Oscar O'Brien

O'Brien, Oscar. Folklorist, composer, pianist, organist, teacher, b Ottawa 7 Sep 1892, d Montreal 20 Sep 1958.

O'Brien, Oscar

O'Brien, Oscar. Folklorist, composer, pianist, organist, teacher, b Ottawa 7 Sep 1892, d Montreal 20 Sep 1958. He studied piano and organ with Amédée Tremblay while pursuing his studies at the De La Salle Academy and the University of Ottawa, and at the age of 16 was appointed Tremblay's deputy organist at the Notre-Dame Basilica. In 1915 he began a 15-year collaboration with Charles Marchand as the latter's accompanist and arranger. Two years later he moved to Montreal as a teacher, orchestral pianist, and accompanist. Because of Marchand's influence folk music remained central to O'Brien's activities. Their collaboration intensified through tours, recordings, and recitals, and in 1927 they performed in Quebec in the first CPR Festival, O'Brien participating as composer, arranger, and pianist. They also took part in the 1928 Festival. With Marchand's untimely death before the 1930 festival O'Brien became the assistant music director of the festival, the last one held in Quebec. During the ensuing 15 years (1930-45) O'Brien served as the artistic director of the Alouette Vocal Quartet and wrote many of the group's arrangements. He entered the Benedictine monastery of St-Benoît-du-Lac, Que, in 1945 and took his vows in 1947. He was ordained a priest in 1952, and from then on was known as Dom Oscar O'Brien.

O'Brien's output comprised original compositions (usually inspired by folklore, which he thought could serve as a a base for a national music) as well as some 400 folksong harmonizations and arrangements for various vocal ensembles. Among the compositions are Philippino (1931-3), an operetta in three acts performed on CBC radio in 1943; La Belle du Nord (1938), a 'Canadian musical comedy'; a Trio (manuscript lost) for piano, violin, and cello; a Sonata (1927) for cello and piano, on the theme 'Dans les prisons de Nantes'; four Préludes (1922-3) for piano; and about 60 songs for voice and piano with French or English texts. He also composed a Messe de Requiem (1934-5) and a Messe de Saint Joachim (1935-6) for unaccompanied equal voices. Works inspired by folk music and written for the theatre include Scène des voyageurs (1928), Une Noce canadienne-française en 1830 (1929), À Saint-Malo (1930), Dix Danses limousines (1930), Pastorale (1930), and La Passion (1935). He wrote piano accompaniments for the songs collected in the three-volume Chansons d'Acadie by Father Anselme and Brother Daniel (La Réparation 1942-8), and collaborated on Canadian Folk Songs Old and New (Dent 1927, 1949) and Twenty-one Folk Songs of French Canada/Vingt-et-une Chansons canadiennes (Harris 1928). Several of his works or harmonizations were published 1924-7 in La Lyre.

As arranger or accompanist O'Brien's name may be found on several Starr, Victor, Brunswick, Columbia, and Bluebird 78 rpm recordings. He gave lectures and wrote articles on folklore, eg, 'Le folklore source d'inspiration pour les artistes' (Le Canada français, January 1944, reprinted in Aujourd'hui, March 1944). In 1978 CBC radio paid tribute to O'Brien in 'Folklore,' a series of six broadcasts devoted to his harmonizations. Among his pupils were Lionel Daunais, Hector Gratton, Jacques Labrecque, and Lucien Sicotte.


Further Reading

  • Larose, Paul. 'Oscar O'Brien,' Ottawa Le Droit, 1 Dec 1934

    Horizons, Nov 1939

    'A troubadour turns monk,' Caecilia, vol 80, Jul-Aug 1953

    Catalogue of Canadian Composers

    Musiciens canadiens