In today’s video, we’re going to take a brief journey through the music of Canada. We’ll explore Canada’s musical journey from 1600 to about 1900, and focus mainly on the Classical side of things.
We’ll also briefly look at Indigenous, folk and Celtic music – though not in depth. This video is mainly designed to give a historical perspective on Canada’s musical development. In the future I intend to do videos on more specific genres, such as Celtic music and modern music – but for now, here’s the backstory.
Let’s get started!
Music of Canada: Basics
Since Canada is a fairly new country (it didn’t officially become a country until 1867), it didn’t develop a distinct musical identity the way older countries did. Classical music mainly developed in Western Europe, where the population was more tightly packed and the traditions older and more deeply embedded.
That’s Classical music, though – music of the Indigenous peoples was a big part of Canada’s culture for thousands of years. But Classical (European) music and Indigenous music didn’t intersect. Europeans who came over insisted on sharing (and forcing) their music traditions on the aboriginals.
The main musical influencers in Canada’s history were Britain, France, Scotland and Ireland, since people from those countries were making Canada their home in the 1600s and onward. The United States also exerted its influence, due to being Canada’s direct neighbor.
Music of the Indigenous peoples is poorly preserved, partly because their music was passed along via oral tradition (as opposed to a written one). Europeans also mostly made them stop practicing their traditional ceremonies, which hindered its development and spread.
The earliest transcriptions of First Nations music is from 1606, transcribed by a French man. The music was written by Henri Membertou, the Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq tribe in what is now Nova Scotia.
These songs were written with three notes and are performed on the Native American flute – though I’ll show you the tune briefly for piano.
The earliest settlements in Canada were in Quebec in the early 1600s. In Quebec City, the capital, both French and Aboriginal children were taught Western music – everything from singing, to playing violins, drums and trumpets.
These immigrants from France loved music, particularly dance and fiddle playing. While there weren’t any world-class musicians from this time period, music was (and still is) considered extremely important to Canadian culture.
One of the first important musicians in New France (Quebec) was Louis Jolliet. He was active in the mid to late 1600s, and he was a jack of all trades. Not only did he play a variety of instruments (keyboard, flute, trumpet), but he was also an explorer and voyager (of which he’s more known for).
At a memorial in 1700, Jolliet was recognized as “having played the organ in the Cathedral and parish for many years…done without pay”.
British rule and 1700s
In the 18th Century, music became more prominent in Canadian culture, partly because of the British rule (and subsequent military band music), and partly because of the high volume of immigrants arriving in Canada at the time.
There was plenty of political turbulence and war throughout the 1700s, which meant that much of the music had a military connotation. Very little music from this period has survived the passage of time, however.
Because of the wars, Canadians just didn’t have the time, money or energy to properly engage in artistic pursuits.
Composers and musicians of this period played on a part-time basis – the career musician would have been exceedingly rare.
The printing press arrived in Canada in the mid 1700s, and this boosted the prominence of music in Canadian culture. People would read about upcoming concerts in newspapers, and teachers and music retailers had a place for advertisements.
There was a small minority of the Canadian population who had lots of money and were able to spend their time and money practicing music and buying music sheets. Just like in Europe, being able to play and understand Classical music was considered a mark of a refined person.
Canada’s first operas and concert hall
In the late 1700s, concerts and dancing were common in Canada. Operas also began to appear – including operas written in Canada (as opposed to being imported from Europe). Canada’s first two operas were written around the turn of 1800 by Joseph Quesnel, and were Colas et Colinette and Lucas et Cecile.
Concert programs from this time were performing orchestra and chamber music by Handel, Bach, Haydn and Mozart, among others.
Canada’s output in 1800s
In the 1800s, it was still considered a rare pursuit to be a full-time musician in Canada. If you were a Canadian musician, you either performed/composed part-time, or you had a related job such as teaching or being a church organist.
Another consequence of the printing press was that it connected immigrants to civilization. Canada is such a huge and sprawling country, and many immigrant groups lived in isolation from each other. Reading news and magazines was a way to reconnect to society as a whole, and these publications often offered printed sheet music to play.
The Merry Bells of England
One of the earliest surviving songs from such a publication was called “The Merry Bells of England” by J.F. Lehmann from Ottawa, written in 1840. Let’s take a quick listen to a piano excerpt of this tune.
The great migration of Canada
Between 1815 and 1850, Canada saw a huge influx of immigrants from the British Isles, and this dramatically expanded Canada’s music culture. People started music businesses, such as stores that sold pianos (a new instrument at the time) and sheet music.
As time passed and the Industrial era bloomed, so did music in Canada. The middle class expanded, which afforded many more people to consume music and play recreationally, and transportation improved which helped music spread more readily across Canada.
Prominent musicians finally started appearing in Canada around this time, such as the pianist Sigismond Thalberg, since people now had more freedom to pursue music as a serious career. Music societies started forming, as well as more and more musical stores, as the middle class craved the finer things in life.
Lack of musical development
European music had distinct eras of development – we have the Baroque period, Classical, Romantic and Modern (and we have videos on each of these eras).
Canadian music followed the same path – the difference is, since Canada was so spread-out and isolated from European society, the music was never really innovative – new developments drove music progress forward in Europe, but in Canada the music stagnated. There just wasn’t the same pool of resources, and talent was too widespread (since Canada is a huge country).
If you wanted to be a musician in the 1800s, you had to be a jack-of-all-trades: not only would you have to be able to perform on more than one instrument, buy you’d also have to teach, sell music, compose for church or special occasions, and even be able to repair instruments. Being a composer wasn’t a career reality like in Europe.
Most of the sheet music we have today from this era is functional music – music for churches, dances, parlor singers, and armies. It’s not the kind of elevated music we’ve come to know and love from other 19th century composers like Liszt and Chopin. It was written in a similar style, but didn’t rise above the style or transform it.
Conservatories and education in late 1800s
In the late 1800s, music conservatories began popping up in Canada, enabling more people to study music seriously. Music was also a serious subject in public schools. Even though Canadian composers weren’t innovators at this time, Canadians definitely saw the value in music education (and still do).
The most important conservatory to come about at this time was the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, founded in 1886.
One Sweetly Solemn Thought
One popular sacred song from this era was “One Sweetly Solemn Thought”. The text was by a woman named Phoebe Cary, and set to music by Robert Ambrose. It was made popular by touring Evangelicals, and is considered one of Canadas’s most famous tunes of the 19th century.
Canada’s music identity
Canadian musicians looked toward European musicians for influence and inspiration – it wasn’t until the 20th century when Canadian musicians really began influencing other Canadian musicians. Where Canada really started to develop its musical identity was in the popular music realm, in the form of dance music, patriotic music and simple songs for singing.
Music of Canada: Folk music
Folk music, like dance music, was alive and well in Quebec in the 1700s and 1800s. Folksongs were imported from France along with the immigrants, and would be sung and danced to, maybe with some accompaniment (like drums or fiddles). Fiddles were the preferred instrument of the working class, and you would likely come across fiddle music if you went to a Quebec bar.
Canadian Boat Song
One famous Canadian folk tune is “A Canadian Boat Song”. We actually did a tutorial of this song on the channel way back in the day, so check it out if it’s something you’d like to learn.
Here’s a quick piano excerpt so you can hear what it sounds like:
Music of Canada: Celtic music
Another popular Canadian genre, aside from Classical and folk music, was Celtic music. This music traveled to Canada’s east coast with the Irish and Scottish. Celtic music is still common in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.
As I’ve mentioned throughout this video, Canadians were hugely fond of music, and especially of dancing. A Scottish traveler named George Heriot wrote,
“The whole of the Canadian inhabitants are remarkably fond of dancing, and frequently amuse themselves at all seasons with that agreeable exercise.”
— George Heriot, Travels Through the Canadas, 1807
And that takes us up to modern times Canadian music history. Modern music from the 1900s onward is a huge conversation, which is why I’ll save that talk for another video.
For now, I hope you learned a little something about Canada and its music history.