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The Music Scene in Quebec, 1915-1920

By the late 1910s, the population in the province of Quebec had reached about two and a half million. Between 1911 and 1921, Montreal's population grew from 468,000 to 618,500 inhabitants. To a lesser extent, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke also experienced significant population growth. Montreal remained primarily Anglophone until the end of the 19th century, as did its cultural industry (auditoriums, promoters, etc.). However, the predominance of Anglophone culture was to be reversed by the arrival of more than 300,000 francophones within 20 years.

Drawn to the city by industrialization, rural migrants brought with them their traditional folk music, which began to rival urban music from France, the United States and the United Kingdom. Working in difficult conditions and finding it hard to adapt to city ways, these new arrivals often lived in the same neighourhoods, clinging to folklore to maintain their identity. Traditional music boomed in popularity.

At that time, radio did not yet exist, films were silent and the high cost of records and record players meant that sound recordings were reserved for the middle and upper classes. As a result, music spread mainly through live performance. With the outbreak of world conflict in 1914 came restrictions, but the war also gave rise to relative prosperity thanks to the war industry.

Classical and Religious Music

Photograph of the Imperial Theatre Symphony Orchestra, Montréal, November 1915

Imperial Theatre Symphony Orchestra, Montréal, November 1915

From time to time, touring groups performed operas and operettas in Montreal and Quebec City. In 1910, Albert Clerk-Jeannotte founded the Montreal Opera Company; this troupe gave over 300 performances, mainly with foreign soloists, at His Majesty's in Montreal and throughout Quebec. Local opera singers were confined to singing in Catholic churches, where attendance was high at that time. Most of these artists belonged to the Association des chanteurs de Montréal. Places of worship often became halls where hymns were performed. In 1917, under the direction of Honoré Vaillancourt and Albert Roberval, professional and semi-professional opera singers who were seeking new opportunities formed the Société nationale d'opéra comique, which became the Association d'art lyrique in 1918, then the Société canadienne d'opérette from 1923 to 1934. This marked the beginning of an operatic tradition of sorts for local artists at the Monument-National and other theatres in Montreal and Quebec City.

Variety Shows

Photograph of Alexandre Desmarteaux

Alexandre Desmarteaux

After the Ligue de vertu successfully campaigned to shut down the "cafés-concerts" early in the century, variety shows found a new home in theatres such as the Canadien, the Chanteclerc, the National, the Nouveautés, the Arcade and the Family. Most such venues also presented popular theatre and silent films. In song, Blanche de la Sablonnière, Hector Pellerin and Alexandre Desmarteaux were no doubt the greatest stars to perform there. In Montreal, Sohmer Park and the Monument-National welcomed the greatest names in local and international performance. The large Anglophone and Yiddish communities were extremely active on the city's musical scene.

Folk Music

Considered a symbol of linguistic and cultural survival by the intellectual elite, traditional folk song was as much a part of the repertoire for opera singers as for variety performers. But traditional instrumental music was not found in mainstream urban theatres. It was only in the1920s that Conrad Gauthier's Veillées du bon vieux temps brought folk song and music to metropolitan audiences.