Russian Music in Canada

The largest of the 15 Union Republics that until 1991 made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The largest of the 15 Union Republics that until 1991 made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Some of the other groups of the former USSR are well-represented in Canada, and some, because of their distinct individuality or because their homelands did not form part of the Soviet Union at the time of emigration, are treated separately in EMC, in the entries for Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Three religious groups, many of whose followers have come from either Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union - the Doukhobors, the Jews, and the Mennonites - also have separate entries. The present article will deal essentially with the Russian component in the Canadian mosaic and also with cultural relations and exchanges between Canada and the former Soviet Union as a whole.


Large-scale immigration from Tsarist Russia to Canada began in the mid-1870s, when the Mennonites settled in southeast Manitoba. In 1899 7000 Doukhobors followed, and the period from 1880 to the beginning of World War I witnessed the mass immigration of Jews from Russia, Ukraine, and Tsarist-ruled Poland, and of Ukrainians. Immigration declined in the period between the two world wars and became slow again after a wave about 1950, though beginning in the 1970s a number of Jews arrived via Israel or directly from the Soviet Union, and many of the musicians among these found employment in Canadian symphony orchestras. In the 1986 Canadian census figures there were 32,080 Canadians of Russian origin. Few have settled in the Atlantic provinces, and the largest concentrations may be found in Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Russian cultural organizations in the larger Canadian centres have sponsored social gatherings, plays, bazaars, choirs, balalaika orchestras, and folk dance groups. The Russian Orthodox church has preserved liturgical musical traditions, and some congregations have offered Russian language and history classes.

Musicians Of Russian Origin In Canada

Among Russian-born musicians in Canada have been Alexander Chuhaldin; S.C. Eckhardt-Gramatté; Gregori Garbovitsky; the Hambourg family; Constantin Klimoff (d 1974, a piano teacher in Quebec City); Vladimir Landsman (Lancman), a violinist and teacher in Montreal; the TS violinist Jascha Milkis; Kornelius Neufeld; the Toronto oboist Simon Trubashnik; the Toronto baritone Alexander Tumanov; the cellist Yuli Turovsky and his wife, Eleanora, a violinist and violist the conductor Victor Yampolsky, who was music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra 1977-82; and Rudolf Barshai, conductor 1985-8 of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Canadian musicians of Russian ancestry include the Adaskin family, Milla Andrew, Ida Krehm, Zara Nelsova, Boris Roubakine, and the pianist Zadel Skolovsky.

Russian Visitors

Perhaps the first musician from Russia to visit Canada was the cellist Henri Billet, billed as the 'premier violoncelle de la musique privée de l'Empereur de Russie' in announcements of an appearance 24 Aug 1841 at the Théâtre royal in Quebec City. The Baron Rudolph de Fleur, 'late pianist and inspector general of military music to His Majesty the Emperor of Russia' (Toronto Patriot, 16 Jul 1844), gave performances described as 'exquisite and decidedly the most scientific ever witnessed in Toronto' (ibid, 23 Jul 1844). He also visited Charlottetown in 1847. Basil Schütz was sent to North America by his family and is known to have played the piano in a Montreal theatre ca 1845. He returned to Russia with a Canadian wife of Scottish descent, and their daughter Françoise-Jeanne, born in 1861, became the famous soprano Félia Litvinne. Other visiting Russian musicians have included Anton Rubinstein (Toronto 1872); Ossip Gabrilowitsch, who played in Montreal in 1902; Sergei Rachmaninoff, who gave the first of many Canadian concerts in Toronto in 1909; the violinist Mischa Elman (1913); Prokofiev, who stayed in Montreal for a few months, ca 1920-1, presumably completing there the orchestration for Love of Three Oranges; the Russian Grand Opera, a company of exiles under Leo Feodoroff, which appeared twice in Montreal, twice in Toronto, and once in Hamilton during the 1922-3 season with productions of French, Italian, and Russian operas, including Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades, and Eugene Onegin; Feodor Chaliapin, who sang in Montreal and Toronto in the mid-1920s; Vladimir Horowitz, Nikolai Orloff, and Gregor Piatigorsky, all of whom performed in Canada in the early 1930s; and Igor Stravinsky, who made his first visit in 1937 and in the 1960s recorded several of his works with the Festival Singers and CBC Symphony Orchestra.

In the mid-1950s an active exchange of artists, initiated by Nicholas Koudriavtzeff, began between Canada and the USSR. Though exchanges were not always on an 'official' basis, a cultural agreement was signed by the two countries in 1960. It may be said without exaggeration that Canadians abroad have had their most enthusiastic audiences in Moscow and Leningrad and that their Russian tours have brought them great prestige at home. Conversely, Russian artists have enjoyed notable success in Canada. Among Russian artists to perform in Canada in the mid- to late-20th century have been Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emil Gilels, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Evgeny Kissin, Leonid Kogan, David and Igor Oistrakh, Sviastoslav Richter, Lazar Berman, the Moscow State SO, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Borodin Trio, the Borodin String Quartet, the Red Army Chorus, and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Expo 67 introduced the Bolshoi Opera to Canada (indeed to North America). An exchange tour of Canada was arranged for the Moscow Chamber Choir in 1978 following a tour of the USSR made by the Festival Singers in 1977. The composer Rodion Shchedrin was a juror at the 1985 International Bach Piano Competition. The Poliansky Choir of Moscow performed at the 1989 International Choral Festival, at which the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky also appeared.

Canadians In Russia

Among Canadian musicians who visited (pre-Soviet) Russia were Emma Albani, who sang opera there in 1873 and 1878; the soprano Bertha Crawford, who sang in Petrograd in 1915 and Moscow in 1916; and Kathleen Parlow, who studied 1906-7 at the St Petersburg Cons with Leopold Auer. The MSO played in Moscow and Leningrad in 1962, and the Vancouver Chamber Choir appeared in Russia in 1989. The violinist Betty-Jean Hagen, the pianist Elaine Keillor, the cellist Michael Kilburn, and the pianist Raymond Pannell were contestants in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The pianist Barbara Custance studied Russian teaching methods in Moscow in 1968, and the pianist Karen Quinton (Prix d'Europe 1972) studied 1973-5 with Tatiana Nikolayeva at the Moscow Cons. André Laplante shared second prize at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. Canadian musicians who have performed in the USSR include Jacques Beaudry (1957, the first North American conductor to appear in the Soviet Union after World War II), Donald Bell (1962), John Boyden (1968), Henri Brassard (1978), Alexander Brott (1962), Renée Claude (1971), the Elgar Choir of British Columbia (1961), Victor Feldbrill (1963, 1966-7), Maureen Forrester (1961), Glenn Gould (1957, 1959), Margaret-Ann Ireland (1960, 1962), Jean-Paul Jeannotte (1961), Pauline Julien (1967), the Kitsilano Boys' Band (1962), Claude Léveillée (1968, 1972), Monique Leyrac (1968), Joseph Macerollo (1978), Fraser MacPherson (1978, 1981, 1984, and 1986), Phyllis Mailing with William Aide (1971), Lois Marshall (1958, the first of seven tours by 1978), Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra (1991), Oscar Peterson (1974), Powder Blues (1990), Louis Quilico (1962-3), Robert Silverman (1978), Teresa Stratas (1962, 1963), Stringband (1983), Micheline Tessier (1968), the Travellers (1962), Bernard Turgeon (1971, 1972, 1976), Ronald Turini (1962, 1963), and George Zukerman (1978).

Music of Russian romantic composers - notably Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and, to a lesser degree, Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, and Glazunov - has been extremely popular with Canadian audiences in the 20th century. The expatriate Stravinsky has been the dominant figure of Russian music after 1900, but several Soviet composers - notably Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and, less often, Kabalevsky - have been represented steadily on Canadian programs. Kabalevsky visited Canada in 1978 (and several times previously), but by that year neither early nor recent works of Canadian composers had been adopted into the Soviet repertoire, though Canadian artists occasionally had performed such works on visits to the USSR. Overtures have been made. In the fall of 1977 the composer Harry Somers and the Canadian Music Centre'sJohn Peter Lee Roberts spent two weeks in the USSR meeting members of the Union of Soviet Composers, performers, and critics, and playing for them recordings of Canadian works. In 1978, in exchange, the Soviet composer and the pianist Andrei Eshpai visited the CMCentre.

Further Reading

  • Parthun, Mary Lassance. 'A rich harvest of Russian emigrés,' Music, vol 2, Dec 1979