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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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BEFORE proceeding to the problems of broadcasting, of moving pictures and of the other "mass media" in Canada, we think it worth while to point out that about one half of the Canadian population was born earlier than 1923 and that most of these older members of our population spent their formative years in a society where radio was unknown, where the moving picture was an exceptional curiosity rather than a national habit, and where as a consequence the cultural life of most communities centred about the church, the school, the local library and the local newspaper.

2. It is probably true, for example, that most Canadians now in their thirties or older will recall that the church organist and the church choir provided much of the music of their earlier years. More often than not the organist in English-speaking Canada was from the old country, trained in the English tradition of organ and choral music. He not infrequently was at odds with the church authorities on matters of musical taste and propriety. The great musical events of the year were usually the concerts given by the local church choirs, aided by a visiting celebrity. Although the radio has vastly increased the size of listening audiences, we must not forget that long before its day there flourished in the towns and cities of Canada a vigorous musical life, or that the musical tastes of a considerable part of our population were in large measure formed by the well-trained musicians who came to us, bringing with them a tradition of fine music. We might suggest that the work of English organists in Canada from about 1880 to 1920 would form the subject of a valuable historical and social study. The names of a few of these in Toronto and Montreal and in some other cities came to be nationally known and are still remembered; but the work of the scholarly musicians who brought to so many of our smaller towns an important part of the world's great music should not pass unrecorded.

3. Not only in music but in letters did the church make important contributions to the life of the community. The rector or pastor of the church lectured on Dante or on Browning, on Victor Hugo or on


Lewis Carroll; he was in wide demand with his lantern slides of London or the Holy Land, and in many of the smaller places his was the only library for many miles. He produced and directed the annual sacred pageant of his Sunday School, the first intimation of the theatre to his unruly small actors, and he usually both chose and contributed the prizes of books which rewarded the less undisciplined of his young flock.

4. The School of thirty or forty years ago occupied a central place even in the larger communities which now it has perhaps retained only in our rural areas. Who could forget the weeks of preparation and the mounting excitement, reaching a climax in the school concert and the school play? The great night arrives, the curtains part--rather shakily and half an hour late--but the play with its lights and colour, its tears and laughter, its triumphs and disasters--the play is on! Or can we recall the final number of the concert with the entire school assembled on the rising tiers, charging into The Maple Leaf, a semi-tone too high and half a beat too soon, but with the easy skill of born musicians redressing the balance in the first few bars, to the astounded relief of the indignant conductor? But it was our play and our concert, and beyond doubt it was our audience.

5. We imagine, too, that many Canadians will remember with grateful affection the librarians of the little towns and cities where they grew up who did so much both to create and to satisfy a taste for good books. There must be many of us who came to know the pure delight of reading because of a quiet suggestion from the rather aloof and amused lady, who seemed to us of great age, hardly visible behind the piles of books. We had no comics, so went home to read Treasure Island or the White Company, or began the long series of Henty which we hoped would never run out. Nor must we forget the editor of the local paper with his strong views on politics and on cigars, who in his young days had met Mark Twain and who, long before the day of the syndicated columnist, recorded and commented upon the life of his community, respecting nothing so much as pungent English prose. He did not publish a mass medium of communication; he edited a newspaper.

6. The radio, the film, the weekly periodical have brought pleasure and instruction to remote and lonely places in this country, and undoubtedly have added greatly to the variety of our enjoyment. In the great plenty that now is ours, there is some danger that we may forget that music and drama and letters call for more than passive pleasure on our part; in this new world of television, of radio and of documentary films, it will be unfortunate if we hear no more our choir and our organist in valiant and diligent practice of the Messiah, making together a gracious music that reaches us faintly but with great sweetness across the quiet of an early winter night.


7. If we turn to the Province of Quebec in the same period toward the beginning of this century, we could write that there too were happy towns and villages which, from their own resources, produced almost everything they needed for their own amusement and instruction, apart from books and illustrated papers.

8. This was the era when the telephone was in its infancy. Our grandparents had some exciting times with these instruments experimentally built in a period when the refinements of industrial design were still far in the future. At first they hesitated to trust real human words to a machine which could hear and could speak to you without seeing you. Then, suddenly aware that by some miracle their voices could be heard even three or four miles away, they began to shout into the mouthpiece under the natural illusion that you must speak louder to be heard a long way off than if you were chatting to your neighbour over the fence.

9. The telephone was the first step; the gramophone and the radio followed closely; before that, communication was on a voluntary and personal basis; it became automatic, easy and impersonal. Culture, too, came to lean heavily on the machine.

10. In the early years of this century, we still counted for our music upon skilled or amateur performers whom we saw every day. In the little towns and villages of Quebec, music was the domain of the precentor, of the curé, of the organist, and of the wife of the doctor or the notary. The precentor, though equipped with a voice to rival in power the organ itself, was particularly good at plain-chant. The organist, though fully occupied with both hands and with both feet, was still able to maintain contact with her fast moving choir. On Sunday, the singing of the curé, endowed with a hearty farmer's voice that easily carried over two or three fields, must have echoed pleasantly through the courts of Heaven.

11. In the towns, the band of the seminary or of the college was responsible for music on special occasions, and, in that era, anniversaries rolled round often enough. The band leader used to lay aside his baton a few months before the occasion to compose a cantata or an overture in accordance with the needs of the celebration or, more likely, to suit himself. He took great care to place a solo at a suitable point in his work to be performed by the trombonist. The chosen artist would rise in his place, and gathering his resources of breath and of courage, would brandish his instrument with a gesture which alone would have brought down the walls of Jericho.

12. But in the cities, in the larger churches, one could hear music which has not yet been surpassed. The renowned organists of the time had learned the true qualities of church music in Europe, and on Sunday during the hush of the offertory they remembered in playing great pieces of classical music the fine lessons learned abroad. One might be as


brilliant on the keyboard as Liszt, another as classical and correct as Saint-Saëns.

13. This was a period, too, when there was plenty of time and plenty of quiet for reading. In the country, the parish library of three or four hundred books was quite large enough for the needs of the readers. It was generally kept on the shelves of the sacristy, and little by little over the years these harmless novels or lives of the saints, some of them filled with astonishing erudition, took on the gentle aroma of old incense. The curé kept an eye on the library, but it was the school mistress who was usually in charge. She had never heard of the decimal system of classifying books; it would not have occurred to her that there could be so curious an expression as "library science"; but nonetheless she did her duty devotedly and with good sense. Without being at all aware of it, she was a leader in the adult education movement, and a good leader.

14. In the cities, the tall, quiet houses all sheltered fine libraries as, of course, in the country did the houses of the advocate and the notary. As late as 1900, the legal profession still preserved in the original bindings complete collections of those customary laws of France which for so long had had authority in Canada. These books, unopened for half a century, were still handed on from one generation to the next. The library of the wealthy merchant in Quebec or Montreal was rather more modern; but there could be found on the shelves handsome volumes of all our first historians, and a few diminutive books of the seventeen hundreds. Side by side with the book shelves usually stood a cupboard filled with china and family treasures, platters and silver serving-dishes with the hallmark of Laurent Amyot, or some other famous Canadian craftsman of long ago.

15. The hollow voice of a loudspeaker would have echoed strangely in these surroundings, and the clicking of a television set would have dismayed a family accustomed to look only at the family portaits [sic] with their tranquil expressions. Nowadays, opera has a rival in "soap opera", and perhaps a "pin-up girl" grins from the exact place on the wall where used to hang the portrait of a shy young woman of twenty, of whom they used to say: "Qui est-ce? Mais vous savez bien que c'est le portrait de grand'mère."

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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