Literature with Musical Content | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literature with Musical Content

Anglo-canadianThe first musical references to appear in English-Canadian literature were to boat songs, sea shanties, and Indian chants, drums, and dances. Early literary efforts mention festive balls given in Quebec City and elsewhere, though the dance music itself was not described.

The first musical references to appear in English-Canadian literature were to boat songs, sea shanties, and Indian chants, drums, and dances. Early literary efforts mention festive balls given in Quebec City and elsewhere, though the dance music itself was not described. Descriptions of Indian drums and willow flutes in 19th-century literature gradually gave way to mentions of snare drums and bugles and references to church bells and, later, pipe organs.

In his romance The Golden Dog: A Legend of Quebec (Montreal 1877, Toronto 1887), William Kirby wrote 'The boat-songs of the Canadian voyageurs are unique in character and very pleasing when sung by a crew of broad-chested fellows dashing their light birch-bark canoes over the waters. As might be inferred, the songs of the voyageurs differ widely from the sweet little lyrics sung in soft falsettos to the tinkling of a pianoforte in fashionable drawing-rooms and called ''Canadian boat songs''' (Montreal edition, p 274). Kirby described the singing of boat songs with violin accompaniment and also showed how mood changed as the singers went from one song to another, and how the refrains were taken up eagerly by those on shore.

In the Atlantic region of Canada, the feelings of fishermen and sailors often were expressed in sea-shanties. References to shanties appear in stories, novels, poems, and folklore. Thomas C. Haliburton's The Old Judge; or, Life in a Colony (London 1849, Toronto 1968), a travelogue of 19th-century Nova Scotia, includes a glimpse of local musical life. In it, Mr. Nehemial Myers, 'singing-master to the tribe of Levi, as he calls himself,' travels on foot and pays for the hospitality offered him by 'singing or playing on his violin, having a choice collection of psalmody for the sedate families, of fashionable songs for those who are fond of such music, and bacchanalian ditties for bar-rooms of inns' (Toronto, p 206).

A later account of travelling experiences in Canada was Lady Dufferin's My Canadian Journal 1872-78 (London 1891, Toronto 1969). In it the wife of Canada's governor general described her visits to various cities, including details of musical events such as costume balls, concerts by Carlotta Patti, Giuseppe Mario, and the Boston Quintette Club, a performance of the operetta The Maire of St. Brieux (written especially for her ladyship's entertainment by Frederick W. Mills), and a phonograph demonstration. See Recorded sound technology.

By the late 19th century, pianos were to be found in even the remotest towns. In 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew' from Songs of a Sourdough (Toronto 1907), the poet Robert W. Service vividly limned a talented pianist who pours out the story of his defeats and frustrations in a northern mining camp barroom.

Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval (Toronto 1947, 1967) tells the story of a late-19th-century British Columbia woman who has a small grand piano in her home. The instrument enthrals Frankie, a rancher's daughter, who listens avidly while Hetty plays.

The cottage organ, smaller and easier to transport than the piano, gradually made its way into remoter parts of the country. In Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese (New York 1925, Toronto 1971), its music is used to underline the cruelty of Caleb Gore, who commands his daughter Ellen to play the organ to entertain his guest. An uncertain and very shy organist, she misses many notes, yet plays steadily against the murmur of voices and bursts of laughter as her father converses with his friend.

Morley Callaghan set part of his novel The Loved and the Lost (Toronto 1951) in Montreal's Café St-Michel (renamed Café St-Antoine), and two of the characters resemble members of Louis Metcalf's International Band.

Among other authors who have written novels dealing with music and musicians are Sinclair Ross, Robertson Davies, Adele Wiseman, Leonard Cohen, and Margaret Laurence. Mrs Bentley, the narrator in Ross' As for Me and My House (New York 1941) is a pianist and organist who has given up her career to marry. The organist Humphrey Cobbler is a character who appears in three of Davies' novels: Tempest Tost (Toronto 1951), Leaven of Malice (Toronto 1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (Toronto 1958), the last of which has for its heroine a singing student named Monica Gall. Davies' lifelong interest in music is also reflected in his trilogy of Francis Cornish novels. The Rebel Angels (Toronto 1981) is replete with esoteric details of Oraga Laoutaro's gypsy violin music and the art of her craft as a luthier. What's Bred in the Bone (Toronto 1985) includes a classic cameo of a salon singer who had studied with 'Maestro Carboni of Montreal' (p 106). The plot of The Lyre of Orpheus (Toronto 1988) turns on the completion and production of an opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Arthur of Britain. The novel is peopled by a number of musical personalities. In Wiseman's The Sacrifice (Toronto 1956), the character Moses is a music student. Cohen's Beautiful Losers (Toronto 1966) uses the music of Mozart as a device to mirror character. In The Diviners (New York, Toronto 1974) Margaret Laurence introduces the reader to Piper Gunn, who had played for a group of Scottish Sutherlanders during their journey to the Red River, to Jules and Billy Joe, both of whom sing and play the guitar, and to Pique, who is a singer and songwriter. She appends an 'album' to the text; included in it are the melody and lyrics of four songs, three of which have music composed by Ian Cameron. Other novels in which music assumes significance are Robert Fontaine's The Happy Time (New York 1945), Edward McCourt's Music at the Close (Toronto 1947), and Raymond Fraser's The Bannonbridge Musicians (St John's, Nfld, 1978). Hugh Hood's novel Reservoir Ravine (Ottawa 1979) includes a description of the Romanelli dance band, which was active in Toronto in the 1920s. Canadian resident Josef Skvorecky has published several novels that deal with jazz and jazz musicians, including The Bass Saxophone (Toronto 1977), and this interest in jazz is reflected in his volume of essays, Talkin' Moscow Blues (Toronto 1988). Dvorak in Love (Toronto 1986) is his fictionalized account of the Czech composer.

Radio producer and composer John Reeves has written three detective novels, each of which deals with an aspect of music: Murder by Microphone (Toronto 1978) concerns radio music programming; Murder before Matins (Toronto 1984) deals with the status of Gregorian chant in a contemporary monastery; and Murder with Muskets (Toronto 1985) is about a murder during a Toronto opera company's production of Tosca, complete with surtitles. The title character in the novel John Coe's War (Toronto 1983) by Clive Doucet, is a classically trained pianist with a talent for jazz. The Japanese conductor of the TSO, Seiji Ozawa, provided the inspiration for two novels: A Certain Mr Takahashi (Toronto 1985) by Ann Ireland, and Almost Japanese (Toronto 1985) by Sarah Sheard. Both are concerned with the effect of an exotic personality on adolescents. The central character of David Helwig's novel A Postcard from Rome (Markham, Ont, 1988) is a celebrated European opera singer who comes originally from southern Ontario. Helwig, who is himself a singer, employs music and musicians in many of his novels, eg, liturgical music has an important place in The Bishop (Toronto 1986). Peter Goddard set his thriller The Sounding (Toronto 1988) in the music industry world of recording companies and technology. Whale Music (Toronto 1989) by Paul Quarrington, has as its leading character a rock composer and lyricist. The genius of Glenn Gould, who is a pivotal figure in Austrian Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser (New York 1991), significantly affects two other characters in the story.

Several Canadian poets have referred to music. William Henry Drummond's poem 'When Albani Sang' (Complete Poems, Toronto 1926) describes the response of a habitant to the art of the famous soprano. P.K. Page in 'The Bands and the Beautiful Children' (As Ten, As Twenty, Toronto 1946) observes the approach of a band:

brasses ascending on the strings of sun

build their own auditorium of light,

windows from cornets

and a dome of drums.

In 'Bega' (The Complete Poems of Marjorie Pickthall, Toronto 1967) the poet characterizes the voices of three bells: Tatwin, with a 'golden voice,' Turkful, with its 'rings and rolls,' and Bega, which says

'Still the dreams of music float,

Silver from my silver throat'.

E.J. Pratt's 'The Titanic' (Toronto 1935) describes the tragedy of that boat's sinking and includes a description of a band which played on in the face of death. Archibald Lampman (brother of the pianist Annie Lampman Jenkins) wrote a number of poems dealing with the powerful effect of music on the listener and the poet - among them, 'The Organist,' 'Music,' 'The Piano,' 'The Minstrel,' and 'The Violinist'. Pianos, violins, and lutes are mentioned in his poems (The Poems of Archibald Lampman, Toronto 1974). Duncan Campbell Scott's 'Piper of Arll' presents a piper as a symbol of poetic vision. In his 'Powassan's Drum' he paints a strong picture of an Indian medicine man (Duncan Campbell Scott Selected Poems, Toronto 1951). In 'The Wind Our Enemy' (Sandstone and Other Poems, Toronto 1958), Anne Marriott pictures a schoolhouse dance during the drought years on the Prairies:

One Hungarian boy

Snapped at a shrill guitar

A Swede from out north of town

Squeezed an accordion dry

And a Scotchwoman from Ontario

Made the piano dance.

Anna Donaldson, in 'The Shaping' (Alberta Writers Speak: Fifth Issue, Edmonton 1969) speaks of influences on her life during the 'hungry, lean years' of the Depression, among them her young brothers and

Their accordion, bought with threshing money,

The five dollar violin,

Both played at lively country dances

Held in the one-room country school house.

Francis Sparshott's lighthearted nonsense poem 'A Concise History of the Kalamazoo Kazoo Company Incorporated' appeared in Saturday Night (January 1981). The CBC sponsored a competition in 1983 for limericks on the subject of Canadian composers; Keith MacMillan won with his verse on Somers.

Early short stories on musical themes include John H. Willis' 'A Concert' (1825); later ones include Alice Munro's 'Dance of the Happy Shades' (1968), a subtle evocation of the annual piano recital by the young pupils of an elderly teacher, Jack Hodgins' 'The Concert Stages of Europe' (Saturday Night, July-August 1978), Jack Richards' Johann's Gift to Christmas (Vancouver 1972, about a music-loving mouse who writes the Christmas carol 'Silent Night'), and Ralph Thomas Allan and Maurice Solway's The Violin (Toronto 1976). A young violinist is the central figure in Janette Turner Hospital's 'Our Little Chamber Concerts' (Saturday Night, June 1982). Chester Duncan's Wanna Fight, Kid? (Winnipeg 1975) contains autobiographical vignettes which capture the hilarities and sadnesses of a young musician's bid for aesthetic awareness in the Prairies in the first half of the 20th century. Linda Zwicker used the lives of Brahms and Clara and Robert Schumann as the basis of her 10-part radio drama Grey Pearls (CBC Sep 1984).

There are several literary works which feature musical titles, regardless of their subject matter. Among these are the novels Singer of the Kootenay (New York 1911) by R.E. Knowles, Drummer (Toronto 1915) by J.P. Buschlen, Drums Afar (Toronto 1918) by J.M. Gibbon, and Swiss Sonata (London 1938) by Gwethalyn Graham; the play Drums Are Out (1951) by John Coulter; the short story The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek (Edinburgh 1939) by Thomas Raddall; the children's story The Blind Highland Piper (London 1818) by Catharine Parr Traill; and several poetry collections, eg, Mary and Sarah Herbert's The Aeolian Harp (Halifax 1857), John McPherson 's Harp of Acadia (Halifax 1862), Bliss Carman's Music of Earth (Toronto 1931), Watson Kirkconnell's Manitoba Symphony (ca 1937), A.B. Garvin's The Flute and Other Poems (Toronto 1950), Goodridge MacDonald's Beggar Makes Music (Toronto 1950), Desmond Pacey's The Cow with the Musical Moo (Fredericton 1952), Irving Layton's Music on a Kazoo (Toronto 1958), Miriam Waddington's The Glass Trumpet (Toronto 1966), and Hugh Hood's Black and White Keys (Downsview, Ont, 1982).


It is not surprising that the first references to music in French-Canadian literature are found in the poetry of Joseph Quesnel, for besides being one of the earliest poets in Canada he was also the first composer. In his 'Epistle to Mr. Labadie' (1804) Quesnel finds Canadians hospitable enough but despairs of their music ('at table... some old drinking ditty; in church two or three worn-out old motets') and of their capacity to appreciate a little piece he composed 'for some religious business... was it or was it not for Christmas Day?' It seems his audience on that occasion criticized his effort, one saying it was theatre music, another, severely, that it made him want to dance. A third thought the composer should be shipped back to France. Among the devouter ladies one said that such music would lead the saints to sin, another that it sounded like a quarrel among all the demons of hell. Quesnel himself - candid in the afterglow of his fine outburst of antic indignation - confides that his piece was not perhaps a masterpiece but asks 'did they want a Handel, a Grétry?' adding that for his part, he felt he deserved something better in the way of an audience.

French-language folksongs, the expression of a people in the process of forging a distinct identity and thus adapted to the purposes of the times and seasoned in use by the mass of 18th- and 19th-century French Canadians, demonstrate a striking poetic maturity. Their riches are inexhaustible. There are few situations or human relationships they have failed to explore or describe. For two centuries they formed a backdrop to the lives of Canadians while themselves undergoing transformation and increasing in depth. It is to them that French-speaking Canadians may turn for an understanding of the rhythms, melodies, deepest thoughts, and moral conduct of their ancestors. In them poetry and music are indissolubly mingled, and of this fusion was born the reality of the French regime in Canada.

Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé (1786-1871) was aware of this and afforded them a place of honour in his novel Les Anciens canadiens (1863), along with the rustic tale. A latecomer to literature, this scion of aristocratic landowners succeeded in recreating the atmosphere of the 18th century in the years preceding the conquest of Canada by the English. Joie de vivre lies at the very heart of the music. Aubert de Gaspé has managed to portray the balancing forces of a society that was both patriarchal and free. His references to music are numerous; but his concern is popular music. Could it be that sophisticated music was unable to come into its own except in an urban situation? Nevertheless, though he invoked only the popular muse, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé remained the sole writer of his time to place music in a social context, where it plays a role, participating in the evolution of custom and adding to its meaning. In his tale Forestiers et voyageurs (Quebec City 1863), Joseph-Charles Taché (1820-94) seeks to rediscover the picturesque element in Canadian life. On his travels to western Canada he encounters many characteristic songs and dances.

By contrast, neither Louis-Honoré Fréchette (1839-1908) nor his romantic disciples attached much importance to music. In this they faithfully reflected their era, which cared little for it. Poets, like musicians, were looked upon as 'eccentrics and lunatics,' to use Fréchette's phrase. However, Conteurs canadiens-français (Montreal 1908) contains a delightful story, 'The Money Musk,' in which Fréchette describes the exploits of one Fifi Labranche or Joe Violon, a musician and story-teller: 'It was like a top spinning, my friends; the bow whirled in Fifi's hands, defying description, like an eel on a hook... And zing! zing! zing!... and zing! zang! zong!... Uncontrollably, our feet made pirouettes in the snow bank. Methinks the fiddler had never played like that in his life... And the Money Musk went on and on. Fifi sawed away like a demon'. Captivated by the diva Emma Albani, Fréchette wrote three poems in her honour: 'On the Occasion of Her Visit to Montreal' (1883), 'On the Occasion of Her Charity Concert in Quebec City on 13 May 1890,' and 'At Queen Victoria's Deathbed' (1901). The singer also inspired Gonzalve Desaulniers (1863-1934) to write a sonnet, 'À l'Albani,' published in Les Soirées du Château de Ramezay (Montreal 1900).

It was not, however, until the symbolist generation, in particular the École littéraire de Montréal, that music began to appear in literature to any significant degree. By virtue of the strong personality that dominated his milieu and times, the psychological boldness of his verse, and the pathos inherent in his tragic fate, Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) is the most important Quebec literary figure of the late 19th century, as his Poésies complètes (Montreal 1952) attest. Born into a middle-class family, Nelligan was acquainted with music from birth, and it affected him deeply. He concerned himself chiefly with salon music, in particular the piano music of Chopin, which at the time of Nelligan's childhood was considered appropriate to the drawing-room. Both Chopin and Schumann provided inspiration for and influenced the rhythms of Nelligan's verse. His poetry was written as if to be set to music and sung. In addition to Chopin and Schumann, Mozart, Paganini, Liszt, and Paderewski are referred to in his poems. Certain titles also allude to music: 'Clavecin céleste,' 'Lied,' 'Musiques funèbres,' 'L'Organiste du paradis'. Prior to the time of Nelligan, French Canadians had lived an aesthetically dependent existence, and their ties with Europe and America rested upon a misunderstanding. It was taken for granted that the intellectual (ie, literary and musical) elite could do no more than focus its attention on trends in Paris; that it feared innovation and was content with pale imitations of European models. In fact, as Nelligan and the poets of the 'Montreal Literary Schools' sensed, it thirsted for more than that; and thus, though they remained disciples of the European masters, these young poets shunned academic description and the simple superimposition of Canadian imagery onto French models.

A stronger musical presence was to be found among the writers of the generation called 'La Relève,' after a literary review founded in Montreal in 1934. The dominant personality of this generation was Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1912-43). Saint-Denys Garneau was obsessed with music and, like many of his contemporaries, discovered music not in the concert hall but through recordings. His idols were Bach and Mozart; his admiration for them was shared by his friends Jean Le Moyne, Paul Beaulieu, Robert Charbonneau, and Robert Élie. Except in Élie's La Fin des songes (Montreal 1950), there is no reference to musicians in any of their works, not even in those of Saint-Denys Garneau; but music itself frequently is alluded to in terms which recognize its powers as a psychological or literary device. It is certain - and the Journal (Montreal 1954) and Saint-Denys Garneau's correspondence attest to it - that Bach and Mozart were an integral part of the intellectual equipment of these poets, novelists, and essayists; and by 1980 no one in the Quebec literary world since Nelligan had given more thought to music and its presence in Canadians' lives.

Other poets of varying importance have been inspired by music. 'Musique,' a sonnet by Louis-Joseph Doucet, was published in the first edition of the periodical La Musique (1919). Blanche Lamontagne-Beauregard was the author of a poem 'Xavier Mercier,' dedicated to the Quebec tenor. Medjé Vézina wrote 'Musique, pays d'où mon âme est venue' (1934). The enthusiasm of Robert Choquette for the composer of Tristan und Isolde is revealed in his poem 'Wagner,' published in Poésies nouvelles (1931). Music appears also in the poems of Albert Lozeau, Paul Morin, and Rina Lasnier.

Certain poets who are also composers, eg, Gabriel Charpentier, have attempted to create works in which music and poetry are wholly integrated.

The life of Calixa Lavallée was the subject of two works by Eugène Lapierre - the comic opera Le Vagabond de la gloire (a collaboration with Aimé Plamondon) and the dramatic work Le Traversier de Boston.

Music has an important place in the work of the poet, essayist, and novelist Fernand Ouellette. In his Journal dénoué (Montreal 1974) he wrote: 'During those endless years, I lived with Mozart, my white god... With Mozart, we pass all at once from sunlight to the dark abyss that envelops us... Next to the flame of Francis of Assisi, the light of Mozart was the greatest gift I received from life'. Ouellette also wrote the monograph Edgard Varèse (Paris 1966, 1989).

Music occurs from time to time in the tales, novels, or short stories of Yves Beauchemin, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Charbonneau, Jean Éthier-Blais, Félix Leclerc, Jean Le Moyne (Convergences, Montreal 1961), Paul Roussel, Michel Tremblay, and others. In the field of children's literature there is Le Violon magique (Ottawa 1968) by Claude Aubry.

However, the influence of music in literature remains to be examined in depth, and there is no doubt that many examples, from both poetry and the novel, could be added to the rather cursory list presented in this article.

Several writers have given their works musical titles, but the connotation does not necessarily extend beyond the title. Such is the case with La Chanson du passant by L.-J. Doucet (Montreal 1908), Un Canadien errant by Ernest Bilodeau (Quebec 1915), and Symphonies by Léo d'Yril (Montreal 1919).

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