Early Canadian Orchestral Music

The earliest Canadian work included in the NAC Timeline is Godfrey Ridout’s Ballade of 1938. That does not mean, though, that Canadians were not involved with creating orchestral music before 1900. In fact, Joseph Quesnel composed the first fully original North American opera, Colas et Colinette, in 1789. An orchestra of strings and wind instruments played for its initial performances in Montréal and Quebec City. In these cities and in Halifax, European operas were being performed in the 1780s and 1790s, usually with the accompaniment of an orchestra.

Because of settlement conditions and the irregular presence of well-trained musicians, orchestras that existed in Canada during the 19th century were usually short-lived or only put together for performances of oratorios such as Haydn’s Creation or Handel’s Messiah. Nevertheless, by 1847, Torontonians had the opportunity to hear complete symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven played by the local Philharmonic society.

When Canadians during the nineteenth century wished to obtain more advanced training in music, they would usually go to Europe to study in Germany, France, or England. For advanced musical composition, students would be required to compose for the orchestra. Some of the resultant works were performed in Europe and even published. The first Canadian orchestral composition to be performed in Europe (in 1874) was probably Patrie, written by Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891), the composer of the national anthem, O Canada. The following year, Guillaume Couture heard his Rêverie performed by an orchestra in Paris. It was so well received that it was published by a Parisian firm.

W. O. Forsyth (1859-1937) studied at the Leipzig Conservatory. His Romanza for orchestra received a performance in Germany in 1888 and then several performances by orchestras in Canada over the next couple of decades. His friend, Clarence Lucas (1866-1947), studied in Paris. Several orchestral overtures by Lucas received performances in Europe and North America and were published. Meanwhile, back on these shores, Eva Rose York (1858-1938), trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and wrote David and Jonathan, the first oratorio by a Canadian-born composer. At one of its performances in Belleville, Ontario, in 1887, she also conducted the orchestra in another of her own works.

These compositions are little known today for several reasons. Many, including those by York, remained in manuscript and have never been located. Several were finally located and became available in modern editions through the work of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society in the 1990s. Accordingly, these compositions have only very recently been accessible to Canadian orchestras. The National Arts Centre Orchestra participated in the launch of some of these newly-found and -published scores by performing a concert in 1990 that included works by Lucas, Sir Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973), and Ridout (his Ballade for viola and orchestra, 1938).

Gradually in the twentieth century, orchestras arose in Canada and managed to survive for more than a few seasons. The donor of the cup for Canadian football, Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor-General from 1904 to 1911, inaugurated a National Music and Drama Festival (1907-1911) with a trophy for Canadian symphony orchestras. The Orchestre symphonique de Québec won the trophy in 1907 while the orchestra later named the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (1902-1927) was the winner in 1908. Because of the expense involved in getting orchestras to Ottawa for the competition, new festivals sprouted up, particularly in western Canada.

Often made up of amateurs or perhaps having a core of professionals, community orchestras were active across Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the more professional groups, such as the present Toronto Symphony Orchestra, grew out of the ensembles formed to provide music for the silent films.

Seeing a number of active Canadian orchestras, Claude Champagne (1891-1965) set out specifically to provide original compositions for them. His first major work apart from an early student composition was Symphonie gaspésienne (1945), a musical impression of the Gaspé landscape. A decade earlier, Healey Willan (1880-1968) had completed his multi-movement Symphony No. 1 in D minor.
Dr. Elaine Keillor

© 2010, National Arts Centre. All Rights Reserved.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans