Music in Quebec 1608-1970

The canadian encyclopedia

Quebec City. Capital of the province of Quebec. It was founded 3 Jul 1608 by the French navigator Samuel de Champlain on the site of the Indian village of Stadaconé at the mouth of the St Charles River. Situated on a cliff surmounting the St Lawrence River, Quebec City (Kébec: an Algonquin word meaning ‘narrows’) remained a fur-trading post until the arrival in 1615 of the first missionaries, the Recollets, followed in 1617 by the farmer Louis Hébert, in 1625 by the Jesuits, and in 1639 by the Ursulines and Hospitalières. Quebec City became the seat of the government of New France in 1663, achieved village status in 1792, and became a city in 1833.

Compared with the English colonies in North America, Quebec’s progress was slow. However, it remained for a long time the most populous of New France’s settlements, with 1600 inhabitants in 1663, when Montreal had 500 and Trois-Rivières 400. By 1980 the city’s population had reached 200,000. In the early 1970s Quebec City and 22 surrounding municipalities were reconstituted as the Quebec City Urban Community, with a total population of more than 500,000 in 1991. As the capital of its province, Quebec City is the seat of the MACQ and thereby has a marked influence on music throughout the province.

Early Quebec society consisted of the missionary and teaching clergy, the ruling class composed of the governor and intendant surrounded by their ‘little Versailles,’ seignorial landowners, merchants, and settlers. Religious musical activity was of the most general sort; social entertainments, theatrical performances, and full-dress social dancing were reserved for the well-to-do. Coming from France, the early settlers transmitted their old-country life-styles to their offspring, along with the crafts and the oral and sung folk traditions they had brought with them.

Instruction in music probably was given as early as 1620 at the ‘seminary’ built that year by the Recollets, but there is no information about its nature. Later on, music became a relatively thriving activity at the Séminaire de Québec. In 1632 Father Paul Le Jeune, the Jesuit superior, began a school at which, in 1635, Aboriginal and European children learned to read and to sing Gregorian chant. He originated the custom of translating the liturgy into the native language. Numerous hymns were translated by the priests posted in Quebec City and by the missionaries and Ursulines. ‘The religious staff often possessed extensive musical training, which proved very useful in their relations with the Indians, who seemed to have a natural affinity to music… At times these religious members themselves composed motets or hymns for specific offices in the local liturgy or at least made adaptations’ (Témoins de la vie musicale en Nouvelle-France). A manuscript from the 18th century of hymns from the mass in aboriginal language is held at the Château de Ramezay museum in Montreal; another in the Iroquois language, pubished by John Lovell in 1860, is in the archives of the Laval University.

Instruments were played. In 1636 Father Le Jeune noted that the Indians requested that ‘some of our young people dance to the sound of a hurdy-gurdy’ played by a young Frenchman (Jesuit Relations, vol 9, p 269). In a letter dated 3 Sep 1640 Mother Marie de l’Incarnation reported that ‘Agnès Chablikuchich was given to us… She has made great progress while with us, both in her knowledge of the mysteries of the faith and in propriety… in reading and playing the viol’ (Correspondance, published by Dom Guy Oury, Solesmes 1971). The presence of violins and flutes at marriages and midnight masses was recorded first in 1645. Subsequently there is also mention of a lute, a bass viol, a theorbo, a spinet and a harpsichord.

In the church, the organ was the instrument most in use. The presence of an organ was reported as early as 22 May 1657, in an act by the notary Guillaume Andouart, and the chapel of the Jesuits received its instrument before 1661 (see Organ building). Organists brought back or imported from France the works of those composers then played in Paris. That is how the Library of the Laval University has in its possession one of the only two copies of Louis Marchand’s Pièces d’orgue, published in Paris by Boivin; the other copy is in the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

Military music, the sole preserve of the bands of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, which had arrived in 1665 to subdue the Iroquois, was played for the most part by fifes and drums (see Bands).

Singing, the principal medium for the communication of the liturgy, remained also the most common form of musical expression on ceremonial occasions; anniversaries, commemorative services, and distinguished visits doubtless were enhanced by the performance of motets and cantatas by Henry Du Mont, Jean-Baptiste Morin, André Campra, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Nicolas Bernier, Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Louis Marchand, which were in vogue at the time in Paris. Certainly various editions of these works, dating from 1703 to 1750, were in existence in Quebec City at the time, though their mere presence cannot be taken to signify, particularly in the absence of substantiating evidence, that the works were performed. Two masses by Valentin de Bounoville and one by Artus Aux-Cousteaux which were thought lost have been held at the library of the Séminaire de Québec.

The serpent, a bass bugle in vogue in France at the time, probably was used in Quebec City to accompany church singing; a copy has been discovered of Campra’s 1er Livre de motets à 1, 2 ou 3 voix avec basse continue (1710) signed ‘Jean-Baptiste Savard, serpent player of the cathedral in Quebec.’ As late as 1836 another serpent player, Étienne Montminy, was a member of the militia band the Musique canadienne, whose conductor was Charles Sauvageau.

Louis Jolliet and Charles-Amador Martin are among the few known musicians active in Quebec City during the 17th century. The clergy, led by the Jesuits, constantly warned the population against the dangers of gatherings at which there was dancing until the late hours. Despite this, social events such as the Mardi Gras ceremonial ball were held. According to documents found, printed, or recopied, the minuet, gavotte, and tambourin, probably played on court instruments, were the most popular dances (see Dancing, pre-Confederation). An inventory of the library of the Intendant Claude-Thomas Dupuy dating from 1731 to 1732 shows that he owned all of Lully’s operas, some airs, brunettes, vaudevilles of various composers, airs for the viol or the harpsichord and a treatise on the musette. This person had also brought with him to Quebec (between 1725 and 1728) two bass viols, a small portable spinet, and an large organ containing twelve stops with its wind chest and bellows’ (Témoins de la vie musicale en Nouvelle-France)

Several treatises on composition and performance which have been found provide information on musical activities such as teaching: Traité de la composition de musique by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (Paris 1667), Principes de musique by Monteclair (Paris 1736), Traité de l’harmonie connected to Nouveau système de musique théorique by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Paris 1726), Éléments de musique théorique et pratique by Jean le Rond d’Alembert (Lyon 1766), Principes de la flûte traversière ou flûte d’Allemagne, de la flûte à bec ou flûte douce by Jacques Martin de Hotteterre (Paris 1741). The Ursulines taught viol, guitar, and harp, as well as dancing. The Augustines of the Hôpital Général de Québec taught viol, guitar, and subsequently accordion at the boarding school they ran from 1725 until 1868. Later on, the two orders taught violin, piano, and harmonium.

In the 19th century, in the vaults of the Hôpital général, some dozen viols and bass viols made in Paris by the firm of Nicolas Bertrand were discovered. It is possible that these instruments were concealed during the siege of Quebec City in the mid-18th century and then forgotten. Colonists, soldiers, and missionaries had brought their songs from France; the tunes have survived in many musical variants, whereas the words have been transmitted more faithfully. Locally composed songs were few in number. According to the ethnomusicologist Marius Barbeau, ’19 out of 20 of our songs are of European descent’ (Chansons populaires de vieux Québec, Ottawa 1935). Few instruments were used in the performance of folk music. The violin, which was easy to carry, was used to play reels that may have been Scottish or French in origin. Aboriginal music left no mark on the folk music of the colonists, though some Christian hymns appear to have influenced aboriginal songs, particularly those of the Hurons of Lorette, near Quebec City and of the Iroquois in the Great Lakes region of Ontario.

The conquest of New France by England in 1760 left the population economically drained and ill-equipped to develop cultural pursuits. It relied on the clergy, who, however, were not always appreciative of the importance of secular culture. Until the Act of Union of 1841, which favoured the development of Montreal, the musical life of Quebec City, while depending largely on newcomers, was more active than it had ever been before. The Quebec Gazette / La Gazette de Québec, which began publishing in June 1764, and other later periodicals show that this activity consisted of concerts, dance gatherings, balls and especially theater, where music was integrated. The military of the town’s garrison played a leading role. Their communal life as well as established structures designated them almost spontaneously as entertainers: they had a brass band, a regimental band, and entertainment looked after by officers took its inspiration from London social life. The repertoire performed in the theatres was generally that of Haymarket and Drury Lane, which drew upon musical resources; ‘not only do a large number of theater programs contain dances, songs, instrumental music, but it is mentioned that a troupe of musicians (‘bande’) or a soloist occasionally participate. Another proof is the intention of the Théâtre de Québec’s directors to borrow or to rent a harpsichord, a pianoforte or a spinet.(Répertoire des données musicales de la presse québécoise). The performances of the French theater were less numerous and the publicity published in periodicals rarely mention the participation of musicians and dancers, even though Molière was the author most often played. The presentation of the ‘comédie mêlée d’ariettes’ Colas et Colinette by Joseph Quesnel at the Patagon Theatre on 29 Jan and 23 Feb 1805, after having been premiered in Montreal in 1790, is an important event, this work being the first comic opera known to have been composed in Canada.

Public concerts, especially subscription concerts, had existed at least since 1770. These were more regularly organized when Prince Edward Augustus (the Duke of Kent) settled in Quebec 1790-3, followed as was proper, by his band, the Royal Fusiliers; weekly concerts, the first season from November to May, the others from November to February, offered works by such composers as Haydn, Storace, Handel, Devienne, Avison, Gyrowetz, to name the most famous. Eleven concerts were given between November 1792 and February 1793. An entertainment hall had been arranged in the Freemasons’ Hotel, Buade St, in 1786; it included loges, two balconies and a parterre fitted with seats. In 1792, Prince Edward contributed to the erection of the entertainment hall of the Porte St-Louis. The concerts and theater pieces were presented mostly in these halls, as well as in the halls found in such inns as that of the Hôtel Menut, St-Jean St, or cafes, such as the Café des Marchands on St-Pierre St. Amateurs also met to make music, including the Sewell Quartet consisting of a flute, two violins and a cellist, Jonathan Sewell, chief justice of Lower-Canada. This quartet even played recently composed works: scores of Mozart’s last three quartets bear the name ‘Sewell 1793′.

The teaching of music and dance was done privately. Convents for young girls offered these classes as a supplement; as for the boys they studied with private teachers who taught both young pupils and adults. Dancing masters had mostly French names, such as Antoine Rob, Étienne Bellair. The teachers of instrumental music often commercially sold the instruments they taught. Frederick Glackemeyer, Francis Vogeler and later Theodore Frederic Molt were the most active musicians in these two teaching fields and in the commercial sale of instruments at the beginning of the English Regime. Instrument builders, a number of which began a family tradition, included especially the name of the Lyonnais amily, string-instrument builders, the first of which, Pierre-Olivier, began to practice his craft in 1825. Address books of the time also mention the piano builders Owen., Milligan, and Pfeiffer.

After the 19th century, societies such as the Société harmonique de Québec (1819-21, 1848-57) were set up. The principal amateurs of the city joined the musicians of the garrison to constitute these groups. Thus Antoine Dessane asserted in his autobiographical notes that ‘the best of that Société [harmonique] was the personnel at my Soirées’ when he was asked to conduct the group in 1853. These groups also associated themselves with church choirs and singers to give these concerts. The Union musicale, founded in 1866, and Société musicale Sainte-Cécile, founded in 1869 by Dessane when he was organist at St-Roch, took part in these concerts. The main groups which replaced the Société harmonique were the Septett Club (1857-71), also founded by Dessane, and the Septuor Haydn (1871-1903), which was integrated into the Société symphonique de Québec (Quebec Symphony Orchestra) at its founding in 1902. The concerts were presented in entertainment halls, and later at the Union Hotel, at the Sewell Theatre, at the Salle des Glacis or at the Acamémie de musique (see Academy of Music) built in 1852. Concerts were also held outdoors, at the Esplanade, and at the Terrasse. Confined to the Citadel, the regimental band paraded every Sunday to make its way to the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral erected in 1804, where John Bentley and Stephen Codman were organists.

The first volumes of music printed in Canada were the Graduel romain (1800), the Processional [sic] romain (1801), and the Vespéral romain (1802), published by John Neilson in Quebec City. Neilson also published the libretto of Colas et Colinette (1808) and intended to print the music; however, the death of Joseph Quesnel appears to have halted the project. In 1819 Jean-Denis Daulé, a priest who had fled the French Revolution, published the Nouveau Recueil de cantiques à l’usage du diocèse de Québec in two parts, one containing the text and the other the music. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, the Lavigueur & Hutchison company published works of Canadians, including Joseph-Arthur Bernier, Ernest, Gustave and Henry Gagnon, Célestin Lavigueur, Arthur Letondal and Joseph Vézina. Later Omer Létourneau bought the music firm Gauvin & Courchesne established in 1914 and founded the Procure générale de musique in 1934.

During the second half of the 19th century, musical life was stimulated by musicians of professional calibre, eg, the organist-composer Antoine Dessane, the pianist-composer Charles W. Sabatier, the violinist, publisher and impresario Arthur Lavigne, the pianist-composer Calixa Lavallée, and the conductor Joseph Vézina. To these may be added the names of such musical families as Gagnon, Roy, Bernier, Vézina, and, later, Létourneau. A position as church organist was poorly paid but secure, and such a position in a leading church often was handed down from father to son.

In 1868 a group of musicians and teachers founded the AMQ in a first attempt to regulate the teaching of music. The creation of the Société symphonique de Québec (1902), which in 1942 became the Quebec SO, and of the École de musique at Laval University (1922) were decisive advances. After a somewhat sluggish start the two institutions, both initiated by the majority of Quebec City musicians, began to prosper. The foundation of the Société symphonique, one of the first orchestras in the country and the oldest still active in 1991, was prompted less by popular demand than by the desire of musicians to perform serious music. Playing without remuneration, they in fact contributed to the operating costs from their own pockets. Such enthusiasm eventually aroused the interest of the general public. After playing in the Auditorium and later at the Palais Montcalm, the Quebec SO presented its concerts at the Grand Théâtre. Several small ensembles have been drawn from orchestra personnel over the years, eg, the Ensemble Gilbert-Darisse during the 1930s, that of Sylvio Lacharité at the Concerts Couperin, the Orchestre de chambre Pierre- Morin, the Ensemble instrumental du Québec, the CBC Quebec Chamber Orchestra and Sinfonietta, the Laval String Quartet, and many more other recent groups, such as the Violons du Roy and Gilles Auger’s Orchestre de chambre.

In 1921, following the US pattern, Laval University created its École de musique, the first music school at a French-Canadian university. Dedicated at first to liturgical music, it nonetheless produced from the outset young musicians destined for international careers, among them the violinist Arthur LeBlanc, the pianist and conductor Jean-Marie Beaudet, and the tenors Raoul Jobin and Léopold Simoneau. With the CMQ, founded in 1944, the school has shared responsibilities for general, vocal, and instrumental teaching in the Quebec City area. The Institut canadien has staged several musical events for its subscribers. The Club musical de Québec, founded in 1891, continued in 1990 to arrange for appearances by internationally known performers. In the field of opera, one of the first companies to achieve a certain stability was the Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France (Théâtre lyrique du Québec). The Société lyrique d’Aubigny, begun in 1968, also has staged some operas and operettas; in 1985 the Opéra de Quebec began presenting at least two annual productions.

In the realm of military music the Royal 22nd Regiment Band has had a long active career and has performed both in Canada and abroad, particularly under the direction of Charles O’Neill and Edwin Bélanger. Ernest MacMillan conducted an ensemble drawn from the band in performances at the second of the three CPR Festivals held 1927, 1928, and 1930 in Quebec City.

It was only in the mid-20th century that composition became a regular activity. Prior to 1950 pioneers such as Joseph Vézina, Robert Talbot, Léo Roy, and Omer Létourneau composed discreetly, almost timidly, with little hope of having their works performed in the near future. More numerous and confident after 1950, the city’s composers have not adhered to any particular school; their personalities have developed along individual lines, though without any radical break with the past. In 1991 the most active were Alain Gagnon, Denis Dion, Roger Matton, Nil Parent, founder of the group GIMEL and Gisèle Ricard. Denys Bouliane has made a career as composer in Germany since 1980. François Morel at Laval University and Pierrick Houdy at the CMQ are preparing the new generation of young composers while themselves remaining very active. Today’s music is disseminated to the Quebec milieu through the Assn de musique actuelle de Québec (AMAQ) founded in 1978 and which includes among its active members, the composers Bernard Bonnier, Pierre Genest and Gisèle Ricard.

The Archives de folklore at Laval University have been regarded as among the most important in this field on the North American continent. Luc Lacourcière, Conrad Laforte, and Roger Matton were closely associated with their development.

Each year Quebec city is the stage for two major popular events which attract numerous visitors from Canada and abroad and during which folk songs and traditional music come to the fore. These are the Winter Carnival in February, inaugurated in 1955, and the Festival d’été international which has been held in June and July since its introduction in 1968.

Throughout the 20th century in Quebec City a choral tradition has been maintained by such ensembles as the Petits chanteurs de la Maîtrise de Québec, the Choeur symphonique de Québec, the Choeur V’là l’bon vent, the Rhapsodes, the Ensemble vocal Chantal-Masson, the Chanteurs St-Coeur-de-Marie, the Camerata vocale, the Ensemble vocal André-Martin and the Ensemble vocal Bernard Labadie.

Among the musicians born in Quebec City or environs, and who either have individual entries in EMC or are listed in the index, are Denyse Angé; Gilles Auger, Denis Bédard; Joseph-Arthur, Maurice, Conrad, Gabrielle, Francoys, Madeleine, and Pierre Bernier; Edwin, Marc, and Guy Bélanger; Édouard Biron; Maurice Blackburn; Antoine Bouchard; Victor Bouchard; Denys Bouliane, Guy Bourassa; Pierre, Benoît, and René Boutet; Henri Brassard; Jean-Chrysostome Brauneis II; Jules Bruyère; Jean-Marie Bussières; Jean Carignan; Octave Hardy dit Chatillon; Jean-Marie Cloutier; Camille Couture; Léonce Crépault; Raymond Dessaints; Léon Dessane; Léon Destroismaisons; France Dion; Rolande Dion; Télesphore-Octave Dionne; Danièle Dorice; Stanislas Drapeau; Joseph-Daniel Dussault; Pierre Flynn; Joseph Gagnier; Henri Gagnon; Serge Garant; J.-Albert Gauvin; Gaston Germain; J.-Alexandre Gilbert; Rolland-G. Gingras; Roland Gosselin; Louis Gravel; Adolphe Hamel; Lucien Hétu; Raoul and André Jobin; Louis Jolliet; Bernard R. Laberge; Janine Lachance; Marthe Lapointe; Émile Larochelle; Célestin Lavigueur; Antonio and Marthe Létourneau; Omer, Paul, Jean, and Claude Létourneau; Nazaire LeVasseur; Robert L’Herbier; Pierre-Olivier, Joseph, Roch, Léon, and Cyrille-Roch Lyonnais; François and Philippe Magnan; Joseph-Désiré Marcoux; Fernand Martel; Jacqueline Martel; Charles-Amador Martin; Rodolphe Mathieu; François-Xavier Mercier; Anna-Marie Messénie; Léo-Pol Morin; Renée Morisset; Ernest Myrand; Paul-G. Ouimet; Marguerite Pâquet; Alfred Paré; Nil Parent; Geneviève Perreault; Alys Robi; Pierre Rolland; Maurice Rousseau; Philéas, Léo, and Berthe Roy; Adrienne Roy-Villandré; Marc Samson; Charles and Flavien Sauvageau; Jacques Simard; Léopold Simoneau; Paul-Émile Talbot; Robert Talbot; Georges-Émile Tanguay; Edmond Trudel; Monique Vachon; Séraphin Vachon; Richard Verreau; and François and Joseph Vézina.

Author Juliette Bourassa-Trépanier


Smith, Gustave. ‘Du mouvement musical en Canada,’ Album musical, 12 articles, Dec 1881-Dec 1882

Gagnon, Ernest. ‘Physionomie de Québec en 1674,’ Louis Jolliet (Quebec City 1902 and other editions)

- ‘La musique à Québec au temps de Monseigneur de Laval,’ Pages choisies (Quebec City 1917)

LeVasseur, Nazaire. ‘Musique et musiciens à Québec,’ La Musique (1919-24)

Roy, Pierre-Georges. La Ville de Québec sous le régime français (Quebec City 1930)

Pouliot, Léon. Le Père Paul LeJeune, s.j. (Montreal 1957)

Lacoursière, J., Provencher, J., and Vaugeois, D. Canada-Québec, synthèse historique (Montreal 1970)

Malouin-Gélinas, France. ‘La vie musicale à Québec 1840-45,’ CMB, 7, Autumn-Winter 1973

- ‘La vie musicale à Québec de 1840 à 1845, telle que décrite par les journaux et revues de l’époque,’ M MUS thesis, University of Montreal 1975

Carrier, Maurice and Monique Vachon. Chansons politiques du Québec, 2 vols (Montreal 1977, 1979)

Bouchard, Antoine and Élisabeth Gallat-Morin. Témoins de la vie musicale en Nouvelle-France, exhibition catalogue (Quebec City 1981)

Émond, Vivianne. ‘”Musique et musiciens à Québec: souvenirs d’un amateur” de Nazaire LeVasseur (1848-1927): étude critique,’ M MUS thesis, Laval University 1986

Voyer, Simonne. La Danse traditionnelle dans l’est du Canada (Québec City 1986)

Bourassa-Trépanier, Juliette and Lucien Poirier. Répertoire des données musicales de la presse québécoise (Quebec City 1990)

Amtmann Musique au Québec

Aspects of Music in Canada / Aspects de la musique au Canada

History of Music in Canada

Music in Canada

Music Publishing in the Canadas

Links to Other Sites
Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
The website for the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec features an extensive online collection of Québec works of art.

Phonothèque québécoise
The Phonothèque québécoise / Musée du son is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving Québec’s sound heritage. Their website features an extensive multimedia archive that showcases the colourful history of Québec’s dynamic recorded music and broadcasting sectors. With French and English sections.

Festivals et Événements au Québec
Check out the extensive event listings in the website for Festivals et Événements au Québec.

Arts and Culture Awards
The Arts and Culture Awards honour professional artists whose works have exceptionally contributed to the cultural development of the Quebec District. Click on the links on the left side of the page to access brief profiles of individual award winners. From the Conseil de la culture des régions de Québec et de Chaudière-Appalaches.
A great collection of music videos featuring performances by international and Montréal / Québec jazz artists. Peruse this site for the latest news about Québec’s lively jazz scene. From the website

The Constitutional Act
Read an online digitized copy of the landmark “Constitutional Act,” a decree signed by King George III of England on June 10, 1791, that created the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. On its pages are details pertaining to the establishment of effective government institutions, the responsibilities of the lieutenant governor, the role of the church, and more. From Canadiana Online.

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