Cantique. Since the middle of the 16th century, the word 'cantique' has generally referred to a short, easy and popular song in the French language, used to express religious sentiment.
Cantique. Since the middle of the 16th century, the word 'cantique' has generally referred to a short, easy and popular song in the French language, used to express religious sentiment.


Cantique. Since the middle of the 16th century, the word 'cantique' has generally referred to a short, easy and popular song in the French language, used to express religious sentiment. Until Vatican Council II, when the liturgical song of the Catholic church was normative, stable, essential, ritual, in Latin and anonymous, the cantique, on the other hand, was relatively free, changeable, secondary, in popular language and by a known author. The cantique travelled from France to New-France where its history spans three centuries. It was firmly rooted during the period 1534-1760 and was one of the first manifestations of European music on this side of the Atlantic. First transmitted through oral tradition, then by the printed page (Paraphrase des hymnes et cantiques spirituels by Michel Coyssard, Lyons 1592, first collection published in France), the sailors and settlers maintained its practice in their popular devotions : holidays, processions, catechism lessons, etc. The genre rapidly grew in importance as an instrument to evangelize the Natives; as soon as their preference for religious music was noticed, the training of missionaries bound for New France was considered. The Récollets, Jesuits, and Ursulines thus brought the tradition to this country.

For a culture severely threathened by the Conquest, the Cantique was entrusted with a new mission, that of affirming the language and the religion which was to be preserved. Its dissemination was soon secured by the beginning of musical publishing in Canada(1800) and the first real cantionnaire published in the country (Nouveau recueil de cantiques à l'usage du Diocèse de Québec by Jean-Denis Daulé, Quebec 1819) had a major impact. The decade of 1840 was particularly prolific in publications of this genre : dioceses, teaching institutions and communities made it a point of honour to have their own repertoire, although it was often partly or completely copied. Also published at the time were collections in aboriginal languages, including Montagnais.

To counteract the rise of free thinking, Mgr Ignace Bourget, bishop of Montreal, initiated a revival of popular fervour, making the promotion of cantiques for missions, crusades, and various propaganda even more relevant. At the end of the 19th century, the cantique was thus firmly implanted, its social and religious roles interdependent. Ernest Gagnon (Chansons populaires du Canada, Québec 1865-7) and Louis-Honoré Fréchette (Christmas In French Canada/La Noël au Canada, Toronto 1899, 1900), among others, openly expressed their attachment to the genre, although the basic repertoire did not differ from that of the older French collections. Direct exchanges with France having been re-established in 1855, these began arriving freely once again. This traditional source became severely curtailed, however, following a revival movement which emerged from the Schola Cantorum and from Pius X's demands requesting the rejection of all bombastic, sentimental, or theatrical.songs. Following Louis Bouhier's popular anthology of 300 Cantiques anciens et nouveaux (1907 more than 100,000, it is thought) large collections closer to the new requirements were published : those by Conrad Latour (1931) and by Charles-Émile Gadbois (1950), in particular. Other musicians showed their interest for the cantique by supplying it with various harmonizations : Eugène Lapierre, Omer Létourneau, Oscar O'Brien, etc. Vatican Council II, changing social conditions, and sudden secularization brought a rapid decline to the practice of the cantique shortly after the middle of the 20th century.

Although the cantique is found in numerous song collections from the 15th, 16th,and 17th centuries, carols for the most part, the majority are from the 19th century and originated in France.

Built on simple and traditional structures, sometimes borrowing well-known tunes (timbres), essentially strophic with frequent alternation of couplets and refrains (often in 2 parts, in thirds or sixths) these songs were dependent on popular styles. Despite a frequent discontinuity of musical character, each one presents a mixture of elements (rhythm, melodic line, mode, cadence) which connects it directly or indirectly to a known genre: sacred music (chorale, psalm, plainchant), scholarly (air, melody, choir), popular (romance, song, barcarolle, lullaby, lament), military (march, rallying song, bugle calls). The carols constitute a case apart: generally derived from the pastoral, the drinking song and the vaudeville, they rank next to the pictorial. Certain characteristics are noted in the use of the voice (few melismas and a narrow ambitus), in modes and tonalities (preference for the simplest major modes and harmonic minor, except for a brief return to the natural minor during the revival period). Modulations are scarce and scanning of verse is usually set to 6/8, 3/4, and 4/4 meter.

The cantiques were generally produced by members of the religious orders or by musicians, practically never by simple parishioners. The genre never became as popular as the folksong, although it kept closely to its Catholic and francophone sources. And few of them, despite their number, were able to surpass subsequent trends by intrinsic and original musical qualities.

See also Christmas.

Further Reading

  • Myrand, Ernest. Noëls anciens de la Nouvelle-France (Quebec 1899: 4th ed, Montreal 1926)

    Jamet, A. Annales de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec 1636-1716 (no publisher; no place of publication 1939)

    Leclerc-Bonenfant, Charlotte. 'Le cantique traditionnel au Québec,' MA thesis, University of Montreal 1983

    Amtmann Musique au Québec

    Music Publishing in the Canadas

    Jesuit Relations