Music in Halifax | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music in Halifax

Capital of Nova Scotia and major seaport established in 1749 as a British settlement (population 2500) and military base. The influx of Loyalists resulting from the American Revolution caused the population to rise to about 9000 by 1800.


Halifax, NS. Capital of Nova Scotia and major seaport established in 1749 as a British settlement (population 2500) and military base. The influx of Loyalists resulting from the American Revolution caused the population to rise to about 9000 by 1800. By 1841, when Halifax was incorporated as a town, its population had more than doubled, and by 1900 it had reached 40,000. In 1986 the Halifax-Dartmouth metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 296,000, was the largest urban centre in Atlantic Canada and the industrial, commercial, and cultural centre of Nova Scotia.

Halifax's original status as a military base, with monied officers in search of leisure pursuits, ensured an active musical life (see Richard Bulkeley). Guitars and violins were among goods imported from London, according to an advertisement in Canada's first newspaper, the Halifax Gazette (23 Mar 1752). In 1765 or 1766, a Mr Evans installed Halifax's first organ in St Paul's Anglican Church, where documents reveal the existence of a choir in 1767 and the presentation, in April 1769, of an oratorio by a Philharmonic Society (Halifax) (probably Canada's first), augmented by army and navy officers, and where also, 20 May 1789, the final chorus of Messiah and a 'Coronation Anthem' by Handel were performed (see also Anglican church music).

As a garrison town, Halifax benefited not only from officers' willingness to pay for and participate in the city's musical life but also from the presence of the regimental bands, whose trained musicians served as teachers and performers. While in Halifax in the spring of 1758 General James Wolfe hired tenor musicians for entertaining at a dinner party at a local inn. In June 1770 two bands of music assisted in a procession to St. Paul's in celebration of St. John the Baptist. Undoubtedly such a band took part in a concert at the Golden Ball Inn in March 1785. As early as 1783 Edward Winslow, Sr reports having been 'at two Balls and one concert, at the concert was exceedingly good musick vocal and instrumental'. Concerts and ballad operas became fairly regular entertainment in the 1790s. At the British Coffee House in 1797 a band played a 'Simphonie' by Leopold Kotzeluch and a 'Concertante for Violin, Hautboy, and Violoncello' by Ignaz Pleyel. Instrumental music by Pleyel, J.C. Bach, Karl Stamitz, Haydn, and their lesser contemporaries was often heard. The larger forces required for opera were present at the Theatre Royal 14 Feb 1798 when Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion was performed. In 1798 at least four ballad operas were heard: Storace's No Song, No Supper, Dibdin's The City Romp and The Waterman, and Linley's Robinson Crusoe. Arnold's The Surrender of Calais was performed in 1805 and his The Review in 1806.

Singing societies provided much opportunity for the music-making of Haligonians. Among such groups were the New Union Singing Society (1809), St Paul's Singing Society (1819), and the Amateur Glee Club (1836), the last of which was organized by young tradesmen and mechanics. The Halifax Harmonic Society, founded in 1842, presented Haydn's The Creation as its initial work. After ceasing its activity for several years the society reorganized to give three concerts at Temperance Hall in the winter of 1858. From 1840 to 1867 Cunard steamers called at Halifax on their voyages between Europe and Boston, and a railway to Montreal was completed in 1876. These conditions ensured that Halifax was not culturally isolated and that performing artists could be brought in from other centres.

On 1 Mar 1869 the Halifax Philharmonic Society performed Messiah to a capacity audience in Temperance Hall. Every winter during the 1870s the society presented an oratorio, usually Messiah, The Creation, or Mendelssohn's St Paul. Another vocal ensemble was the Arion Club, a male choir founded in 1877 by Arthur Bird (1856-1923, a US conductor and composer trained in Germany and active in Halifax as a piano teacher, organist, and chamber musician 1877-81). The Philharmonic Society was succeeded by the Orpheus Club, a male choir conducted 1882-1906 by Charles H. Porter and 1907-17 by Harry Dean and noted for its light-operatic productions.

Performance of orchestral music also developed after 1885, when the Haydn Quintette Club, augmented by bandsmen, gave orchestral concerts. In 1897 Max Weil founded the first Halifax Symphony Orchestra. Charles Porter formed the Leipzig Trio with Heinrich Klingenfeld and the cellist Ernst Doering in the early 1890s.

To serve the popular demand for pianos in the 19th century, Henry and John Philips, originally of Hamburg, manufactured pianos in Halifax 1845-59. Thomas and Alfred W. Brockley, who learned the trade at Broadwood and Sons, London, also built pianos 1857-97, as did W. Fraser & Sons 1856-90, Williams & Leverman 1871-89, and P.W. Leverman & Co. 1889-97.

The Academy of Music, a splendid auditorium which served as the centre of Nova Scotia's theatre and concert life for over 50 years, opened in 1877. Built with the financial support of prominent citizens, it had a capacity of 1250. The opening concert was given by the Philharmonic Union under C.H. Porter, with solo artists from Boston. In the academy, local and visiting artists (eg, the Boston SO, the Westminster Choir, Emma Albani) appeared in concerts and in light operas - The Mikado in 1887, Martha in 1896, and others. In the days following the great harbour explosion of 1917 the academy functioned as a centre for relief organization, meal distribution, and morale boosting.

The Orpheus Club, which opened the Cycle of Musical Festivals in 1903, was reorganized in 1919 as the Halifax Philharmonic Society and was conducted until 1954 by Harry Dean. This mixed choir performed oratorios in Halifax, Truro, and New Glasgow and sponsored spring festivals 1925-31 with soloists from the USA. In 1922 Ifan Williams founded the Halifax Choral Union (later Halifax Choral Society). In 1923 the Halifax Madrigal Society visited England and won admiring comment for its precise attack, gradation in volume, and pleasing tone colour.

Halifax musical life received a setback in 1929 when the Academy of Music, renamed the Majestic in 1918, was demolished to make way for the Capitol movie theatre. Thenceforth until the 1950s concerts had to be given in church halls, hotel ballrooms, and the gymnasium of Dalhousie University. Musical life recovered, however, after the hiatus caused by World War II. At that time useful auditoriums were built in connection with the School for the Blind and Queen Elizabeth High School. The 1949 Bicentennial of Halifax was celebrated with Mariss Vetra's successful production of Don Giovanni. Out of this endeavour grew the Nova Scotia Opera Association, which until the mid-1950s staged operas annually at the Capitol.

When Vetra left Halifax, public interest shifted from opera to symphony. In 1951 the 13-member Halifax Symphonette had been organized under the direction of Alfred Strombergs. With provincial and municipal support the Symphonette was enlarged in 1955 to form the Halifax SO under Thomas Mayer. The orchestra held a Mozart Festival in 1956 and a Beethoven Festival in 1957. By 1966 it was a 35-piece full-time orchestra giving 70 performances annually in the four Atlantic provinces. In 1967, as part of Canada's centennial celebrations, the Halifax SO gave the premiere of Edward Laufer'sVariations. However, the orchestra, along with the New Brunswick SO, was supplanted in 1968 by the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, a full-time ensemble based in Halifax but with a board drawn from the Atlantic provinces and a touring program designed to serve them. The Atlantic SO was in turn succeeded by Symphony Nova Scotia.

The Halifax Ladies' Musical Club, founded in 1905, promoted music by means of lectures, study, and demonstrations; it tried to encourage the training of young musicians and to give Canadians opportunities for performing. The Halifax Community Concerts Association, founded in 1931 by the Halifax Philharmonic Society, was active for about 30 years. Among those it brought to Halifax were Van Cliburn, Nelson Eddy, Maureen Forrester, Mario Lanza, Witold Malcuzynski, Lois Marshall, Leontyne Price, William Primrose, Teresa Stratas, Gladys Swarthout, and the Trapp Family Singers. Among other famous musicians who have appeared in Halifax are Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Edward Johnson, Robert Merrill, and Isaac Stern. Dalhousie University also has presented concert series, especially after the 1971 opening of the 1100-seat Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in the Dalhousie Arts Centre. With an auditorium comparable to the old Academy, Halifax again was able to play host to such visitors as the COC, the Festival Singers, the NACO, the TS, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the NYO, as well as providing a handsome platform for its own major groups and soloists and a regular venue for the Atlantic SO and later Symphony Nova Scotia. The Cultural Activities Committee of Dalhousie University has presented chamber music concerts by the Dalart Trio Canadian Brass, the Brunswick String Quartet, Nexus, and Quartet Canada, and appearances by Liona Boyd, John Allan Cameron, Anne Murray, Anna Russell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In 1977 it began emphasizing jazz in its concerts. The NOVA MUSIC series (1971-86) offered contemporary and electronic music performances. In addition, weekly faculty recitals are given. In 1963 an old vaudeville theatre was renovated and reopened under the new name Neptune Theatre and became the venue for the Atlantic Opera Co and subsequently Opera East.

Music instruction was introduced into the public schools in 1867. In 1870 the first School Music Festival was held. The Halifax Cons (Maritime Conservatory of Music), founded in 1887, exerted a wide influence on musical development and taste. Until the 1960s music education generally followed Anglo-Canadian norms and was notable mainly for the innovative and effectual school music broadcasts introduced in 1942 by Irene McQuillan, music director for Halifax schools. A significant change occurred in 1966, when Shirley Blakeley introduced the Kodály method into elementary schools. J. Chalmers Doane was appointed school music director in 1967, at which time four full-time music teachers travelled to 26 schools teaching 14,000 students. At the end of Doane's five-year plan (1967-72) for upgrading the program, there were 50 full- and part-time music teachers serving 55 schools and 26,000 students. The quality of teaching was improved and courses were extended to include adults. Music history courses first were offered at Dalhousie University in 1961, and the music department was established in 1968.

In May 1935 the Halifax Cons sponsored a competition festival at the Dalhousie University gymnasium. Contestants from all over Nova Scotia, one of them Portia White, competed to initiate a successful annual event. Although suspended during World War II, the festival was revived in 1947 as part of the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals, which brought in British adjudicators and attracted competitors from the whole Maritime region. The competition reached its zenith in 1957, when 15,000 musicians competed in 347 classes. The organ classes gained renown throughout Canada. In 1953 the English Singers, directed by F. Harold Wright, won the City of Lincoln Trophy given annually to the Canadian choral group chosen by adjudicators who have judged choirs all across the country that year. The Lincoln Trophy has also been won twice by the Halifax Chamber Choir, formed in 1970 and conducted by Paul Murray.

Among other significant musical organizations and groups which have flourished in Halifax are the CBC Halifax Chamber Orchestra, the CBC Halifax Strings, the Armdale Chorus, and the Halifax Trio (see Brandon University Trio). The Nova Scotia Choral Federation, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust, and the Nova Scotia Festival of the Arts are centred in Halifax. The popular TV program 'Singalong Jubilee' originated in the city.

The 1980s witnessed an unprecedented growth in both the scope and variety of musical activities in Halifax, with an influx of musical and performing talent and a significant increase in the number of performance venues. The Rebecca Cohn Auditorium remained the finest concert hall in Nova Scotia. Housed in the Arts & Culture Centre of Dalhousie University, it and the smaller Dunn Theatre continued to be the site for everything from symphony and chamber concerts, opera, and ballet, to the production of road shows and musical reviews. Halifax's 10,000-seat Metro Centre (Halifax), built primarily for sports activities, has accommodated its share of musical productions, including the 1983 benefit concert for musicians of Symphony Nova Scotia (with figure skater Toller Cranston), several extravaganzas put together by the Halifax City School Music Dept, and the annual presentation of the Nova Scotia International Tattoo.

Beginning with the late 1970s the various church music series have undergone a remarkable increase in dimensions and importance. Each presents major choral repertoire, often with full instrumental accompaniment. Most of these concerts feature local and Nova Scotia personnel, both amateur and professional. Several churches offer, in addition, a summer series of noon-hour recitals. The following have had successful presentations of this nature: St Matthew's United Church (Paul Murray) (also a summer noon-hour series); St Paul's Anglican Church (Walter Kemp) (also a summer series); First Baptist Church (David MacDonald); St Andrew's United Church (Barbara Butler); First Baptist Church, Truro (Jeff Joudrey); All Saints (Anglican Cathedral) (Fred Graham, Mervyn Games); St Mary's Basilica (Andrew Ager). Organist David MacDonald is the moving force behind the very successful BWV Series of organ recitals, presenting the complete organ works of J.S. Bach.

The Canadian Conservatory of Music (Halifax) began to offer a Summer Rock Camp in 1985, which has attracted participants from all parts of Canada.

The influx of professional performers in the early 1980s occasioned the appearance of two groups that made a significant contribution locally and nationally. The founding of the Dalart Trio was the happy result of the expansion of the Dalhousie music faculty. In 1983 the members of the Dalart Trio, together with John Rapson (Symphony Nova Scotia) and Leighton Davis (St Mary's Art Gallery) founded The Halifax Chamber Musicians, for the purposes of exploring and performing chamber repertoire written for a variety of instrumental combinations, and drawing on symphony players and established soloists as required.

See also Black music and musicians.

Musicians born in or near Halifax include John Arab, Helen Creighton, Denny Doherty, Elizabeth Benson Guy, Alan Heard, Christopher Jackson, the soprano Marjorie MacGibbon, James Milligan, Marjorie A. Payne (the pioneer of music on Halifax radio, and probably the first woman in Canada to conduct for broadcast), Geoffrey Payzant, Sheila Piercey, the bandmaster and danceband leader Peter Power, the pianist-conductor Joseph B. Sharland, and Ivan and Nelson Symonds. Other musicians who have contributed significantly to Halifax life include the jazz saxophonist Charles 'Bucky' Adams, Skip Beckwith, the baritone-teacher Teodor Brilts, Francis Chaplin, Kenneth Elloway, Phyllis Ensher, Maitland Farmer, Audrey Farnell, John Fenwick, Monique Gusset, Harold Hamer, Leonard Mayoh, Gordon Macpherson, Dutch Mason, Don Messer, Klaro Mizerit, W.A. Montgomery, the pop singer Karen Oxley, Diane Oxner, Don Palmer, the organist-choirmaster Samuel Porter, Joe Sealy, the teacher Charles Underwood, the pianist Neil Van Allen, Ernesto Vinci, and the trumpeter Don Warner.

Further Reading