French Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


French Music in Canada

Of all Western countries, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, France has had the chief and most persistent influence on the development of music in Canada. The French, arriving at the beginning of the 17th century, were the first Europeans to colonize the country.

Of all Western countries, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, France has had the chief and most persistent influence on the development of music in Canada. The French, arriving at the beginning of the 17th century, were the first Europeans to colonize the country. They brought with them their songs, a large number of which are known and sung by their descendants after more than three and a half centuries, and also their church music. Among the missionaries who came from France to convert the aboriginals were men and women who were able to read music and who possessed other musical skills.

It was the French also who brought into Canada the first instruments, including the organ, and the first collections of sheet music. Martin Boutet and Mother Marie de Saint-Joseph, an Ursuline sister, were the first to teach music, though they also taught other subjects. In the mid-17th century Louis Jolliet went to France to pursue his studies, music among them, thus becoming the first Canadian-born resident to travel to the land of his forebears to complete his education.

It is true, however, that under the French regime (1608-1760), music does not appear to have been encouraged and developed systematically despite many interesting individual efforts on its behalf.

Relations between France and its erstwhile colony were interrupted by England's conquest of New France in 1760 but were gradually resumed in the mid-19th century, and the French influence continued to be felt, chiefly in those areas - Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (Acadia), and parts of Manitoba and Ontario - where there were large concentrations of Canadians of French origin who perpetuated the French language. In this article the influence of France will be described in relation to those spheres of activity in which it has been most marked.

Under the French Regime

Considering the predominant role the Roman Catholic church was to play during the French regime, it is not surprising that the earliest musicians of record in Canada were missionaries or laymen in the employ of the church. Annals of the times, such as the Jesuit Relations and Le Journal des Jésuites, show that the rudiments of music were taught to children, both French and aboriginal. The first bishop of Quebec City, Mgr de Laval, was the patron of four 'music officers'. In Quebec City in 1684 he created the post of Grand Chantre (Precentor), held successively by several French musician-priests. A Jesuit, René Ménard, apparently wrote some motets around 1640. Jean-Baptiste Poitiers du Buisson was the first organist of Notre-Dame Church, Montreal, and Paul Jourdain dit Labrosse signed a contract in 1721 to build an organ for the cathedral in Quebec City. Pierre DuMesnil described himself as a 'musician and craftsman' in the Quebec City census of 1716. Other names are mentioned in passing in the records, but few details are given concerning their activities.

After the conquest church music gradually was taken over by Canadian-born musicians or by immigrants from Germany or England. However, some French priests, such as Jean-Denis Daulé, Lazare-Arsène Barbarin, Louis Bouhier, and Henri Garrouteigt, subsequently played significant roles.

Little of the available information concerns musical life outside the church. It is possible that some seigneurs owned and even played flutes and violins. These instruments were used at balls and popular festivities and even on occasion in church, as is corroborated by a document from 1645. French regiments, eg, the Carignan-Salières Regiment, which arrived in 1665, undoubtedly possessed fife and drum ensembles. Whatever may have existed, few traces have been left. It is known that copies of works by Campra, Charpentier, and Jean-Baptiste Morin found their way to Quebec City in the 18th century, but it is not known that they were performed.

See also Hymns and hymn tunes; Livre d'orgue de Montréal; Missionaries in the 17th century; Quebec City; Roman Catholic church music.


No French musicians seem to have toured in Canada before the middle of the 19th century. In 1841 Quebec welcomed the soprano Euphrasie Borghèse, the tenor Étienne Voizel, and the cellist Henri Billet. The tenor Auguste Nourrit performed in 1842. A musician by the name of Bley served 1845-7 as concertmaster of the Toronto Philharmonic Society. Two young violin prodigies, Camilla Urso and Paul Julien, visited Canada at about the same time to give concerts. The pianist-composer Henri Kowalski gave several recitals in 1870. A distinguished cellist, Léon Jacquard, made a brief sojourn in 1876-7 and took part in at least one concert with Jehin-Prume and Lavallée. In 1893 the organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant performed in Montreal.

The first French instrumental ensemble of any size to appear in Canada was the Band of the Garde républicaine de Paris in 1904. In 1919 the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Cons de Paris, conducted by André Messager, gave two concerts in Montreal. The Orchestre national de France came to Canada in 1948, and the Orchestre de Paris in 1964, both under the baton of Charles Munch, and in the 1980s the Orchestre de Toulouse and the Orchestre national de Lille visited in turn.

The first choral group to come to Canada probably was the Montagnards in 1856. This Basque ensemble achieved considerable success and inspired the formation of many similar ensembles in Quebec (see Montagnards). In 1931 the choir from the school of the Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de Bois of Paris made its first tour in Quebec and it, too, stimulated the formation of a number of like groups.

In the 20th century numerous French artists have performed in Canada, among them Emma Calvé, Robert Casadesus, Alfred Cortot, Marcel Dupré, Marcel and Yvonne Hubert, Pol Plançon, Raoul Pugno, Édouard Risler, E. Robert Schmitz, Jacques Thibaud, Louis Vierne, and Charles-Marie Widor. Among those who have visited after World War II are the trumpeter Maurice André, the violinist Christian Ferras, the pianists Philippe Entremont and Samson François, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and the cellist Paul Tortelier. Among ensembles which performed in Canada before and after the war are the Société des instruments anciens, which came in 1933, and numerous chamber groups (eg, the Pascal and Loewenguth Quartets and the Trio Pasquier). Among the more distinguished French composers to have visited Canada have been Pierre Boulez, Vincent d'Indy, Henri Dutilleux, Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, and Iannis Xenakis (born in Rumania of Greek parents but for many years a citizen of France). Some of the leading French conductors who have regularly conducted Canadian orchestras are Serge Baudo, Pierre Boulez, Jean Martinon, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, and Paul Paray. In 1991, the Ensemble InterContemporain made a Canadian tour under the direction of Boulez.

Opera and Operetta

It was a Frenchman from Brittany, Joseph Quesnel, who in 1789 composed the first Canadian comic opera, Colas et Colinette. From 1840 on, companies from France and New Orleans visited Canada to perform such staples of the French repertoire as Adam's Le Chalet, Auber's Les Diamants de la couronne, and, later, Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen. Gounod's Jeanne d'Arc and Boieldieu's La Dame blanche were performed respectively in 1877 and 1878 by Canadian theatre companies. In 1940 in Montreal Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande was presented for the first time in Canada. Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher received its Canadian premiere in 1953. In 1960 CBC TV presented Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, and in 1965 Gilbert Bécaud's L'Opéra d'Aran was given at the Montreal Festivals.

French operas and operettas have constituted a special part of the repertoire perpetuated by Montreal and Quebec City companies such as the Opéra francais, the Montreal Opera Company, the National Opera Company of Canada, the Société canadienne d'opérette, the Variétés lyriques, the Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France, the Montreal Festivals, the Opéra du Québec, and, to a certain extent, the Opéra de Montréal.


The conquest of 1760 was followed by the return to France of many seigneurs, administrators, and settlers. Emigration to Canada did not resume until the mid-19th century, though individuals - eg, Jean-Denis Daulé, Louis Dulongpré, the organ builder Jean-Baptiste Jacotel, and Joseph Quesnel - continued to arrive. Later many expertly French-trained musicians immigrated: eg, the pianist and composer Charles W. Sabatier ca 1848, the organist and composer Antoine Dessane in 1849, the pianist and cellist Paul Letondal in 1852, the pianist and teacher Gustave Smith in 1856, the poet and chansonnier Emmanuel Blain de Saint-Aubin in 1857, the singer and teacher Mme Petipas in 1868, and the tenor and teacher Paul Wiallard ca 1870. It was these musicians, with their solid background, who were to strengthen the foundations of musical life in Montreal and Quebec City. They performed in concert and trained many in the traditions of their country of origin.

Other Frenchmen settled in Canada in the ensuing decades: Raoul Vennat in 1903, Victor Occellier ca 1907, Charles Tanguy in 1907, Henri Delcellier and Salvator Issaurel in 1911, Albert Roberval in 1916, Jean Riddez in 1920, Jean Belland and Yvonne Hubert in 1926, José Delaquerrière in 1938, Louis Bailly and Joseph Bonnet in 1943, Paul Loyonnet in 1954, Marie-Aimée Varro in 1955, Antoine Reboulot in 1967, and Pierick Houdy in 1970. Without settling in Montreal some distinguished French musicians, including the harpist Marcel Grandjany, the composer Jean-Louis Martinet, the pianist Isidor Philipp, and the baritone Martial Singher, productively taught there for several years.

Canadians in France

The pedagogical activity of the musicians from France who began to arrive in Quebec in the mid-19th century produced in their best pupils a desire to complete their training in France. Thus began the continuing back-and-forth movement of young Canadian musicians who have undertaken extensive periods of study in France, chiefly in Paris, either in official institutions or with private teachers. The considerable list grows longer each year. Mention here will be restricted to principal instances.

Paris remained a strong attraction for the young musicians, who continued their steady migration even during conflicts like those of 1870-1, 1914-18, and 1939-45. Among the first to go there were Ernest Gagnon ca 1858, J.-B. Labelle in the 1850s, Dominique Ducharme in 1863, Moïse Saucier and C.-M. Panneton in 1865, Salomon Mazurette in 1866, Emma Albani in 1868, R.-O. Pelletier ca 1870, Calixa Lavallée and Guillaume Couture in 1873, Gustave Gagnon ca 1873, Oscar Martel in 1875. Alfred De Sève in 1876, Alcibiade Béique in 1877, Charles Labelle ca.1880, Achille Fortier (the first Canadian to study composition as a regular student at the Cons de Paris) in 1885, François-Xavier Mercier and Rodolphe Plamondon in 1895, Victoria Cartier, Alphonse Lavallée-Smith, and Céline Marier in 1896, and Joseph Saucier in 1897.

Among the first English Canadians to go to France to study were Clarence Lucas in 1886, Marie Toulinguet in 1890, and Hope Morgan in 1892. Elliott Haslam taught singing in Paris 1901-14, as did Elizabeth Campbell from 1920 to the late 1950s.

The trend towards studying in France became more widespread in the 20th century with the departure of Pauline Donalda in 1902, Louise Edvina and Éviola Gauthier in 1904, and Arthur Plamondon in 1905. The creation of the Prix d'Europe increased it further, making study in France possible for Clotilde Coulombe in 1911, Léo-Pol Morin in 1912, Jean Dansereau in 1914, Wilfrid Pelletier in 1915, Graziella Dumaine in 1916, Germaine Malépart in 1917, Auguste Descarries in 1921, Conrad Bernier in 1923, Gabriel Cusson in 1924, Paul Doyon in 1925, Lionel Daunais in 1926, Jean-Marie Beaudet in 1929, Gilberte Martin in 1930 (also, in 1932, the first Canadian woman admitted to the Cons de Paris), Lucien Martin in 1931, Bernard Piché in 1932, Georges Lindsay in 1934, Georges Savaria in 1937, Jeanne Landry in 1946, Clermont Pépin in 1949, and Josephte Dufresne in 1950.

Several went to Paris in a private capacity or on scholarships from the Canada Council or the Quebec government. Among these were Harry Adaskin, Rosario Bayeur, François Brassard, Victor Brault, Gilles Carpentier, Claude Champagne, Albert Cornellier, Andrée Desautels, Roger Gosselin, Jean-Pierre Hurteau, Jean-Paul Jeannotte, Raoul Jobin, Bernard Lagacé, Yvette Lamontagne, Annette Lasalle-Leduc, Gilles Lefebvre, Rafael and Alfred Masella, Rodolphe and André Mathieu, Barbara Pentland, and Georges-Émile Tanguay.

Canadians studying abroad had the advantage of working with many outstanding teachers, but particular mention must be made of the extraordinary procession to the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who, from 1920 until her death in 1979, taught more Canadians than any other teacher in a foreign country. Among her countless pupils were Françoise Aubut, Pierre Beaudet, John Beckwith, Maurice Blackburn, Richard Boulanger, Walter Buczynski, Gabriel Charpentier, Frank Churchley, Gabriel Cusson, Gwendda Owen Davies, Isabelle Delorme, Andrée Desautels, Nathaniel Dett, Paul Doyon, Elzéar Fortier, Kenneth Gilbert, Kelsey Jones, Jeanne Landry, Claude Lavoie, Roger Matton, Boyd McDonald, Pierre Mercure, Arthur Ozolins, Jean Papineau-Couture, Marguerite Pâquet, Michel Perrault, Rosette Renshaw, William Keith Rogers, John Ronan, Paul Scherman, Winifred Scott, Calvin Sieb, Reginald Stewart, Yehuda Vineberg, Kenneth Winters, and Robin Wood. Among US or European Boulanger pupils who subsequently settled in Canada are István Anhalt, Sterling Beckwith, Irving Heller, Richard Johnston, Maryvonne Kendergi, Peter Paul Koprowski, Pierre Mollet, Boris Roubakine, and Peggie Sampson.

Rodolphe Mathieu, Roy Royal and George-Émile Tanguay were pupils of Vincent d'Indy, Claude Champagne studied with André Gédalge and Raoul Laparra, and Bruce Mather, Boyd McDonald, and Harry Somers studied with Darius Milhaud.

Another distinguished French teacher of many Canadians is Olivier Messiaen. His classes in analysis and aesthetics at the Cons de Paris have been attended by Françoise Aubut, Serge Garant, Steven Gellman, Jacques Hétu, Talivaldis Kenins, Sylvio Lacharité, Roger Matton, Clermont Pépin, André Prévost, Gilles Tremblay, and several more.

See also Organ, playing and teaching; Piano, playing and teaching.

Most of the students eventually returned to Canada, but some embarked on international careers in France, chiefly in the field of opera. Such was the case with Emma Albani, Jean Dansereau, Pauline Donalda, Louise Edvina, Éviola Gauthier, Raoul Jobin, André Mathieu, François-Xavier Mercier, and Rodolphe Plamondon, as well as Béatrice La Palme and Sarah Fischer both of whom, though they did not study in France, did enjoy brilliant careers there, especially at the Opéra-Comique of Paris. Among other Canadians who have performed successfully in France in opera, Pierrette Alarie, Victor Braun, Jean-Pierre Hurteau, Louis Quilico, Joseph Rouleau, Léopold Simoneau, Teresa Stratas, André Turp, and Jon Vickers deserve special mention. The conductor Jacques Beaudry has conducted productions at the Opéra de Paris. Certain Canadian composers, notably Lavallée and Couture, had works performed in France in the 19th century. Later, numerous others had performances, notably Claude Champagne, Rodolphe Mathieu, Roger Matton, Jean Papineau-Couture, André Prévost, and Gilles Tremblay. Several Canadian works were performed in Paris in 1977 at Musicanada. The Canadians Aglaé, Roger Gosselin, André Jobin, and Thérèse Laporte became stars of French operetta. Numerous Canadians have given recitals in France, among them Paul Bley, Maureen Forrester, and Oscar Peterson. Among ensembles which have appeared in Paris and the provinces are Canadian Brass, the Disciples de Massenet, the Festival Singers, the Montreal Bach Choir, the MSO, the NACO, the Orford String Quartet, the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, and the TS. At the invitation of Pierre Boulez, Robert Aitken appeared in recital during the opening of the Institut de recherche et de coordination acoustique-musique (IRCAM) in the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris in 1977. Raffi Armenian, Pierre Hétu and Gilles Auger were prize-winners of the Concours pour jeunes chefs d'orchestre de Besançon. In 1988 Kenneth Gilbert became the first Canadian to be named professor at the Cons de Paris. In 1991 Michel Gervais was named choirmaster at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, beginning in 1992, also the first Canadian to occupy that important post.

Popular Song and Chansonniers

If there is one genre in which the influence of France has been predominant it is popular song. For more than two centuries, the French folksong has remained perhaps the strongest musical link between Canada and France. It often has been observed that French folksongs in Canada have been preserved in their purest form, partly because industrialization occurred there considerably later, and also because in Canada they were less exposed to outside influences.

If folksongs were the strongest link, they were not the only one, however. During the 19th century the drawing-room ballad was all the rage, and the works of Nadaud, Boissière, Panseron, and Loïsa Puget were as popular in Canada as they were in France, judging at least from the many editions and collections devoted to this repertoire.

Quebec remained indifferent to the vogue of the Montmartre songs of Aristide Bruant, but the famous entertainer Yvette Guilbert was given a warm reception on her visit in 1906. Later the bard from Brittany, Théodore Botrel, and the chansonnier Albert Larrieu made numerous tours in Quebec promoting what was to become known as 'la bonne chanson'. It was not until 1930 that French popular-song artists and music hall stars regularly visited Quebec, where their repertoire became known through records and films.

Among the stars who have enjoyed a marked success in Quebec and other French-speaking centres in Canada are Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, Bourvil, Lucienne Boyer, Georges Brassens, Maurice Chevalier, Philippe Clay, Les Compagnons de la chanson, Annie Cordy, André Dassary, Fernandel, Léo Ferré, Jacqueline François, the Frères Jacques, Juliette Greco, Georges Guétary, Johnny Halliday, Rudi Hirigoyen, Jacques Jansen, Zizi Jeanmaire, Luis Mariano, Marjane, Yves Montand, Patachou, Tino Rossi, Suzi Solidor, and Charles Trenet.

In return, several Canadian writer-composer-performers, beginning with Félix Leclerc in 1951, carved out important careers in France. Following Leclerc in seeking the Parisian seal of approval were Robert Charlebois, Diane Dufresne, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Pauline Julien, Jacques Labrecque, Claude Léveillée, Raymond Lévesque, Monique Leyrac, Luc Plamondon, Diane Tell, Fabienne Thibeault, Gilles Vigneault, Roch Voisine, and several others.

See also Chanson in Quebec; Folk music, Franco-Canadian.

Paris was a haven for some expatriate jazz musicians, among them Milt Sealey, a Montreal-born jazz pianist who moved to Paris in the 1950s; and the jazz pianist Wray Downes, who studied and worked there during the same decade.

Official cultural ties between France and Canada were established in 1882, when the Canadian government sent a representative to Paris. Later the Canadian Embassy acquired a cultural attaché. In the ensuing years several Canadian and Quebec facilities were established in Paris. In the late 1920s the Maison canadienne was established in the Cité universitaire to provide lodging and practice facilities for Canadian music students. In 1970 the Ministry of External Affairs inaugurated the Canadian Cultural Centre, whose first director was Guy Viau. The province of Quebec in 1961 opened a Délégation générale, in which Raoul Jobin and Jean Vallerand served as cultural advisers.

At the Cité internationale des Arts three studios are made available each year to young Canadian artists in all disciplines through a program administered by the Dept of External Affairs and the Canada Council. Two of the studios are allocated to music students.