History of Canada in music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


History of Canada in music

A consideration of music which, in retrospect, deals with episodes and personages of Canadian history.

A consideration of music which, in retrospect, deals with episodes and personages of Canadian history. The association is established usually through a libretto or song text; rarely through musical content, as in a symphonic poem or a piece of program music; and sometimes superficially through a title alone, more likely than not recalling an anniversary. Music more immediately reflecting historical events is dealt with under Battle music; Confederation and music; Coronations; Disaster songs; Patriotic songs; Political songs; Sovereigns, statesmen, and other public figures; Wars, rebellions, and uprisings.

Probably the first historical figure to furnish inspiration for musicians was Jacques Cartier, whose historic landing on the Gaspé coast in 1534 to take possession of the new land for the King of France prompted a symphonic ode, La Découverte du Canada, 'written by a teacher and performed 1 May 1905 at Mont-Saint-Louis Hall in Montreal' (L'Annuaire théâtral, 1905) and an Ode à Jacques Cartier for soloists, chorus, and organ composed in 1935 by Joseph Vermandere to words of Louis Bouhier. Bengt Hambraeus wrote the libretto for his opera L'oui dire, a tribute to Jacques Cartier composed in 1986.

John Beckwith's Les premiers hivernements sets to music texts from Samuel de Champlain and Marc Lescarbot describing the first winters of European explorers in Canada, at Sainte-Croix 1604-5 and Port Royal 1606-7. The members of the Ordre de bon temps, the society founded by Champlain at Port Royal in 1606, provide the title, theme, and characters (Champlain, Poutrincourt, and Lescarbot) of Willan's ballad-opera L'Ordre de Bon Temps/The Order of Good Cheer, first performed in 1928 at the CPR Festivals. The Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) is the subject of Willan's cantata Brébeuf (1943) to a text of E.J. Pratt, of R. Murray Schafer's Brébeuf (1961, for baritone and orchestra) to Schafer's own text, and of Paul McIntyre's dramatic symphony Jean de Brébeuf (1962). Mother Marie de l'Incarnation (1599-1672), the Ursuline nun and mystic who left a solid middle-class life in France to establish a Roman Catholic order in New France, was the inspiration for Anhalt's La Tourangelle (1975). Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was the founder of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame in 1658 and was beatified in 1950, was the subject of a 1950 cantata by Omer Létourneau. Mother d'Youville (1701-71), the founder of yet another order, the Grey Nuns, inspired Marius Benoist's oratorio Mère d'Youville.

Norman Symonds' The Spirit of Fundy (1972) resurrects the story of the rivalry and feud between two 17th-century Acadians - Charles de la Tour and a Monsieur Charnisay. Among 18th-century subjects of 20th-century works are François Bigot (1703-77), the last intendant of New France; the legendary Évangéline (against the background of the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians from Grand Pré, NS); and the United Empire Loyalists who moved to Canada after the US revolution of 1776. L'Intendant Bigot is a three-act opera by J. Ulric Voyer to a libretto by Alfred Rousseau; it was performed in Montreal in 1929. Evangeline is the title of an opera by Graham George (1948), of an oratorio by Robert Talbot, and of works by several other composers. The Loyalists is an opera by the Saint John, NB, composer Douglas Major to words by Patricia Collins; it was performed in 1967. A legend with its roots in the life of New France ca 1740 furnished the story for two ballets, both with the title Rose Latulippe. The earlier was composed for TV by Maurice Blackburn in 1953, the later for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet by Harry Freedman in 1966. Beckwith's 'documentary cantata' The Hector tells of a sailing ship which brought close to 200 immigrants from Scotaland to Nova Scotia in 1773. Eugène Lapierre wrote comic operas based on the lives of two composers, Joseph Quesnel (Le Père des amours, 1942) and Calixa Lavallée (Le Vagabond de la gloire, 1947). Harry Somers' Serinette is set in Upper Canada shortly after the end of the War of 1812 and mixes together fictional and historical characters and events.

Western Canada supplied historical subject matter for five operas, three of them premiered during Canada's centennial celebrations in 1967. Murray Adaskin's Grant, Warden of the Plains (premiered on CBC radio) dramatizes the conflict between Cuthbert Grant of the Hudson's Bay Company and Alexander Macdonnell. Robert Turner's The Brideship (also premiered on CBC radio) is set in British Columbia in the days of the Gold Rush. Somers' Louis Riel (1967) recounts episodes from the life of the tragic hero of the North West Rebellions. Of all musical evocations of Canadian history, Somers' work remained in 1990 the largest in scale and the most striking. Norman Symonds' Episode at Big Quill (1979) tells of the tragic deaths by influenza of eight children in a northern-Saskatchewan settlement at the turn of the century. Gregory Levin's Ghost Dance, to libretto by Mavor Moore, is about the last years of Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, a warrior whose people spent four years in the Wood Mountain area of Saskatchewan.

The Klondike area of the Yukon, famous during the turn-of-the-century gold rush, has inspired several musicals, among them Gabriel Charpentier's Klondyke (1965), Dolores Claman's In the Klondike (1967), and Tommy Banks' Klondike Kate (1968). John Gray and Eric Peterson's musical Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978) is based on the exploits of the Canadian World War I pilot.

Apart from those mentioned relatively few composers have turned to Canadian history for inspiration. This may be due in equal measure to the international orientation of most Canadian composers and to the lacklustre quality of much teaching and writing about the country's past.

There have been numerous shorter compositions of an occasional nature recalling an earlier Canada. A few random examples are Ernest MacMillan's 'Hail to Toronto' for the 1934 centennial of the incorporation of the city; Vézina's Frontenac (1879) and Vive Champlain (1898); H.V. Roy's Marche Jacques Cartier (1904), dedicated to the premier of Quebec, Simon Napoléon Parent; Edwin Gledhill's 'For Canada Fight: A song of 1812' (1886); and C.A. Garratt's 'Brant Memorial Hymn' for choir, written on the occasion of the 1886 unveiling of a statue in honour of the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (1742-1807). C.W. Sabatier's patriotic song 'Le Drapeau de Carillon' (1858) recalled Montcalm's 1758 victory over the British at Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, NY). It goes without saying that incidental music has been written for countless films, stage plays, and broadcast dramas and documentaries dealing with historical themes. In the 1980s and beyond, Nancy White's songs for the CBC English network radio program 'Sunday Morning' kept a running commentary on current political events.

See also Librettos: 4/Canadian legend and history

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