Music in Victoria

Capital city of British Columbia. Established in 1843 on the southern tip of Vancouver Island as a Hudson's Bay Co trading post called Fort Victoria, the town had 148 adult inhabitants by 1855.

Victoria, BC. Capital city of British Columbia. Established in 1843 on the southern tip of Vancouver Island as a Hudson's Bay Co trading post called Fort Victoria, the town had 148 adult inhabitants by 1855. Within four months of the Fraser River gold discoveries in 1858, Victoria's population had risen to 20,000, and the town was a thriving supply centre and starting point for expeditions to the mainland. Victoria was incorporated as a city in 1862 and designated the capital in 1868. The Klondike gold rush of 1897 further contributed to Victoria's growing population. In 1986 255,545 lived in the capital region. Victoria's geographic isolation from the mainland has had the effect of limiting industrial growth and forcing a degree of self-reliance on its citizens, particularly in the performing arts.

In 1850 the only musical instruments in Fort Victoria are said to have been the flute and fiddle of the chief trader, John Tod. In 1853 the first piano arrived, after a long journey from Europe around Cape Horn. The settlement's first melodeon was heard at the Victoria District Church in 1858; a barrel organ with 30 tunes arrived the following year; and a pipe organ, built by J.W. Walker and Sons of London, was installed at St John the Divine (later St John's) Anglican Church in 1860. The wave of prospectors that descended on Victoria 1858-9 brought enough players on musical instruments for Arthur T. Bushby and Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie (later Chief Justice of British Columbia) to found the first Victoria Philharmonic Society, first heard in concert 6 May 1859. John Bayley, inspector of police, conducted, and his son contributed a clarinet solo. This amateur society was short-lived, but others followed soon: the Germania Singverein (probably Canada's first German musical society) in May 1861; Les Enfants de Paris in August 1861; the Victoria Musical Society (an amalgamation of two brass bands) in 1864; and a Glee Club in 1866.

A strong factor in the support of musical societies in Victoria has been the presence of a naval establishment, first British, then Canadian, at nearby Esquimalt. From the earliest days naval officers and band musicians participated in the music making. William K. Horne, Assistant Paymaster of HMS Ganges (on Pacific Station 1857-60) wrote the Vancouver Island Waltz in 1860, which apart from Bushby's fragmentary 'Valentine' of 1859 was probably the first music composed locally; it is preserved at the Provincial Archives of British Columbia.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the local Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society as well as visiting concert companies and Italian and English opera troupes presented performances of operas and other works. For its first production the society chose Thomas Arne's pastiche Love in a Village which was performed 15 Apr 1880 and again 3 Jun 1880. A group of amateurs especially trained for the occasion opened the new Victoria Theatre 16-17 Oct 1885 with a performance of The Pirates of Penzance. In 1886 the first Victoria Operatic Society produced The Chimes of Normandy and followed this with the Blind Beggars (1886), Erminie (1890), The Pirates of Penzance (1892), and the Mikado (1894). The society then branched into opera with Il Trovatore (1895) and Martha (1895), followed by many more performances to 1908. Visiting opera companies included the Juch Grand English Opera Company (from the USA), which in 1890 presented Faust, Der Freischütz, The Bohemian Girl, and Carmen. Herbert Kent, a chronicler of music in Victoria, pointed out that 'the old Theatre Royal on Government St. was very frequently secured for Operatic Companies, and, contrary to the order of things in late years, these organizations found it profitable to give three or four days, and in many cases, a week of grand Opera' ('Musical chronicles of early times,' Victoria Daily Times, 14 Dec 1918).

Notable among the musico-dramatic productions in Victoria were the more than 30 Christmas pantomimes produced by Reginald Hincks 1909-47. During World War I Hincks also staged monthly musical entertainments in aid of the Red Cross. Johanna Gadski sang 8 Nov 1912 for the Victoria Ladies' Musical Club, which had been founded in 1906. The Princess Theatre, where the Dumbells played, opened in 1911 and closed in 1961. Victoria's major auditorium, the 1450-seat Royal Theatre, was inaugurated 29 Dec 1913.

The first Victoria performance of Handel's Messiah, on Easter Monday 1887 with a choir of 102 led by Enrico Sorge, initiated a tradition. In 1892 the Arion Club was organized under William Greig (see Arion Male Voice Choir); as Canada's oldest extant secular choir it was still performing in 1991 and preparing to celebrate its centennial in 1992. George Taylor and E. Howard Russell prepared the 250-voice choir that sang in the 1903 Cycle of Musical Festivals. During her farewell tour Emma Albani was soloist with the Victoria Musical Society, a chorus led by Gideon Hicks, in a performance of Cowen's The Rose Maiden (May 1906). The Victoria Choral Society under Hicks gave its first concert in 1910.

Among the first instrument builders and technicians in Victoria were John Bagnall (who is known to have built the first reed organ in 1872 and two pianos in 1874); his successors Charles Goodwin and G.W. Jordan (who built their first upright piano in 1886 and their first grand in 1890); and William Seeley (who modified the Christ Church Cathedral barrel organ in 1860 so that it could be played with a keyboard). One of the Goodwin and Jordan pianos is currently preserved in the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum. Systematic research into Victoria's musical life in the 19th century - an extensive computerized investigation of the sources - was begun by Dale McIntosh, University of Victoria, in the late 1970s.

Victoria has been noted for its English character, and perhaps it is not surprising that all of the leading musical personalities listed here as being active in the first half of the 20th century were English-born. Jesse A. Longfield was organist-choir master at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church 1903-39. Stanley Bulley, organist at Christ Church Cathedral, was conductor of the Victoria Choral and Orchestral Union (founded 1934), and with it presented oratorio performances of a high quality. Graham Steed was organist at the cathedral in the 1950s. George Jennings Burnett, organist-choirmaster at St John's Anglican Church, was the most active composer in the city. Leslie Grossmith, also a composer, was best known as conductor of a theatre orchestra and of operatic productions. Stanley Shale and Gertrude Huntly Green (the sole Canadian-born musician mentioned in this paragraph) were prominent piano teachers. Victoria's famous Empress Hotel was the location in 1929 and 1930 of CPR Festivals. William (Billy) Tickle, who was associated with the Victoria local of the AF of M, led the dance bands in the hotel's ballroom, and his trio played during teatime for over 30 years (ca 1927-1960).

Recitals by local and visiting artists were sponsored by the Victoria Ladies' Musical Club (1906-30) and its successor, the Victoria Musical Art Society. Several orchestras have been active in Victoria, but most were short lived. The first Victoria Amateur Orchestra was formed in 1878 by Coote M. Chambers but by 1900 was not longer giving concerts. Other attempts to organize orchestras were made by Frank Watkis (1903-4), Louis Turner (1909-11), Edward George Wickens (1913), Benedict Bantly (1914) and Gertrude Huntly Green (1918) but none had any extensive life. In 1921 one Jose Rodriguez organized the Victoria Orchestra Society (the second organization to take that name). This society flourished for several years under the direction of Drury Price (1922-5), Wilfred A. Willett (1926-38) and Alfred Prescott (1938-9) and these may be considered as the logical predecessors of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, which was formed in 1941 under the direction of Melvin Knudsen. The rise of that orchestra was paralleled by that of the naval band stationed at HMCS Naden after World War II. The Naden band played a prominent part in the British Columbia Centennial celebrations in 1958 and has provided music for the Sunset Ceremony at the provincial Legislative Buildings.

The naval establishment at Esquimalt also gave Victoria a unique role in music education after 1954, when the Royal Canadian Navy School of Music (renamed Canadian Forces School of Music in 1968) was established to train bandsmen, both players and directors. The Victoria School of Music (opened in 1964 and renamed Victoria Conservatory of Music in 1968) and the Dept of Music at the University of Victoria (opened in 1967) did much to improve educational opportunities. These developments, together with the artistic and financial growth of the Victoria SO, have attracted to the city highly qualified professional musicians and thus have encouraged the formation of several chamber ensembles: Trio Victoria (piano and strings), the duo-pianists Robin Wood and Winifred Scott, the Pacific Wind Quintet, the conservatory faculty's Baroque Ensemble, the Ars Nova Ensemble (made up of players from the symphony orchestra), Chamber Music Victoria, Eine Kleine Summer Musik, and the Island Chamber Players. Some of these groups have performed on the Canadian and US mainland and on the CBC.

Choral music is well represented by the Arion Male Voice Choir, the Amity Singers, the Linden Singers, the Victoria Choral Society, and several other groups. The Victoria Operatic Society confines its activities to amateur presentations of popular stage musicals and operettas. Opera departments have developed at the conservatory under Catherine Young and Selena James, and at the university under Bernard Turgeon (1978-89), Susan Young (1989-91), and Alexandra Browning (from 1991).

The Victoria Music Festival was organized in 1926 but by 1939 had ceased activity due to lack of interest. It was resurrected in 1949 as the Greater Victoria Music Festival, a movement spearheaded by J.F.K. English (then assistant deputy minister of education for British Columbia) and his wife, Ada. In 1991 it was continuing as a flourishing competition festival.

Music education has always played an important part in Victoria schools and as early as 1914 Victoria High School had an orchestra directed by E. Howard Russell. String ensembles in the schools have flourished under Ira Dilworth, Alfred Prescott, Harold Taylor, and Dorothy Hopgood Evans, while choral music has been advanced by Fred Waddington, Norma P. Douglas, Lorna Griffiths, and Laurie Walker. Beginning in the 1950s, wind bands became the predominant musical force in secondary schools and this movement was particularly nurtured by Howard Denike, David Dunnet, Fred Hagen, and Tom White. In the mid-1980s jazz performance in the secondary schools became an important auxiliary force and many school ensembles have won national acclaim in this field under the direction of Eileen Cooper (vocal jazz) and Brian Lillos (instrumental jazz).

In the 1980s the principal concert halls were the Royal Theatre (acquired by the municipality in 1973 and thereafter the home of the Victoria SO) and the 835-seat McPherson Playhouse (also municipally owned). On the campus of the University of Victoria a new concert hall and auditorium were opened in 1979. The city is the location of the Johannesen International School of the Arts and its attendant Victoria International Festival.

The following musicians were born in Victoria: John Beckwith, Robert Creech, the soprano Jeannette Dagger, Richard Eaton, David Foster, Hugh Fraser, Phylis Inglis, Pat Patterson, Neil Swainson, Philip Thomas, Dennis Tupman, Ian Tyson, Timothy Vernon, Robin Wood and Nelly Furtado. Among those who have been associated with Victoria's musical life are Murray Adaskin, Ian Bradley, John Celona, Frank Churchley, Don Cowan, Anthony Genge, Malcolm Hamilton, Earl Hobson, Paul Horn, Sydney Humphreys, William Kinderman, Rudolf Komorous, Erika Kurth, Gordana Lazarevich, Stanley McCartney, Peter McCoppin, Ian McDougall, Dale McIntosh, Walter Prossnitz, John Sawyer, Erich Schwandt, Rodney Sharman, Shari Ulrich, Owen Underhill, and Valdy.


Further Reading

  • 'Victoria Symphony Orchestra,' MCan, vol 5, Dec 1924

    Learoyd, Eileen, 'At 77, Reginald Hincks still giving Victoria Christmas pantomime treat,' Victoria Daily Colonist, 12 Dec 1948

    Nesbitt, James K. 'Old homes and families,' ibid, 25 Sep 1949

    Palmer, Charles. 'Music in Victoria, BC,' MT, Jul 1957

    Salisbury, Dorothy E. 'Music in British Columbia outside Vancouver,' CMJ, vol 2, Summer 1958

    Smith, Dorothy Blakey. 'Music in the furthest west a hundred years ago,' ibid

    Steed, Graham. 'The rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral organ, Victoria, British Columbia,' ibid

    Johnson, Audrey St Denys. 'Music on Vancouver Island,' PfAC, Winter 1963

    MacMillan, Keith. 'Report from Victoria,' CMB, 2, Spring-Summer 1971

    Garvie, Peter. 'The virtues of limits,' CanComp, 65, Dec 1971

    Gibbard, Donald. 'Music in the early days in Victoria,' British Columbia Music Educator, vol 28, Spring 1975

    Adaskin, Murray. 'Victoria: more beauty than meets the eye,' Mcan, 35, Apr 1978

    Mirtle, Jack. The Naden Band: A History (Victoria 1990)

    Documentary History of Music in Victoria

    History of Music in British Columbia