Music in Vancouver | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music in Vancouver

British Columbia metropolis: Canada's most important Pacific port and third largest city. Settled in 1862, Vancouver had several early names: Hastings Mills and Gastown (both 1867) and Granville (1870).

Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, BC. British Columbia metropolis: Canada's most important Pacific port and third largest city. Settled in 1862, Vancouver had several early names: Hastings Mills and Gastown (both 1867) and Granville (1870). William Van Horne of the CPR announced in 1884 that the settlement would be the terminus of the transcontinental line and named it after Capt George Vancouver, who in 1792 had visited Burrard Inlet. Only two months after its incorporation as a city, 6 Apr 1886, Vancouver was destroyed by fire. By the end of that year, with reconstruction well under way, the population was 2500. Mostly because of the Klondike gold rush of 1897-8, Vancouver's population rose quickly from 15,000 in 1892 to 100,000 in 1900. The transcontinental railways (particularly the CPR), the ships, and, later, the airlines brought settlers from both Europe and Asia, grafting a cosmopolitan mixture of races onto the English and Scottish roots of the city and enhancing the variety of its cultural life. Many of the settlers had lived in well-established musical centres in eastern Canada or abroad, and consequently music was an accepted part of the plans and activities of the quickly growing community. The inhabitants of Greater Vancouver numbered 400,000 in 1946, more than 1,000,000 in 1980, and over 1,475,000 by 1990.

The First Half-Century

A piano dating back to the first settlers and in the possession of the city archives is a relic of pre-1886 musical life in Vancouver. Another relic, at Hastings Sawmill School, is the town's first organ, 'a little groan box' carried to the docks when Lord Dufferin arrived in 1876. Early in 1887 funds were raised by subscription to establish a brass band to welcome the first transcontinental train, which duly arrived 23 May to the strains of 'See the Conquering Hero Comes,' and other musical eulogies.

The first musical leaders in Vancouver were George J. and Fred W. Dyke, brothers who settled there in 1888. George (violinist, conductor, teacher, impresario, and critic) that same year opened Vancouver's first music supply store (Painton and Dyke) and first music school. He played in trios and quartets, conducted orchestras (eg, that of the CPR's Vancouver Opera House), and brought to Vancouver its first internationally famous performers: Albani (1897 and 1906), Bauer, Elman, Paderewski, and Rachmaninoff. Fred participated in training the chorus for the 1903 Cycle of Musical Festivals.

When the city was in its infancy, choral and orchestral societies formed and disbanded frequently, their main purpose being to supply an outlet for the energies of amateur singers and instrumentalists. In 1888, for example, the Vancouver Musical Club invited the participation of anyone who could satisfy the requirement that 'members must have voices of some kind.' In 1890 the 100-voice Vancouver Philharmonic Society combined with the Orchestral Society, which numbered 40 players in 1895, to present a program of overtures, songs, choruses, and other music by Gounod, Bizet, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others at the Imperial Opera House (which was in operation as early as 1888).

A special operatic event took place in 1891 to inaugurate the CPR's Vancouver Opera House, which opened 9 February. The Emma Juch English Opera, a US touring company which included Mme Juch herself, and other soloists, chorus, and orchestra, was engaged at a cost of $10,000 to perform Lohengrin in the new opera house, which itself had cost more than $200,000. Although not usually presented so spectacularly, other artists visited Vancouver at this time, and their concerts usually were sold out. The Vancouver Woman's Musical Club, formed in 1905 through the efforts of Mrs B.T. Rogers, Mrs Walter Coulthard, and others, brought to Vancouver such eminent musicians as Paderewski in 1908 and the New York SO under Walter Damrosch in 1910.

With Vancouver's rapid growth in wealth and population around the turn of the century, moves to found permanent musical organizations became more frequent. A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra gave several concerts beginning in 1897 but soon disbanded. Other orchestras, founded in 1915 and 1919, also failed to last long. In the mean time, some strides were being made in education. The Vancouver school system in 1904 appointed a supervisor of music: George Hicks, who served in the position until 1919. The music programs he established in the schools were not strong enough to produce many proficient musicians, and attempts to establish conservatories - eg, the British Columbia Institute of Music and Drama and George Dyke's Academy of Music - had limited success. Mrs Walter Coulthard, who settled in Vancouver in 1904, and J.D.A. Tripp, who arrived there in 1910, raised the level of education through their high standards of teaching and performance.


The major new institution of the period between the wars was the Vancouver SO, revived in 1930 by Mrs B.T. Rogers, who invited Allard de Ridder to conduct. For instrumentalists, unemployed because of the Depression and the advent of the 'talkies,' which had made the movie house orchestras obsolete, the VSO provided an occupation. De Ridder, who led the VSO 1933-41 at the Orpheum Theatre (opened 1927) and the Georgia Auditorium, also organized summer concerts in 1934. Sponsored by BC Electric, the concerts took place at the newly built Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Another orchestra created during this time was the Vancouver Junior Symphony Orchestra, conducted 1940-6 by Gregori Garbovitsky. The Australian-English musician Arthur Benjamin conducted the Vancouver Sun's Promenade Concerts 1941-2.

Radio had a strong influence on orchestral music between the wars. Several radio orchestras had been precursors of the VSO. The Musical Calangis Family was the staff orchestra 1933-43 on CKCD radio. After 1934 it also performed on CBC. The CBC Vancouver (Chamber) Orchestra, founded in 1938 by Ira Dilworth and conducted by John Avison, became one of Vancouver's permanent ensembles. There also was a CBR SO, conducted 1941-6 by Arthur Benjamin.

Frederick Chubb, organist-choirmaster 1912-46 at Christ Church Cathedral, developed his choir into one of the city's outstanding ensembles, leading it in oratorios and cantatas in addition to regular service. Among concert choirs formed after World War I were the Elgar Choir of British Columbia (1924-75), founded by C.E. Findlater; the Vancouver Bach Choir, conducted 1930-4 by its founder, Herbert Drost, and 1935-40 by Ira Dilworth; the St Cecilia Choristers directed ca 1931-50 by Nancy Paisley Benn; and the Goss Singers, directed 1943-8 by John Goss and accompanied by Phyllis Schuldt. The most important of these, the Vancouver Bach Choir, suspended activities during World War II. In 1930 Drost established the Western Music Co.

After World War I, recitals continued to be presented by the Woman's Musical Club at various locations and, after 1931, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Lily Laverock was responsible for bringing artists of international reputation to Vancouver, and in 1937 Gordon Hilker's Greater Artists Series also began to present renowned recitalists. Many orchestral musicians not only taught but also played in chamber groups. One such musician was the cellist Dezsö Mahalek, who moved to Vancouver in 1937, developed a large class of pupils, and played in trios and quartets with Allard de Ridder, Adolph Koldofsky, and Arthur Benjamin.

In 1920, after the previous year's campaign for the introduction of music study into Vancouver schools, the Vancouver Music Teachers' Association (later BCRMTA) was formed, with H. Roy Robertson as president. Among the leading private teachers during the years between the world wars were Nancy Paisley Benn, Gideon Hicks (brother of George Hicks), Avis Phillips, and Ira Swartz. During the next two decades, Ira Dilworth worked for the improvement of music study in the schools in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia. Other organizations with educational intent or functions included the Philharmonic Music Club (1922-66), which gave young musicians opportunities for public performance; the Sir Ernest MacMillan Fine Arts Club, formed in 1936; the British Columbia Music Festival, begun in 1923; C.E. Findlater's Elgar School of Music (1935-65); and the British Columbia Institute of Music and Drama, established in 1944 by the Park Board in conjunction with TUTS. The latter presented a series of outdoor musicals and operettas 1940-63 at the Malkin Bowl.

The dance bands of Mart Kenney and Dal Richards began in Vancouver during this era, as did the noted Kitsilano Boys' Band founded in 1928 and conducted by Arthur W. Delamont.


After World War II, music in Vancouver developed as rapidly as the population. The VSO, the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, and the Vancouver Junior SO continued to perform and to improve in quality. Isabelle Burnada (1899-1972, in Canada from 1909), Avis Phillips and Phylis Inglis were teaching a new generation of singers; Barbara Custance and Ursula Malkin were noted piano teachers of the day. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre opened in 1959, and the Vancouver SO performed there 1960-77 successively under Irwin Hoffman, Meredith Davies, Simon Streatfeild, and Kazuyoshi Akiyama, moving in 1977 to the restored Orpheum Theatre (under Akiyama, Rudolf Barshai, Peter McCoppin, and Sergiu Comissiona). In 1967 the Vancouver Opera, founded in 1959, with Irving Guttman as artistic director 1960-74, began using the Vancouver SO as its pit orchestra; in 1977 it began to employ its own orchestra.

A number of outstanding organists occupied church positions in the post-war era, fulfilling these roles on a high musical level and contributing to the city's concert life as organ recitalists, choir directors, or both. Among these have been Leonard Wilson 1935-63 at St Michael's Anglican and St James Anglican; a succession of incumbents including Hugh Bancroft, Thomas Jenkins, Beal Thomas, Patrick Wedd, and Rupert Lang at Christ Church Cathedral; Lawrence Cluderay after 1947 at St Andrew's Wesley United, St John's Shaughnessy, and St Stephen's Anglican; Hugh McLean 1957-73 at Ryerson United; and Frederick Carter at St John's Shaughnessy.

The Vancouver Bach Choir continued after World War II as the leading concert choral ensemble. New groups included the Music Makers, a children's choir directed by Nancy Paisley Benn during the 1940s and 1950s; the Cantata Singers of Vancouver, under their founding conductor, Hugh McLean 1958-67 and beginning in 1973 led by James Fankhauser; the Phylis Inglis Singers 1959-67; the Vancouver Welsh Male Voice Choir, formed ca 1962 (see Wales); the Vancouver Chamber Choir, formed in 1971 by Jon Washburn; Phoenix, founded in 1983 by Cortland Hultberg; the Vancouver Bach Children's Chorus, established in 1984 with Bruce Pullan as music director; and Elektra Women's Choir, formed in 1987 and co-directed by Diane Looner and Morna Russell.

Chamber music thrived in Vancouver after 1945. Many new performing groups and concert societies came into existence. Among these were the de Rimanoczy Quartet, the Steinberg String Quartet, and the Vancouver Chamber Sinfonietta, all founded in 1947; the Friends of Chamber Music, formed in 1948 by Ida Halpern, ethnomusicologist at the University of British Columbia; the Cassenti Players, formed in 1954 by George Zukerman; the Vancouver String Quartet, formed in 1958 by Jack Kessler and others; the Baroque Strings of Vancouver, active 1966-88 the Vancouver Woodwind Quintet (1968 to the late 1970s), the Purcell String Quartet (1968-1991); and the Vancouver Cello Club, established in 1969. Added incentives for small ensembles have also been provided by various series of performances under the aegis of the Ramcoff Concert Society (founded in 1978 by Gene Ramsbottom and Melinda Coffey and incorporated in 1981) first in North Vancouver and then, beginning in the mid-1980s, in Vancouver. The society also organised the Whistler International Mozart Festival in 1989 and 1990. Events in areas adjacent to the city also flourish under the sponsorship of the Burnaby Arts Council, the Deep Cove Chamber Soloists Society (founded in 1983), and the North West Opera Society (established in 1987), among others.

The late 1960s were notable for the revival of medieval and renaissance music performed on original instruments or authentic replicas. The Hortulani Musicae (1968-84), and the baroque trio the Cecilian Ensemble, formed in 1972, became groups-in-residence of the Vancouver Society for Early Music, established in 1969. The society also sponsored the orchestra L'Age d'or 1972-4. The New World Consort was formed in 1984. The work of these groups and individuals and the growth of a Vancouver community of early-instrument builders (see Ray Nurse, S. Sabathil and Son Ltd, Edward Turner) have led many to consider Vancouver the leading Canadian centre of early music activity. (See also Instruments: medieval, renaissance, and baroque.)

This early-music reawakening was paralleled by a new public interest in contemporary music, the first signs of which were demonstrated in 1950 at the First Symposium of Canadian Contemporary Music initiated by Jacques Singer. The major continuing contemporary music organizations, both of which perform at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (established in 1973), have been the Vancouver New Music Society, founded in 1972 with Phyllis Mailing as director and president, and Days Months and Years to Come (in 1982 renamed Magnetic Band), formed in 1974. The Western Front has been an active new-music venue.

The Vancouver International Festival brought noteworthy visiting attractions to the city 1958-68. Vancouver musicians and ensembles have toured under the aegis of George Zukerman's Overture Concerts, established in Vancouver in 1955, and the Festival Concert Society, founded there in 1961 by J.J. Johannesen. A recital series was initiated in 1968 by the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Music in the Morning Concert Society, in its sixth season in 1991, offers performances by local and visiting soloists and ensembles (including dance) at the Koerner Recital Hall in the Vancouver Academy of Music. The Vancouver Recital Society, in its eleventh season in 1991, has established a formidable standard in its offerings, especially for young soloists of international calibre. First Night (launched in 1987) offers numerous performances on 31 December annually.

Post-war Vancouver musicians and musical organizations have been fortunate in the patronage of David Spencer, the Koerner Foundation, the Vancouver Foundation, and the British Columbia Cultural Fund (established in 1967). Indicative of a new emphasis on education in the broadest sense was the founding in 1946 of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, with Ira Dilworth as its first president. Although not an educational body, the council, as a source of well-researched ideas, encouraged the formation in 1959 of a Dept of Music at the University of British Columbia (where Harry Adaskin had established music courses in 1946) and the opening in 1969 of the Community Music School of Greater Vancouver. The latter institution, a model for other cities, moved in 1976 to its own premises in Vanier Park and in 1979 adopted the name Vancouver Academy of Music. R. Murray Schafer was one of the several composers-in-residence at Simon Fraser University 1966-75 and also directed there the World Soundscape Project, established with headquarters at the university in 1971. In 1973 the pianist Robert Silverman moved to Vancouver to teach at the University of British Columbia; he was joined on the faculty there by Jane Coop in 1980.

Vancouver pop musicians and groups have included Bryan Adams, Chilliwack, D.O.A., Headpins, Heart, Terry Jacks, Loverboy,Pacific Salt, Prism, Trooper, and Jim Vallance. The expansion of the music industry in the late 1960s led BMI Canada (see SOCAN) to open a Vancouver office in 1968. It persuaded Tom Northcott to found in 1968 the recording company Stage 3 Productions. The Canadian Music Centre opened a regional office in Vancouver in 1977. Two of the finest music libraries in Canada have been developed at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Public Library. Two notable festivals have been annual musical events: the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and the du Maurier Ltd International Jazz Festival.

Musicians born in or near Vancouver include Norma Abernethy, Milla Andrew, Nancy Argenta, David Astor, John Avison, Donald Bell (South Burnaby), Marjorie Biggar, Lloyd Burritt, Irenee Byatt, Dolores Claman, F.R.C. Clarke, Jean Coulthard, James Creighton, Barbara Custance, Terry Dale, Clifford Evens, jazz clarinetist Wally Fawkes, Don Francks, DonGarrard, Anthony Genge, Bryan Gooch, Ray Griff, Lance Harrison, Gordon Hilker, Edmund Hockridge, Desmond Hoebig, Gwen Hoebig, the cellist Gary Hoffman, Ricky Hyslop, Gerald Jarvis, G. Herald Keefer, Gordon Manley, the pianist Michelle Mares, Glen Morley, John Oliver, Doug Parker, Jon Kimura Parker, Jamie Parker, Betty Phillips, Arthur Polson, Nora Borrowman Polson, Dal Richards, Sherwood Robson, Thomas Rolston, Malcolm Tait, Heather Thomson, and Timothy Vernon.

Further Reading