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Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity

by Elaine Keillor
525 pages,
ISBN: 0773531777


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The Full Story of Music in Canada
by Patrick Watson

Within a very few years after settlement began in Canada, music was a sufficiently important part of the colonial life that diaries, letters, and official reports make mention of it. The first documented ball was in 1667, and dancing must have become an important relief from the tedium of the long winter nights. Yet in those earliest French settlements (this seems surprising now) dancing was viewed with a kind of puritanical disapproval amongst the priests, a disapproval which the colonists noted, acknowledged in confession, and continued to ignore in practice.
But music was a vital part of worship too. An organ was imported for the Jesuit chapel in Quebec City in 1657, and well before the end of the century the settlers were building their own. In the mid-1930s when Marius Barbeau was assembling his account of French folk songs in Canada, he said that 90 percent of those songs had arrived during the 17th century.
And from almost those earliest days we begin to see a mixture of European sources. Scotch, Irish, and French fiddlers played for each other, and listened, competed, and borrowed a little from here and there, so that early in the 18th century new arrivals on this continent were remarking that there was a musical style that was fresh, different from what they had known in their homelands. After 1759, regular concerts became a part of the cultural landscape, as well as a wide variety of dancing. Operatic excerpts began to appear, and before the end of the century we had our first home-grown grand opera. The British military is credited with initiating a good deal of musical instruction: some regimental regulations required a ten-piece band.
By the 1850s there were twenty piano manufacturers across the country. The Bell company in Guelph Ontario made more than a hundred thousand harmoniums and other instruments¨including some for Queen Victoria. (There's been one in my family for decades). But in the 1920s the phonograph craze swept the country, and in 1934 Bell went bankrupt.
Early on commentators and scholars began to note that there was, in the music of the new land, a reflection of the extraordinary landscape. Critics had been noting something similar for some time: Murray Adaskin, in a CBC broadcast in the '40s said that Darius Milhaud claimed that he could instantly recognise which compositions had been written by Canadians in his summer classes. More recently, Randy Bachman commented that unlike the American rock groups that proliferate like frogs in a pond and all sound the same, Canadian groups have their own distinctive sound. And, says Elaine Keillor in this seductive¨and amazingly comprehensive book¨"because of the isolation of much of the Canadian population, older ideas of musicking (sic) persisted, in the sense that music was a necessary part of human activity." Musical scholarship shows up early by the way: in 1778 an Augustinian nun compiled a treatise on musical theory and practise.
Music in Canada covers a satisfying amount of territory in the field of aboriginal music too, a field that perhaps the majority of her readers may not know a great deal about, and it is a wonderfully stimulating territory indeed. For the Cree, she says, "the drum is said to be the sound of the Earth's heart beat, which rises up to link the heart beats of the people." In her account of early aboriginal music she even mentions finding a journal that gives a sol-fa scale rendition of a Mi'kmaq chant that a colonist overheard and transcribed in 1606.
This is a book that you do not have to read from the beginning and course on through sequentially. In fact I am betting that there will be a substantial community of readers who¨after a few pages perhaps, to test the waters¨will dive into the index to find out if music or musicians important to them have been recognised, and who will find a plethora of anecdote and texture. I did not know that the first Toronto Symphony conductor of my memory, Sir Ernest MacMillan, scored an ode for orchestra, two solo voices, and a ten-part chorus, as a requirement of his doctorate in music degree from Oxford University, while he was in a German prison camp during World War One.
Of course I did the Index Challenge, wondering how long it would take me to find that Ms. Keillor had missed important figures. There weren't many, I'm pleased to report. In some cases (The Artists' Jazz Band, for example¨Robert Markle, Gordon Raynor, Michael Snow, and others), the names I expected to find but didn't may have been more a reflection of my eccentricities than Keillor's oversight. I was a bit disappointed that Pauline Julien was not there, but such disappointments were rare. Alanis Obomsawin is there, and that is impressive. I also found the supremely popular music show hosts Juliet and Don Messer (and his 'Country Gentlemen') among dozens of names that are dimming in our memories.
And there is an important and largely forgotten story about a governmental intervention. Pierre Juneau, the first chair of the CRTC, enraged private broadcasters at first by demanding a substantial percentage of Canadian pop music on commercial radio stations: but the rage soon vanished as a whole new industry came thundering into existence.
The book covers a gratifying range¨from pops to sophisticated moderns and serious classicists. I had hoped to find the story of those little covered bandstands one sees¨never used for music any more as far as I can tell¨ in villages across the land, an account of their origins. Keillor tells us that the first barrel organs were made in Canada in the 1820s, but does not explain what a barrel organ is, and I did not know. She doesn't tell us that Emma Albani was a favourite in the court of Queen Victoria. Well, these are details.
I do think that the absence of even an index entry for Jewish music, and the relegation of Klezmer to a passing remark about Cirque du Soleil are surprising, and maybe in a second edition Keillor will take another look at what were to me (having spent an important part of my teen years working in Jewish summer camps) vital and enduring musical forms that have nothing to do with my Anglo-Saxon roots.
Each of us will have special musical loves, interests, and loyalties, and much of the excitement of this very extensive musical journey will be in the personal search. But it is also a good, solid read, and an enticement to head for the CD shelves and the Internet sources, to catch up on stuff we'd forgotten about or missed entirely ˛
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