Italian Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Italian Music in Canada

Though a few Italians were associated with early European exploration in Canada (eg, John Cabot, b Giovanni Caboto), immigration did not begin in earnest until ca 1880, increasing dramatically in the early 20th century.

Though a few Italians were associated with early European exploration in Canada (eg, John Cabot, b Giovanni Caboto), immigration did not begin in earnest until ca 1880, increasing dramatically in the early 20th century. The 1986 census counted 1,006,915 Canadians of Italian ancestry, over half of them in Ontario. Emigrants from rural areas of Italy have settled in the large urban communities of Canada where the need for unskilled labour has been the greatest.

Musicians Of Italian Origin

Some emigrants have come from the cities of Italy and have had trades or professions, and among these have been musicians who taught and performed. As early as 1783, one Gaetano Franceschini, a violinist and teacher of violin and harpsichord, was active in Quebec City. By 1825 travelling Italian musicians appeared from time to time in Canada, giving concerts and lessons. Vincenzo Mazzocchi, a 'professeur de musique pour le chant d'Église des Récollets' in Montreal and a teacher at the Séminaire de Québec, is known to have composed Welcome to Canada in 1839 in honour of the arrival of Lord Sydenham as governor. Alessandro Liberati (b Frascati, Italy, 1847, d ?, after 1890) was cornet soloist to the governor-general and was a bandmaster 1868-71 in Ottawa. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Francesco D'Auria, Giuseppe Carboni, Giuseppe Dinelli, and Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana played important roles in music education in Ontario. Camillo d'Alessio (b Naples 1869), a violinist and mandolinist who settled in Montreal in 1904, was a member of the Goulet MSO and founded Estudiantina - the first Canadian mandolin orchestra.

Several Italian families - the Agostinis, the Masellas, and the Mastrocolas - came into the forefront of Montreal musical life in the second decade of the 20th century. Italian musical families in Ontario include the Lombardos, the Niosis, and the Romanellis, and among other Italian-born musicians who have been active in Canada are Michael Angelo (trumpet and cornet teacher, fl 1930s in Toronto), Anthony Antonacci (who began playing flute and piccolo in the TSO in 1958), Ernesto Barbini, Enrico Farina (the pop singer, 1970s in Toronto), Ermanno Florio, Piero Gamba (conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra 1971-80), Giuseppe Macina, Ermanno Mauro, Adelmo Melecci, the Montreal voice teachers Antonio and Lina Narducci, and Dina Maria Narici, Maria Pellegrini, J. Pompilio (the oboist, who also conducted the Italian Band in Calgary 1928-32), Joseph Roff, Walter Rossi, and Dom Troiano. Among Canadian-born musicians of Italian extraction are Norm Amadio, Violet Archer, Guido Basso, Mario Bernardi, the music librarian Maria Calderisi, Fernande Chiocchio, the soprano Emilia Cundari, Bobby Curtola, Rosita del Vecchio (granddaughter of one of the earliest Italian immigrants), Victor Di Bello, the pop singer Lisa Dal Bello, the soprano Barbara Ianni, Joseph Macerollo, Frank Marino, Michel Pagliaro, Louis Quilico, his wife, Lina Pizzolongo, and son Gino, John Rea, Tony Roman, Emile Taranto, Ronald Turini, and Gino Vannelli. Many Italian names have appeared in the personnel lists of Canadian symphony and chamber orchestras: the flutists N.J. Fontana and Nicholas Fiore, the violinist Frank (Francesco) Fusco and the trumpeter Joseph Umbrico of the TSO; the clarinetist Giulio Romano and his sons Arthur (clarinet) and Pietro (french horn), and the violinists Agostino and Florent Salvetti of the MSO; the violinists Clelio Ritagliati and Emile Mignacca of the Winnipeg SO, and Don Dorazio of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Italians also own or operate music shops, selling and repairing instruments and offering instruction.


The guitar and the piano accordion are the two most popular instruments among amateur musicians in the Italian-Canadian community and are used to accompany singing and dancing at family festivities. Carla Bianco has collected 246 Italian songs for the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies in Ottawa, but folk music plays a decidedly minor role among Italian Canadians. However, a few groups - notably the Fogolar Furlan and the Club Abruzzi, which have chapters in several cities - have tried to perpetuate regional songs and dances. The Santa Cecilia Chorus, a 45-voice Toronto male choir established in 1961, includes folk songs in its varied repertoire. Many ballads, such as the Neapolitan songs, have become deeply ingrained in the musical heritage of all Italians. Together with some of the well-loved operatic arias, these have become a sort of folk music.

Italian Music In Canada

Italian music was heard in Canada long before the Italians began their immigration. Works of Corelli were performed in Quebec City in 1792, and those of Cherubini in 1811. Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini were mainstays of the mid-19th-century repertoire in the home and at concerts. Some works of Verdi and Puccini were popular shortly after they appeared in Italy. Madama Butterfly was performed in Winnipeg and Toronto in 1907, only three years after its premiere at La Scala in Milan. A concert of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto, 26 Nov 1908, offered 'Italian music, ancient and modern' - consisting of Scarlatti sonatas at the piano, songs by Tosti, and arias by Scarlatti and Leoncavallo. Italian opera - particularly as represented by the main works of Verdi and Puccini - has remained the unchallenged staple of the operatic repertoire in Canada, as a glance at the seasons of the COC, the Edmonton Opera, the Manitoba Opera, the Montreal Opera, and the Vancouver Opera will confirm. Indeed, 19th-century opera was virtually all that was heard of Italian music in Canada, apart from a few works by the baroque masters and some classical songs and violin pieces, until the mid-1950s. However, with the establishment by Ricordi, Italy's foremost publisher, of a sales and rental office in Toronto under the direction of Bruno Apollonio, Canadians began to hear more often the works of Casella, Respighi, Malipiero, and others; and with the rise of groups, in several parts of Canada, devoted to the presentation of contemporary music, the works of more radical composers - Nono, Berio, etc - have had markedly increased exposure.

Canadians In Italy

Many Canadian musicians, particularly singers, have studied in Italy: Emma Albani (who made her operatic debut in Messina in 1869) and Rosita del Vecchio with Francesco Lamperti; Carlo Boehmer (of Kitchener, Ont, a tenor who sang 1906-14 in Italy under the name Charles Nardi) with Antonio Magini-Coletti; Jean Bonhomme and W. James Craig with Luigi Ricci; Richard Verreau with Beniamino Gigli; Constance Channon and Myrtle Guerrero with Guido Agosti; Eva Gauthier (who made her debut in Pavia in 1909) with Carigiana; Redferne Hollinshead with Giovanni Clerici; Arthur Blight, Sarah Fischer, Juliette Gaultier de la Verendrye, Edward Johnson (who made his operatic debut in Padua using the name Edoardo Di Giovanni), and Harold Meek with Vincenzo Lombardi; Marguerite Gignac with Roberto Lupi and Lina Pagliughi, Edmund Burke, Bruce Carey, Nina Gale, and W. Davidson Thompson studied in London with Albert Visetti, Gérard Caron and André Mérineau with Fernando Germani; and Norma Beecroft studied composition with Goffredo Petrassi and flute with Severino Gazzeloni. Among Canadian performers, Ann Pomer James and the pop singer Shirley Harmer (using the name Vida Durinzi) lived and worked in Rome following their marriages to Italians. Harvey Sachs who has written a biography of Toscanini (London 1979, Paris 1980), worked 1975-6 as a pianist and coach for Milan's Orchestra dei Pomeriggi Musicali and conducted excerpts from Colas et Colinette at the Milan Cons in 1977. Sonja Frisell joined the staff at La Scala in 1964 as a stage director. Paul Bley, Ray Dudley, Oscar Peterson, and Steven Staryk (with the NACO) have performed in Italy. Louis Quilico has sung at the Spoleto Festival, at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, and at the Rome Opera. Maureen Forrester, Nicholas Massue, Léopold Simoneau, and Jon Vickers have sung at La Scala. Pierre Mercure, Oskar Morawetz, and Harry Somers have won prizes in the Concorso Internazionale di Musica Ritmo-Sinfonica at Cava dei Tirreni; Marc Fortier the Ferdinando Ballo prize in the 1968 Ente Pomeriggi musicali di Milano; Thomas Schudel the first prize in the 1972 Premio Città di Triesta for composition; and Kathleen Solose the first prize in the Alessandro Casagrande International Piano Competition in Terni in 1973. Somers and Serge Garant each spent a year in Italy as recipients of Italian cultural fellowships awarded through the Canadian Cultural Institute in Rome.

In L'Aquila the 1982 International Festival 'Musikarchitettura' was devoted entirely to Canadian musicians and architects.

Italian Visitors

Visits to Canada by distinguished Italian musicians began as early as 1853, when Luigi Arditi conducted performances of Norma with the Artists' Association Italian Opera Company in Montreal and Toronto. In 1897 the Banda Rossa under Maestro Eugenio Sorrentino played at Massey Hall. The composer Pietro Mascagni conducted his productions of Zanetto, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Iris in Montreal and Cavalleria in Toronto in 1902. Concerts and recordings by Giuseppe Creatore's Band were popular in Canada during the 1920s (the band played at the CNE 10 times between 1914 and 1926). George J. Dyke brought the Da Capo Italian Band to Vancouver in the 1930s. The Orchestra of La Scala under Toscanini performed in Montreal in 1921 and 1926, and the entire company made its North American debut at the World Festival, Expo 67, with Nabucco, La Bohème, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. La Scala returned to Canada to perform at Expo 86 in Vancouver in 1986. Also at Expo 67 the Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples gave concerts under Mario Rossi and Massimo Pradella. In 1960 the composer Luciano Berio represented Italy at the International Conference of Composers, in 1968 he conducted two concerts in Montreal for the SMCQ, and in 1972 he conducted a program of his own works for the inaugural presentation of NMC in Toronto. In 1986 he conducted concerts of his works in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver. Luigi Dallapiccola has visited Montreal, as has Bruno Maderna. Composer Coffredo Petrassi visited Montreal and Toronto in 1985. The Virtuosi di Roma first played in Toronto and Montreal in 1950 and returned often thereafter to Canada. The illustrious ensemble I Musici also has visited Canada frequently. The Trio di Milano played at Toronto's St Lawrence Centre in 1979. The Women's Musical Club of Toronto and the Pro Musica Society of Montreal have presented several Italian chamber groups to their audiences over the years. The Italian Cultural Institute, with offices in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, has sponsored visits by Italian artists and groups. Under its auspices the Trio Chitarristico Italiano (classical guitars) performed in Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston, Sudbury, and Vancouver in 1976 and I Musici gave Toronto concerts in 1978, 1986, and 1987. The chamber orchestra I Musici di Roma performed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver in 1984. Among solo instrumentalists of international reputation, the pianist Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli played in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg in 1948 and returned to Montreal for the World Festival during Expo 67 and to Toronto in 1970; and the pianist Maurizio Pollini performed in Montreal in 1978 and 1980. Visiting violinists have included Salvatore Accardo who visited Canada in 1980 and 1986, Carlo Chiarappa who performed with pianist Massimiliano Damerini in Ottawa in 1986, and Uto Ughi who toured in 1984 and in 1991. The Quartetto d'Archi della Scala performed in Montreal in 1987. Young Italian musicians also have appeared in Canada. The JMC (YMC) have sponsored tours by the pianist Mario Delli Ponti 1961-2, 1966-7, and 1967-8 and by the duo-pianists Mario and Lydia Conter 1966-7. Italian conductors in Canada have also included Riccardo Muti who performed at RTH in 1990, and Franco Mannino who was principal director and artistic advisor to the NACO 1982-6 and principal guest conductor 1986-8.

Needless to say a great many Italian singers have visited Canada, among them Enrico Caruso (1908 and 1920, Toronto and Montreal), Luisa Tetrazzini (1912 Toronto), Amelita Galli-Curci (1918 and 1919 tours that included Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary), the Scotti Grand Opera (1921 Montreal and Toronto), Gina Cigna (1937 Toronto), and Luciano Pavarotti (1976 and 1979 Montreal and Toronto; a scholarship in his name has been instituted at the University of Toronto). Ferruccio Tagliavini sang at Eaton Auditorium in 1947, Cesare Siepi gave a recital for the Women's Musical Club of Toronto in 1953. Winnipeg audiences heard Nino Martini, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, Tito Schipa, Ebe Stignani, and Cesare Valetti as well as the pianist Carlo Zecchi, who also performed in Montreal in 1931. Renata Tebaldi sang in Toronto with the TSO in 1956 and returned for a CBC TV special with Louis Quilico in 1965. Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi were soloists at the COC's tribute to La Scala in 1978 at O'Keefe Centre. Scotto also sang at the O'Keefe Centre in 1984 and at the Elgin Theatre in 1991 and gave master classes at the University of Toronto in 1990. Other sopranos include Cecilia Gasdia in 1987 and Mirella Freni in 1990 both visiting Toronto.

Many leading Italian pop singers have appeared in Toronto at festivals of song begun in 1955 and at concerts at Massey Hall, Maple Leaf Gardens, and O'Keefe Centre by Johnny (Giovanni Barbalinardo) Lombardi (b Toronto 4 Dec 1915, d Toronto 18 Mar 2002), the 'mayor of [Toronto's] Little Italy'. Lombardi was host for Italian-language radio shows in the 1940s and 1950s on CHUM and CKFH before purchasing CHIN radio in 1965 and converting it into a multi-ethnic station. The singers and instrumentalists of the Nuova Compagnia de Canto Popolare di Napoli performed at the Guelph Spring Festival 1981 and in Toronto 1991.

In 1984 the Cenre for Italian Canadian Studies sponsored a symposium on Italian Canadiana featuring a paper by Julius Molinaro entitled 'Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana: an Italian contribution to music in Ontario'. In 1990-1 the Italian government sponsored a series of concerts entitled Italy in Canada given in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Performers included I Solisti Veneti, and the Orchestra da Camera dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with soloist Uto Ughi.

Further Reading