Music in Saskatoon

Saskatchewan city founded in 1882 as a temperance colony by pioneers from Ontario. It was incorporated as a town, with a population of 544, in 1903, and as a city, with five times that number, in 1906.

Saskatoon, Sask

Saskatoon, Sask. Saskatchewan city founded in 1882 as a temperance colony by pioneers from Ontario. It was incorporated as a town, with a population of 544, in 1903, and as a city, with five times that number, in 1906. Its population had grown to 25,000 by 1925 and to 178,000 by 1986, and it was well-established as an agricultural, industrial, and medical centre and a university city.

Saskatoon's first concert, 1 Dec 1884 by the Pioneer Society, featured solos, duets, choruses, readings, and recitations. The erection ca 1900 of the Saskatoon Music Hall and the Dulmage Hall indicates a quickening of musical activity. Cairns' Hall, opened 29 Sep 1903, was built by J.F. Cairns, who previously had owned a theatre in Chatham, Ont, and had managed the Grand Opera House in London, Ont. In 1903 the church organist and piano tuner F.W. Musselwhite formed the Saskatoon Choral Society. Musselwhite also conducted the first concert of the Saskatoon Orchestra, with John Jackson as concertmaster, at Cairns' Hall 16 Mar 1905. The same year, Saskatoon was visited by a concert and operatic ensemble conducted by Frank Laubach of Regina.

In the early 1900s the main musical activities were solo recitals, band concerts, minstrel shows, vaudeville, and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas by local and visiting groups. In 1908 Blanche St John-Baker, a pupil of Leopold Godowsky and Olga Varet-Stepanoff, opened a piano studio. She taught in Saskatoon until 1920 and developed many talented pianists - including Lyell Gustin - but later settled in Los Angeles. Also in 1908 the 78-member Saskatoon Philharmonic Society, the city's first important musical organization, was founded. Organized and conducted by William Preston, the society gave its first concert in the Lyric Theatre (Saskatoon) in January 1909. In May 1909 it won a prize in Regina for its performance of H.M.S. Pinafore at the first Saskatchewan Music Festival. (Saskatoon was the location in 1910 of the second provincial festival and continued to be the biennial location of the festival.) In 1910 members of the Philharmonic Society, performing as the Grand Vaudeville Co in a repeat production of H.M.S. Pinafore, inaugurated the Empire Theatre, which provided a home to music and drama for more than 20 years. During these decades, the Philharmonic (later Orpheus) Society continued to present musicals.

Prominent church musicians in Saskatoon included the British organist Arthur L. Bates (1894-1939) who arrived in 1911, the choir conductor and voice teacher Elizabeth Morrison (1889-1965) who arrived from Scotland in 1915, and the organist, pianist, teacher, and composer Marguerita Spencer (b 1892) who moved from eastern Canada in 1922. Originally from Nova Scotia, Spencer's published works included several songs and two Prairie Suites (Harris 1953, 1959). Her 24 Preludes in All Keys for piano were completed in 1971. She was the subject of a CBC TV documentary in 1986, at which time she was still composing and playing the piano.

In 1912 Saskatoon had four bands and two orchestras. Another indication of the expanding musical scene was the founding that year of the Women's Musical Club and the opening, by Mr and Mrs Robert Bell, of the Bell Conservatory in the Odd Fellows' Hall on 3rd Ave. The Bells and their teachers - including the aforementioned John Jackson - offered lessons in piano, strings, theory, and voice and produced such noted musicians as Thelma Johannes O'Neill and Mabel Sanda. George C. Palmer (1879-1968), a native of Bristol who settled in Saskatoon in 1915, opened the Palmer School of Music and taught piano. Five years later Lyell Gustin opened his piano studios, from which many leading Canadian pianists and teachers were to emerge, and in 1924 he founded the Musical Art Club.

After 1900 numerous solo artists and performing companies visited Saskatoon. The tenor Harold Jarvis sang there in 1905 and the San Francisco Opera performed in 1908. In 1910, at $5 a ticket, Nellie Melba gave a joint recital with the violinist Jan Kubelík. Two years later Ernestine Schumann-Heink appeared at the Empire Theatre, and the Sheehan English Opera presented Il Trovatore. The tenor John McCormack sang at the Empire Theatre in 1913. Other attractions 1910-20 were Kathleen Parlow (1911) who gave a recital during her first Canadian tour, the Cherniavsky Trio (1914), Clara Butt (1914), the Chautauqua, the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival Opera, the De Koven Opera, the San Carlo Grand Opera, the Shuberts, the Gallo English Opera, the Royal English Opera, and the Boston Opera. Individual artists who appeared in Saskatoon prior to 1930 included Harold Craxton, Marcel Dupré, Arthur Friedheim, Percy Grainger, Boris Hambourg, and Edward Johnson. The Hart House String Quartet also played there.

The Saskatoon Oratorio Society under William Preston, with Fred M. Gee as organist, gave the Saskatoon premiere of the complete Messiah 3 and 4 Dec 1913. Irene Moore, a music critic for Saskatoon newspapers until 1920, provided comprehensive reporting, interviews, and vignettes on local musicians. In 1920 W. Seemer Betts moved to Saskatoon, becoming a conductor of the Saskatoon Philharmonic Society and a prominent voice teacher and choirmaster.

The Depression and the drought of the 1930s and the attendant decline in population slowed musical growth, but development continued, especially in music education. In 1931 a chair of music was established at the University of Saskatchewan, and Arthur Collingwood, who founded the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra in 1931 or 1932, was appointed dean. In 1931 Lyell Gustin organized a series of musical appreciation programs for grades 7 and 8 in four city schools. These programs continued until 1938, the final one, in the Third Avenue Church, with the participation of 3000 children. Also in 1931 the Saskatoon Music Teachers' Association was formed; George C. Palmer, who taught 1935-50 at the University of Saskatchewan, was the first president. In 1939 the CFMTA held its biennial convention in Saskatoon.

The slow recovery of the musical community from the Depression, the drought, and World War II began in the mid-1940s. The Saskatoon Kinsmen Club in 1944 began a Celebrity Concert Series that was to present internationally known musicians to Saskatoon audiences for the next 26 years (eg, Mischa Elman, Zara Nelsova, Lily Pons, Artur Rubinstein). The University of Saskatchewan presented an operetta or musical annually 1946-55 in the Capitol Theatre. Productions included Naughty Marietta, The Desert Song, Countess Maritza, Brigadoon, and Finian's Rainbow. The Dept of Music also established a Sunday evening recital series which presented distinguished performers.

In 1952 a Saskatoon Oratorio Society (Saskatoon Choral Society after 1959) was organized with Victor Kviesis as conductor. Its first performance, 3 and 4 Feb 1953, in the Third Avenue United Church, was of Mendelssohn's St Paul. Over the years, with a membership that has remained between 60 and 80, the society has presented Bach's St Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, and Solomon, Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives and Missa solemnis, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Brahms' A German Requiem, and Britten's War Requiem.

The Saskatoon Lyric Theatre Society survived five years and produced Smetana's The Bartered Bride in 1955. Robert Solem in 1963 became the conductor of the Greystone Singers, a mixed choir of students at the University of Saskatchewan founded in 1959 to celebrate the university's 50th anniversary. The choir has performed in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and North Dakota, has given annual workshops in Saskatchewan centres, and have appeared with the Saskatoon SO. In 1977 the Saskatoon Chamber Singers was founded by 14 alumni of the Greystone Singers. In 1978 the choir grew to 21 members. The directors have been Robert Solem 1977-85 and Jim Hawn 1985-6, succeeded by Patricia Charpentier. Other choirs include the Saskatoon Boys' Choir, formed under Don Forbes in 1960, and the Saskatoon Men's Chorus, which was organized by Alfred S. Driedger in 1980 and included 44 members in 1989.

Murray Adaskin, who had become head of the Dept of Music at the University of Saskatchewan in 1952 and was conductor of the Saskatoon SO 1957-60, organized the first Summer Festival of Music in 1959. Saskatoon was host to the convention of the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals in 1962. Humphrey and the Dumptrucks were formed in 1967. In 1968 Murray Adaskin founded the Amati String Quartet. Probably the decade's most significant event was the 1967 opening of the Saskatoon Centennial Auditorium, which provided a permanent home for the Saskatoon SO and a fulcrum for the city's musical life. In 1976 Ruben Gurevich became the first full-time conductor of the Saskatoon SO.

The Saskatoon Opera Association was formed in 1978 by Dorothy Howard and others, with Marilyn Harrison as general manager. Each year it has given one or two major productions, with two or three smaller chamber operas, dinner theatre, and children's programs. Soloists have included Barbara Collier, John Fanning, and Émile Belcourt. Among major performances have been La Bohème, The Marriage of Figaro, and La Traviata.

The Prairie Opera Inc was established in the fall of 1986 with Murray Moats as director. Its purpose is to provide professional opportunities for Saskatchewan performers, composers and other related artists. It gives three to five productions with fifty performances each year. It has conducted workshops and given performances throughout Saskatchewan and in Manitoba. In addition it is involved in dinner theatre, recitals and children's festivals. Performances have included Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Consul, and Elizabeth Raum's The Final Bid. The major 1990 production was the premiere of Raum's Eos: The Dream of Nicholas Flood Davin.

Saskatoon is the birthplace of Walter Babiak, the bassist Kim Brandt, the pianist-teacher Irene Bubniuk, Neil Chotem, Brenton Price Dutton, Mike Ferbey of the Rhythm Pals, the singer Lorraine McAllister Richards, the pop singer Susan Pesklevits Jacks, the pianist David Swan, and Lesia Zubrack Romanoff.


Further Reading

  • 'A musical city,' The Capital, anniversary number 1909

    Walls, A.H. 'City's grand old man of music [W. Seemer Betts],' Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 28 Jan 1954

    Kasemets, Udo. 'The Saskatoon summer music festival, 1959,' CMJ, vol 4, Autumn 1959

    Gustin, Lyell. 'Music in the early days of Saskatoon,' paper ed by Mrs T.C. Vanterpool, repr Alumni Bulletin, no. 13, 1966

    History of Theatre in Saskatoon 1897-1955, 2 vols, index prepared by University of Saskatchewan drama students (Saskatoon 1974)