Immigrants from the Baltic country of Lithuania began arriving in Canada in significant numbers early in the 20th century, the largest wave following the country's reabsorption into the Soviet Union in 1940 (after 22 years of independence). There were more than 36,000 Lithuanians in Canada in at the end of the 20th century and most reside in larger urban centres.
Lithuanian folk culture is predominantly rural in its orientation. Many dainos (folksongs) are rich in symbolism and are often connected with significant events such as weddings and funerals. Other ancient genres include calendric ritual songs that have become Christianized through their association with Advent, Christmas, Easter, and other church observances. A host of male and female songs involve the labours associated with agricultural life and work (grinding, spinning, weaving, harvesting, shepherding, herd-tending, and so on) and have survived in Canada through individual performers. (Kenneth Peacock collected 409 songs and 63 instrumental pieces for the National Museum of Man - Canadian Museum of Civilization - in 1962 and 1967-8.) Some of this material has been assimilated into more sophisticated choral and instrumental presentations for concerts, festivals, and banquets.
The melodies of some archaic songs are very short, using only three or four different pitches, some of which are repeated. Others, often associated with particular provinces in Lithuania, are more developed and possess major or minor diatonic orientation. Long narrative genres, such as ballads, are rare. A few songs from the 19th century are sentimental and banal when compared with those of the ancient tradition. (See Folk Music.)
The most unusual songs are the multipart sutartine (from sutarti meaning to sing in accord or to agree and sing harmoniously). These polyphonic songs often are characterized by clashing major and minor seconds and by canonic devices. The synchronized, dissonant melodies and words are sung primarily by women and children, and draw on a range of folksong subjects. A rhythmic word or onomatopoeic vocals are repeated by some voices as the text continues in other voice parts. Some of the songs are also be performed with movements such as walking, stamping feet, gliding, or simple dances choreographed in rows or in a circle.
Two types of sutartine, the Dvejines, sung by one pair and the trejines, sung by three women, are unique to Lithuanian music and are a source of fascination for musicologists. The male counterparts of the sutartine are played by men and boys on single-toned pipes (skudučiai) of varying lengths. Each player holds two or three pipes and plays the correct tone at the appropriate moment in the piece - rather like a group bell-ringing. A Canadian innovation in the construction of skudučiai is the use of bamboo, with the natural joints forming the closed ends. Other instruments include the popular kankles (zither), also of various sizes, and the Pentecost horn, a holed reed instrument.
Lithuanian groups in Canada have included the Aušros Vartu Parapijos Choras of Montreal, a 50-voice mixed choir established in 1950 (directed successively by A. Piešina, V. Kerbelis, A. Ambrozaitis, and Madeleine Roch); Varpas (meaning 'bell'), a Toronto mixed choir of 50 voices, conducted by Stasys Gailevicius, which was active in the mid-1950s; and a male choir, also in Toronto, which gave its first concert 6 May 1978 under its founder Vaclovas Verikaitis. After Verikaitis's death (8 Jan 1990), the group continued under the direction of John Govedas (b 1950, d 7 May 2005). Another choir, Volunge, began in 1978 as a girls' choir and in 1981 became a mixed voice choir (of 52 voices in 1991), conducted throughout by its founding director, Dalia Viskontas. In Ottawa the Ramuneles Singers, a seven- or eight-voice female ensemble, sang 1976-87, co-directed by Ruta Siulys (later Klicius) and Loretta Luksa-Cassidy. A Lithuanian Song Festival was held in Maple Leaf Gardens in the summer of 1978, and in 1987 a concert was held in Montreal at the Church of St Casimir to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.
Lyra, a chamber orchestra initiated by the Lithuanian community of Toronto, began to introduce popular and classical Lithuanian music, musicians and composers to the Canadian public. Lyra was founded in 1997 and its first performance celebrated Lithuanian independence on 15 March 1998.
In 2002, ERGO Projects helped establish a Lithuanian-Canadian musical exchange with the Lithuanian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), Numus (New Music Society) and the Music Gallery in Toronto. ERGO and Numus perform and promote contemporary music in Canada and abroad. In 2003, the Penderecki String Quartet performed works by Lithuanian-Canadian composer Piotr Grella-Mozejko, in Kaunas at the 2003 ISCM festival in Slovenia. In 2004, Wilfrid Laurier University and ERGO Projects organized the Vidmantas Bartulis Festival with concerts that again featured works by Grella-Mozejko at concerts in Toronto, Waterloo and London.
The soprano Lilian Sukis and the bass Allan Fine were born in Lithuania. The violinist Dana Pomeranz (who with her husband, the Ukrainian violinist Yuri Mazurkevich, moved to Canada in 1974) was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, and raised in Austria. The soprano Gina Capkas (Capkauskiene, b Lithuania 1930) studied with Pauline Donalda and Lina Narducci in Montreal and has performed in opera and concert in Australia, the USA, and Canada.