Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Traditional Music in Quebec to 1914


[This text was written by J. E. Middleton in 1914. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Music in the Province of Quebec has been the habitant's heritage. His red-capped ancestors, the sailors of Brittany, sang at the capstan and on watch. Love-songs, home-songs were their delight - dainty trifles in dancing rhythm, less important for their matter than for their manner. All this wealth of traditional melody was the birthright of the early settlers of New France. As years went on and the life of the people was coloured by their environment, new songs were evolved. But though the verse may be Canadian in theme, the melodic structure is at one with the folk-songs of Northern France.


In general the chansons populaires are anonymous, both as to verse and music. Like all folk-songs they are the product of a national temperament. They are not written; they happen. Ernest Gagnon, in his fascinating collection of these chansons, quotes a verse which, he says, has been sung over every cradle in French Canada


C'est la poulette grise

Qui pond dans l'église.

Elle va pondre un p'tit coco

Pour le p'tit qui va faire dodo.


This may serve as a type of the gay and charming trifles that are woven into the very life of the Quebec people.


From the academic musical standpoint the melodies have little interest. They are unconventional to excess. Many of them are not to be classified either in the major or the minor mode. There is more than a trace of Gregorian in them. What would a modern composer do with a theme like 'Ah, qui me passery le bois,' which ends on the second of the major diatonic scale? As Gagnon very properly says, harmonization of these folk airs is too great a task.


The close relations of all the people with the church gives them generally the keenest life-interest in the canticles, psalms and hymns. At Christmas time the beautiful 'Noel' songs are common property in every village. Ernest Myrand's collection of these songs is curious and interesting.


Serious music study when engrafted upon so responsive a temperament succeeds. Most convent schools throughout the province give careful and thorough grounding in piano and vocal music for all girls who care to study. Possibly the opportunity for the boys is not so great. It takes time to eradicate the old idea that music is an 'accomplishment' rather than an art worthy of masculine attention.


At least two grand-opera singers of distinction came from the Province of Quebec - Mme Albani and Mme Donalda. But after all we must remember that their technical training was received abroad. They took from Quebec to Covent Garden and the Grand Opera in Paris the sensitive and responsive temperament that thrills at A la Claire Fontaine and weeps at Malbrouck.


Choral music is not cultivated extensively. The Choir of St Louis de France, conducted by Professor Alexander Clark, has a local reputation in Montreal , but there is no popular movement in any other part of the province towards production of the great works of the masters. Even oratorio is neglected, save by the choirs of the Protestant churches.


Semi-professional orchestras in Quebec and Montreal do pleasing work. Professor J. J. Goulet's efforts in this direction have been admirable, but guarantors have been hesitant. A musician named Lavigne had for some years also in Montreal an excellent concert band - playing in a summer amusement garden.


The one achievement so far in the province has been the establishment on a permanent basis of the Montreal Opera Company. This is due to the inspirational generosity of Colonel Meighen and a number of other social and financial leaders in the community. Sixteen weeks are guaranteed. The artists are engaged in Europe, and only French and Italian opera is undertaken. Charpentier's Louise, Massenet's Manon, and all the tried popular operas are produced with a wealth of detail equal to that bestowed upon them at La Scala, Milan , or at the Royal Opera, Berlin . It may be said that this is not a Canadian organization. But opera is international. The patronage has been most satisfying; and that is the test. While on the subject of opera, it is interesting to note in the journal of Frances E. O. Monck, My Canadian Leaves, that The Barber of Seville was produced in Quebec City on June 10, 1864. The sprightly journalist did not attend, but on the next day regretted it. One Quebec composer of great promise has appeared, Calixte Lavallée, the man who wrote the music of O Canada. His native land was not kind to him, and most of his life was spent around Boston and New York .


Source: J. E. MIDDLETON, "Music in Quebec ", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur G. DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. XII, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, pp. 648-650.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College