b Becov 1829, d Toronto 1871; son of Joseph Labitzky, 'the waltz king of Bohemia').
Perhaps the first musically important immigrant to Canada from what later was to be known as Czechoslovakia was Wilhelm Labitzky (violinist, b Becov 1829, d Toronto 1871; son of Joseph Labitzky, 'the waltz king of Bohemia').

Perhaps the first musically important immigrant to Canada from what later was to be known as Czechoslovakia was Wilhelm Labitzky (violinist, b Becov 1829, d Toronto 1871; son of Joseph Labitzky, 'the waltz king of Bohemia'). The young Labitzky, who had been trained at the Prague Cons, performed in Toronto in 1858 and settled there shortly afterwards.

A more general immigration did not begin until the 1880s, however, when Czechs and Slovaks began arriving from Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia (the three main regions of modern Czechoslovakia) and settled in Kolin, Sask, and later in Winnipeg, Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ont, and other centres. The German component in the backgrounds of an appreciable number of these immigrants is a reminder that until 1918, when Czechoslovakia became a republic, it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The unrest of the 1930s (including that among the largely German population in the northwest area known as the Sudetenland) leading to World War II, the civil strife of 1948, and the Soviet military intervention of 1968 caused major waves of Czech emigration. Around those dates (though not necessarily in all cases for those reasons) many Czechs moved to Canada.

Toronto, followed at some distance by Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, attracted the largest number of those who entered Canada immediately before and after World War II, and after the Soviet military intervention in 1968. While many of the pre-war settlers had been either industrial craftsmen or farmers, most of the later arrivals had business or professional backgrounds.

The early settlers kept alive the songs and dances of their homelands. These folk arts and the Czech and Slovak languages were passed on to the young generation in the home and at Saturday auxiliary schools sponsored by church groups and, after World War II, by the Czechoslovak National Association of Canada, founded in 1939. Local events (tanečni zábavy) have been sponsored throughout the country by the association and by other organizations including the Masaryk Memorial Institute. Folk groups which have flourished include the Tatra Dancers and the Circle of Moravian Slovaks, both of Toronto, and the Dolma Ensemble of Montreal.

Active congregations of Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Lutherans, holding services in Czech or Slovak, were founded in several Canadian cities. Among those flourishing in 1990 were in Toronto the Czechoslovak Baptist Church, the Slovak St Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Czech St Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, and the Slovak Roman Catholic Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius; and in Montreal the Slovak Roman Catholic Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, founded in the early 1930s, whose organist-choirmaster was the composer Michael Sinčák. In Chatham, Windsor, and Winnipeg there were also musically active Czech and Slovak church communities.

Among musicians who arrived prior to 1950 were the tenor Otto Morando; the violinist Antoniná Dvořáková-Houston (a niece of the composer Antonin Dvořák), who was active in the 1930s and retired in Montreal; the violinist Charles Dobiáš, a pupil of Kathleen Parlow, a graduate of the TCM, and in 1990 concertmaster of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; the accordionist Gaby Haas; the mezzo-soprano Helen Hájnik; and the educator and composer Arnold Walter. Leon Koerner and members of his family (see Koerner Foundation) settled in Vancouver in 1939; Oskar Morawetz in Toronto in 1940; Nicholas Goldschmidt in Toronto in 1946; Walter Kaufmann briefly in Halifax in 1947, and in Winnipeg in 1948; Jan Rubes in Toronto in 1949; Ruzena Herlinger in Montreal in 1949. Others active in Canada included the pianists Joseph Musil, František Pokorný, and František Stein, the baritone and RCI producer Walter Schmolka, and the composer George Traxler. The violin builders Anton Wilfer and his sons-in-law Alois Fogl and Ewald Fuchs established themselves in Montreal in the 1950s. Walter Susskind became the conductor of the TSO in 1956. The harpsichord builders Simon and Sigurd Sabathil settled in Vancouver in 1960.

Before and after 1968 a new wave of immigrants arrived. Among these were in Montreal the conductor Vladimír Jelínek and his wife, the violinist Sonja Pečmanová-Jelínkova, who had graduated from McGill University in the 1940s, and the pianist Dagmar Rydlo, who in 1990 was director of the Mississauga branch of the RCMT; in Ottawa the pianist Walter G. Haulena, the violin maker Joseph Kun, the pianist Adolfina Kun, and the violinist Michael Kun (son of Joseph and Adolfina); and in Toronto the cellist Alban Berky, the organists Michael Borov and Dagmar Ledlová-Kopecký, the pianists Antonín Kubálek and Zdenka Helena Picha, the violinist Rudolf Kula, the composer Milan Kymlicka, the administrator Jan Matejcek, the Janáček scholar Veronica Sedivy, and Ladislav Cselenyi, a curator who was in charge of the R.S. Williams collection of musical instruments at the Royal Ontario Museum until his retirement in 1986. The Czech String Quartet was in residence 1969-74 at McMaster University. The violinist Cenek Vrba became concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic; the pianists Vaclav Benkovic, Maria Benkovic, and Leo Kokes settled in Vancouver; the composer Rudolf Komorous in Victoria. Karel Ančerl, artistic director and conductor of the TS 1969-73, made Toronto his home from 1968 until his death in 1973 (see TS).

Canadian musicians of Czech or Slovak antecedents include the cellist Charles E. Dojak of Winnipeg, the composer Tomas Dusatko, the violinists Anthony Ginter and Milán Chvostek, the musicologist Jaroslav Mráček (a teacher at San Diego State U, where he was director in 1987 of the Canadian Music Festival), the violinist Joseph Pach, and the singer-songwriter Bob Ruzicka.

Among Czech artists who have visited and performed in Canada are the pianists Rudolf Firkušný, Boris Krajný, and Ivan Moravec, the violinist Jan and the conductor Rafael Kubelík, the violinist Josef Suk and the Suk Trio, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, and the Janáček and Smetana String Quartets. Vaclav Smetáček, conductor of the Prague Municipal Orchestra, in 1964 led the MSO in the first complete Montreal performance of Smetana's symphonic cycle Má Vlast (a work repeated there in 1967 by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic). JMC (Youth and Music Canada) sponsored tours by the Foerster Trio in 1965-6, by the Talich Quartet and the contralto Helena Tesarova in the 1967-8 season, and by the singer Jerzy Artysz, the pianist Michal Wesolowski, and the violinist Krzyztof Jakowicz in the 1970-1 season. Les Solistes de Prague (with the harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova) and the Czech Philharmonic appeared at Expo 67. The Hamburg State Opera presented the Canadian stage premiere of Janáček's Jenu°fa with the Czech soprano Nadeja Kniplova in the title role, also at Expo 67. The Brno Children's Choir, which had premiered the Canadian composer H. Klyne Headley's choral-orchestral work Peace in Brno in 1968, toured in the composer's province of British Columbia in 1969. Vaclav Neumann guest-conducted the TS in 1975 and 1978 and visited Toronto again with the Czech Philharmonic in March 1984. The Czech Nonet appeared in Montreal in 1976. Jiří Bĕlohlávek made his North American guest-conducting debut in 1982 with the TS and has returned numerous times, often conducting works by Czech composers.

Canadians who have appeared in Czechoslovakia include Emma Albani, who performed in Prague at the Rudolfinum Concert Hall in March 1893; Jean-Marie Beaudet, who probably was the first Canadian to conduct there (works by Brott, Champagne, MacMillan, Tanguay, and Willan, at the Prague May Festival in 1946); Jacques Beaudry, who conducted in Prague, Brno, and Bratislava in 1960; and Raymond Dessaints, who conducted the State Radio Orchestra in 1970. The MSO appeared at the Prague May Festival in 1976; and Huguette Tourangeau sang the title role in Handel's Orlando there in May 1976. The TS appeared in Prague in March 1983, and composer Oskar Morawetz revisited Czechoslovakia in 1990.

The works of Dvořák, Janáček, Martinu° and Smetana are performed frequently in Canada. Beecham conducted Dvořák's Stabat mater at the 1942 Montreal Festivals. In September 1950 CBC radio presented the North American premiere of Martinu°'s chamber opera Comedy on the Bridge in an English translation by Walter Schmolka. The University of Toronto Opera Division gave the Canadian premiere of Janáček's Katya Kabanová in 1977; the Vancouver Opera presented the North American stage premiere of Janáček's From the House of the Dead in 1986, and the COC gave the Canadian premiere of Janáček's The Makropulos Case in 1989. In 1978 CBC radio, the RCMT, and the Toronto branch of the Czech National Association of Canada presented a Janáček 50th Anniversary series. Comprising five concerts, it also featured works by Dvořák, Martinu°, and Smetana. Among the performers were Antonín Kubálek, the Vághy String Quartet, and the York Winds. In October 1988 a concert was given in Toronto to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic; among the participants were Kubálek and Morawetz.

Further Reading

  • Gellner, John, and Smerek, John. The Czechs and Slovaks in Canada (Toronto 1968)

    Lower, Thelma Reid. 'Cultural exchange: children - between Canada and Czechoslovakia,' CanComp, 44, Nov 1969

    Mráček, Jaroslav. 'The contribution of Czechs and Slovaks to music in Canada,' paper presented at the 7th congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America, New York (Nov 1974)