Music in St John's

The capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, situated on the northeastern arm of the Avalon peninsula. St John's claims to be the oldest settled and continuously occupied European community in North America.

St John's, Nfld. The capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, situated on the northeastern arm of the Avalon peninsula. St John's claims to be the oldest settled and continuously occupied European community in North America. John Cabot is said to have visited St John's Harbour in 1497, and it was from this harbour that Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583 proclaimed Newfoundland a possession of the English monarch, and thereby founded the British Empire. St John's became the major political and economic centre on the island, with an economy based almost entirely on the cod fishery and trade. It was incorporated as a city in 1888 and in 1990 remained the seat of government, but also the business and educational centre of the province.

The first permanent residence at St John's was erected in 1528, although there is evidence that the harbour had been used by itinerant European fishermen from Portugal, Spain, and England long before that. The population grew to 185 settlers by 1675, 1100 by 1766, 19,000 by 1869, and 161,901 in the greater St John's area by 1986. The large majority of the city's residents are of English, Irish or Scottish extraction.

The first documented case of music performed in Newfoundland was in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert's band of trumpets, drums, fifes, cornets and 'hautboys' entertained the captains of the 36 ships then in port. The succeeding two centuries saw relatively little musical activity, other than folk music, hymn singing, or occasional flutists, fiddlers or military drummers and fifers. By 1775 the community supported a professional fiddler. An entry in the subscription list for the Royal Gazette newspaper in 1810 noted that Augustin MacNamara's bill was 'to be paid for in fiddling.'

Musical entertainments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries could be obtained at public inns such as the Jolly Fisherman, the Royal Standard or the London Tavern, and theatrical performances were offered at the Globe until 1822, when an amateur playhouse was constructed. The first opera performed in Newfoundland, Thomas Linley's The Duenna; or the Double Elopement, was presented in May 1820 as a benefit for the victims of the great fire of 1817. A sign of more ambitious aims was the appearance in 1838 of a St John's Handel and Haydn Society performing selections from Messiah and The Creation with 'infinite taste and judgement'. A second choral group, the St John's Parochial Choral Society attached to the Church of England cathedral, was formed in 1848 to improve the quality of music in the church.

Private music teachers began offering their services to the public just after the turn of the 19th century, mostly in the form of piano, flute, or fiddle lessons. Music was first introduced into St John's schools on a regular basis by the Presentation Order of Sisters from Ireland, who established their first school in 1833, and vocal and choral music classes were available at most of the denominational colleges in the city by 1870.

The military maintained a substantial presence in the town throughout much of the 19th century, but during the first two decades its contribution was largely confined to fife and drum bands, or musicales held in the homes of senior officers. After 1820 small brass bands with several added woodwinds and percussion, such as the band of the Royal Newfoundland Company (active after 1840), and the bands attached to the Newfoundland Volunteers and the Queen's Own Rifles, were to be observed at concert events or military parades. Church-affiliated civilian bands were also prevalent after 1840, and by 1860 virtually all public societies had their own ensembles.

Sacred music was fully integrated into the fabric of St John's worship by the early 19th century - although some churches were known to have had good music as early as 1789 - and one advertisement placed in the Royal Gazette in 1807 sought a 'person well-qualified to teach the theory of sacred music'. The Congregational Meeting House was particularly active in music in those first years of the century, as was the Methodist Chapel with its small string ensemble of several violins and a bass viol to accompany the choir. String ensembles, often with one or two flutes and a clarinet, were a feature of many St John's churches before 1850, but were eventually replaced by harmoniums and then pipe organs. After 1875 the major churches of the city vied for musical pre-eminence through partial or complete performances of sacred cantatas and oratorios, although an ecumenical spirit prevailed with many performances rendered by combined choirs from different churches and faiths.

The 200-voice St John's Choral Society was the focal point for a good deal of musical activity in St John's in the late 19th century. The society, which was active 1878-88, put on performances of large scale oratorios and sacred cantatas. Among the major works performed were Messiah (1880, 1884), Judas Maccabaeus (1881), and The Creation (1882). Directors of the society were its founder Emil Handcock and after 1883 George Rowe, also director 1887-1901 of the St John's School of Music. A St John's Orchestral Society was formed in 1890 under the direction of Charles Hutton, followed by several combined choral and orchestral societies just after the turn of the 20th century. The Athenaeum (1879-1892) with its 1,000 seat theatre was central to much of this musical activity, but as the 19th century progressed the Star of the Sea and T.A. Halls also served as venues for amateur and professional efforts.

A noteworthy occurrence was the emergence of an amateur and semi-professional operatic tradition in St John's, beginning in 1879 with a rendition of H.M.S. Pinafore by a US opera company. Miss Clara Fisher, a star of the Josie Loane Opera Company, chose to remain in St John's for the next decade, and sang in local productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas under the direction of Hutton. Foremost among these productions were Patience in 1883, The Mikado in 1886, The Sorcerer in 1887, and Trial by Jury and Cox and Box in 1894. Numerous other operettas followed, several directed by the Englishman Peter LeSueur just after the turn of the century, or by Gordon Christian in the 1930s, but the majority were under Hutton's direction. The operatic movement ended with Hutton's retirement from public life in 1939, although his protégé, Ignatius Rumboldt, attempted to sustain the tradition for another decade.

St John's was a frequent port of call for European and US musicians and actors during much of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century. Among the prominent guests to appear were the Coronation Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1902 and Emma Albani in 1903, while visiting operatic troupes included the Robinson Opera Company in 1902 - performing eleven different operas - the Bandmann Opera Company in 1903, and the Boston Opera Company in 1914.

Choral and orchestral societies remained important concerns until the 1920s. Most notable of these were LeSueur's choral and orchestral society of 1904 which produced Gaul's Holy City; the Bach Choir of 1906, conducted by the organist and composer Alfred Allen, which presented the entire St Matthew Passion; and the 178-voice St John's Choral and Orchestral Society of 1910, under the direction of Hutton and Moncrieff Mawer, which performed Gade's The Erl King's Daughter.

The fact that community support for musical activity declined in the 1930s is primarily attributable to poor economic and political fortunes. Other factors were the advent of the movies and radio, and a lack of new musical leadership. As Hutton and other musical impresarios aged, or emigrated (eg, LeSueur), there were few individuals willing to enter the musical profession as the Depression intensified. Eleanor Mews was one notable exception. After studying and then teaching at the TCM, she returned to St John's to direct 1933-8 the Memorial University College glee club, and during the 1950s she conducted a community choir. Among musicians affiliated with Memorial U College after 1925 were the ubiquitous Hutton, composer Richard T. Bevan, and lawyer, amateur musician, and composer Frederick Emerson, who taught music appreciation classes 1940-7 with an emphasis on folk music.

It was during the 1920's that the folksong revival movement reached Newfoundland, and it was largely due to the efforts of Gerald S. Doyle, Bob MacLeod, Fred Emerson and, later, Rumboldt that Newfoundlanders were made aware of their heritage. (See also Ethnomusicology).

Prominent folk musicians/entertainers in 1990 included fiddler Kelly Russell, guitarist Jim Payne, and the instrumental/vocal ensembles Figgy Duff and Rawlins Cross.

One other significant musical development prior to union with Canada in 1949 - outside of the Community Concert Association which was formed in 1946 - was the arrival of the US and Canadian armed forces after 1941. The US forces remained in St John's for many years after the war and the presence of US jazz and wind musicians - both those assigned to military base and visiting artists imported for entertainment of the troops - had a lasting effect on the musical culture of the city. Several musicians, such as trumpeter Leo Sandoval and pianist Ralph Walker, chose to remain in the city and contributed to the growth of jazz and instrumental music. Among notable Canadian jazz musicians to come from St John's in the 1980s were pianist Jeff Johnston, bassist Jim Vivian, and saxophonist John Nugent.

After confederation in 1949, Memorial U College was elevated to full degree granting status and, under the leadership of Ignatius Rumboldt and then Donald F. Cook, interest in music grew to the point that a Dept of Music was established in 1975. It and its faculty have enriched the life of St John's through a myriad of musical events. R. Murray Schafer was artist-in-residence 1963-5 there, and New Zealand composer Douglas Mews (b St John's 1918) was a visiting professor in 1978.

Music education in the public school system greatly improved after 1960, particularly because of the increasing availability of qualified music teachers. In 1990 numerous choirs, concert bands, stage bands and several string programmes of high standard existed in the St John's metropolitan area. The Presentation and Mercy Sisters have continued to play a significant role in providing private piano tutelage, while an important development was the arrival of concert pianist and teacher Andreas Barban in 1947.

The Church Lads' Brigade Band (formed in 1896 and still extant in 1990) and other quasi-military bands affiliated with local churches provided instrumental music instruction to youth during the early part of the 20th century while the Gower Street United Church Youth Band has served as a training ground for young instrumentalists since its inception in 1973. The Calos Youth Orchestra, formed in 1968, was sponsored 1970-6 by the Memorial U extension service and was succeeded in 1981 by the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra, under director Peter Gardner. Other youth music organizations include the Suzuki Talent Education Programme, begun in 1977; the Music for Young Children Programme for pre-schoolers, begun in 1983, and the Eastern Music Camp for brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion, begun in 1986. Private music teachers formed the Newfoundland Registered Music Teachers' Association in 1987.

The Kiwanis Music Festival was established in 1952 and achieved impressive growth throughout the 1970s, although it later came under attack for its competitive stance. Other competitive or semi-competitive events are the Canadian Music Competitions, first brought to St John's in 1981, and MusicFest Canada. The Arts and Culture Centre has served as a venue for many musical events since its opening in 1967.

Church choirs have remained a musical outlet for many, and numerous small private choirs, such as the Canterbury Singers (St John's) (1961-86) directed by Eileen Stanbury, and the Chantelles under Jacinta Mackey-Graham, have enjoyed success. The St John's Choir, under the auspices 1960-78 of the extension service of Memorial U, continued to serve the community in 1990.

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra has been a leading musical institution in the city since its formation as the St John's Extension Orchestra in 1961. Initially conducted by Nigel Wilkins, then by Zdanek Navratil and Andreas Barban, it was renamed the St John's SO in 1970 and then became the Newfoundland SO in 1978. (See Orchestras). The Atlantic String Quartet, whose members are professional string players drawn from the symphony, was established in 1985, as was the NSO Sinfonia conducted by Peter Gardner. The NSO Philharmonic Choir, under chorusmaster Douglas Dunsmore, was formed in 1986 and, together with the NSO, has presented annual performances of Messiah. A second orchestra, the Terra Nova Chamber Players, under musical director Paul Dingle, was formed in 1986 to fill the need for chamber music in the community.

Contemporary music took a leap forward in 1978 with the formation of the chamber group Fusion by the clarinetist Paul Bendzsa and the percussionist Don Wherry. In 1983 the international contemporary multi-disciplinary biennial festival Sound Symposium was created by artistic director Wherry.

Among noted musicians born in St John's have been Eric Abbott, the baritone Donald Brian, Roma Butler, the soprano Lynn Channing, the pop singer Mary Lou Collins, the harpist Carla Emerson (who returned to St John's in 1962 after playing in the Royal Philharmonic in London, and who began teaching at Memorial U in 1976), the pop singer Mary Lou Farrell, the organist Charles Hutton, the composer Douglas Mews, and the pianist Karen Quinton. Newfoundland-born Arthur Scammell retired to St John's, and the folksinger Omar Blondahl lived there 1955-64.


Further Reading

  • O'Neill, T.H., and Young, R.A. 'Old-time theatricals in St. John's,' The Book of Newfoundland, vol 2, ed J.R. Smallwood (St John's 1937)

    Walker, Ralph. '''Pop'' bands in Newfoundland,' ibid, vol 4 (St John's 1967)

    Withers, J.W. 'Dirty, diseased and dangerous - and always exciting. St. John's in 1807,' ibid, vol 5 (St John's 1975)

    O'Neill, Paul. The Oldest City: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland (Erin, Ontario, 1975)

    - A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland (Erin, Ontario, 1976)

    Rowe, Frederick W. Education and Culture in Newfoundland (Toronto 1976)

    Rex, Sr Kathleen. 'A history of music education in Newfoundland,' M MUS thesis, Catholic U of America, Washington, DC 1977

    Woodford, Paul. 'We Love the Place, O Lord,' A History of the Written Musical Tradition of Newfoundland and Labrador to 1949 (St John's1988)