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Sheet Music
From Canada's Past


Writing for a Market

Canadian Musical Composition before the First World War

By the beginning of the nineteenth century some European publishers had begun providing repertoire acknowledging at least two distinct markets: the amateur and the more highly skilled connoisseur. This idea spread to North America, and Canadian repertoire was included in the publishing process.

Amateurs needed music that was technically undemanding, with simple harmonies, an easily grasped structure, and tuneful melodies. "Amateur" published music for piano consisted largely of dances, song arrangements or descriptive pieces, as well as simple variations or fantasias on popular tunes, songs, or opera arias. L'Oiseau mouche : Bluette de salon (1865) by Calixa Lavallée is one example of a small, unpretentious but well-crafted piano work.1 In songs, the vocal line had a limited range and moderate technical requirements, while the piano accompaniment normally doubled the vocal line and used basic chording. The "connoisseur" clientele required more technically and structurally demanding works. Most Canadian published sheet music fell into the "amateur" category.

Large-scale Canadian works were rarely published, either in Canada or abroad.2 Within the realm of shorter works, however, Canadians produced music in all the forms that the markets demanded, including dances, all kinds of songs, and descriptive works for both the amateur and the more accomplished musician.

Dancing was a popular form of entertainment. Scottish traveller and artist George Heriot noted in 1807: "The whole of the Canadian inhabitants are remarkably fond of dancing, and frequently amuse themselves at all seasons with that agreeable exercise."3 Canadian composers found themselves writing waltzes, quadrilles, polkas and galops to cater to the dance music market.

The waltz, a dance in triple metre that usually had an "oom-pah-pah" accompanying beat, was preeminent in the 1800s. When waltzes were introduced into English ballrooms in 1812 they were considered scandalous because of the close proximity of the man and woman, but by 1820 this form of dance was being taught at Mr. Rod's Dancing Academy in Quebec City.4 The Montreal Bazaar Waltz (ca.1830) is typical of pre-1850 examples - a single waltz in two or three sections, and not very difficult to play. Later publications such as Manitoba Nelledi Waltzes (1903) often comprised several waltzes under one title, and were more challenging for the pianist.

By 1850 the duple-metre round dances of galop and polka, such as the St. Lawrence; or the Graceful Step Polka (1851) and The Berlin Polka (1901), had become popular. These dances had a three-part structure, the middle section often being called a "trio." The trio is particularly evident in The Civil Service Galop (1867) and the Stolen Kisses Galop (ca.1860). In the latter, and in The Montmorency Galop (ca. 1855), the long-short rhythm (dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth), came from the Scottish strathspey or "schottische," a folk dance common in Celtic settlements. The sheet music for one duple-metre dance in "tempo di polka", Nova Scotia (1889), included instructions for new dance steps by the Pittsburgh-based dancing master J.S. Christy.

John Playford's The English Dancing Master (London, 1651) contained over 100 dance tunes used for three basic floor patterns: round, where men and women alternated in a circle; "longwayes", with lines of men and women facing each other; and square dances, for four couples. After acceptance by the English court, these patterns were modified by dancing masters across Europe.5 One such modification produced the quadrille, a square-patterned dance, usually with five parts named after country dance tunes: "Le Pantalon" (adapted from the French air "Le pantalon/De Madelon/N'a pas de fond"); "L'Été", a complicated country dance popular in 1800; "La Poule", a country dance popular in 1802 that imitated the fowl; "La Pastourelle", initially danced to a ballad tune; and a very fast finale or galop.6 The quadrille and its derivative, lancers, developed many variants during the nineteenth century and became the basis of modern square dances.7

Illustrated cover of the sheet music for THE ROYAL CANADIAN QUADRILLES, by William Range

"The Royal Canadian quadrilles," by William Range

Following the French practice, the sections of Quadrille canadien (ca. 1855) and The Royal Canadian Quadrilles (ca.1860) are based on folk songs. Le Carnaval de Québec (ca. 1863) contains songs in both French and English, including the Canadian folksong "Dans les chantiers nous hivernerons!". "Yankee Doodle," which also appears, may have originated after the capture of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, June 17, 1745.

Fantasies using well-known tunes were an important part of the "amateur" publishing repertoire. Both Grande fantaisie : Ouverture : pot-pourri d'airs canadiens (1911) and Canadian Patrol (1911) indicate the specific national tunes used. In many earlier fantasies, such as Chanson canadienne (Sounds from Home) (1889) and La Lyre enchantée (1896) the themes are not identified. These fantasies often demanded technical proficiency on the level of the "connoisseur" market; indeed more and more music published after 1880 required considerable virtuosity.

Travellers to Canada spoke of folk songs, particularly those used by the voyageurs to keep the rhythm of fifty strokes per minute while paddling. Traditionally, paddlers took turns as soloists in the verses, and all joined in the refrain. Many composed songs mirrored this musical phrase structure, including Antoine Dessane's Le chant des voyageurs.8 According to Le Journal de Québec, February 13, 1862, the first performance of this piece was enthusiastically received.

Canadian composers were also influenced by the popular British entertainer Henry Russell (1812-1900) who sojourned in Canada. His approximately 75 North American songs consisted of melodramatic pieces that drew heavily on Italian opera; strophic ballads (verses separated by a refrain); and simple, sentimental songs. Some of his tunes were quoted in the quadrille Le Bouquet de perles (1858).

In songs for home entertainment or social gatherings the piano accompaniment frequently varied from verse to verse. The choruses were meant for everyone to sing, as in Shoulder to Shoulder On to the Border (ca.1860) and Jack Canuck (1910). La Crosse, Our National Game (probably mid 1800s) even has a chorus written for four voice parts. Waltzes, such as A Handful of Maple Leaves (1901) were also popular, and were often used.

Illustrated cover of the sheet music for OH TAKE YOUR GIRL TO THE PICTURE SHOW, words by L.C. Spence and music by J.W. McFarlane

"Oh take your girl to the picture show," words by L.C. Spence and music by J.W. McFarlane

Show songs of the early 1900s often have a "vamp," a two- or four-bar pattern repeated by the accompanist until the singer starts to sing, as in Oh Take Your Girl to the Picture Show (1909). Scottish and Irish sentimental songs, such as Laura Lemon's My Ain Folk (1904) were also popular with a public that was often still longing for the "old country."

Religious traditions were central to much of Canadian life. New hymn tunes were published in collections, heard in church services, and played at home on the parlor reed organ or piano.9 Sacred songs, such as Ambrose's One Sweetly Solemn Thought (1876), sometimes approach the "connoisseur" level, with changes of metre and sophisticated harmonies, while Almost Persuaded (1892) is among those closer to simple hymns.

Photograph of Nathaniel Dett

Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), African-Canadian composer, pianist and conductor

Settlers of African descent have been present in Canada since the early 1600s, but often lived in isolated communities whose musical traditions remained local. Nathaniel Dett was an African-Canadian born in Drummondville, Ontario in 1882, who studied music, mainly in the United States, and became highly respected in the musical and scholarly worlds for his compositions, performances and writings. Dett commented: "My grandmother sang spirituals with a very beautiful but frail soprano voice; but, to the ears of her grandchildren, educated in northern white schools and used mostly to the hymns of the northern white churches, these primitive Negro songs sounded strange, weird and unnatural."10 An occasional syncopated rhythm appeared in his Cave of the Winds (1902), but it was only later that Dett's music became infused with African-American idioms. He revolutionized the presentation of African-American music in concert and became widely known for his instrumental dance, "Juba" (1913), inspired by the joyous African-American dance of the same name.

A mainly "white" interpretation of African-American music had become a part of the popular post-1850 entertainment known as minstrel shows. These included skits that claimed to imitate the singing, dancing and instrumental playing of the African-American community. Dett wrote: "Negro music was merely 'rag time' -- something to be amused at, danced to, employed as a ready made missile of ridicule if not actual ill will against Negro citizens. At that time, to talk with colored people about Negro music was to embarrass them, since the general attitude of the public toward such music was mildly contemptuous."11

The music associated with ragtime is almost exclusively for piano, modelled on European or American marches and sectionally constructed dance tunes. Most rags have three, four or five different musical themes, each usually sixteen bars long and played twice. The left hand plays a "boom-chuck" pattern, while the right hand features off-beat accents and syncopated rhythms. A similar form was the cake-walk, whose title refers to a dancing competition, the winners of which often received a cake as a prize. Just two years after the first rag was published,12 Canadians began producing their own versions, such as G.A. Adams' The Cake Winner (1899).

Long before ragtime had become established, the rhythmic figure of a sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth-note pattern had become associated with Creole music. By the beginning of the 20th century, it regularly appeared in ragtime pieces such as The Club Cabin (1903) and spilled over into the dance music for one- and two-steps, for example Miss Prim (1917) and Silly Ass (1907). Vocal music was not immune, however, and ragtime rhythms -- such as found in It's Sunny Alberta for Mine (1913) and Vancouver Town (1913) -- appeared with increased regularity. Exoticism was also fashionable -- the two-step Clodia (1908) draws upon near-East elements

Illustrated cover of the sheet music for CLODIA, by Wilfrid Beaudry

"Clodia," by Wilfrid Beaudry

Through greater familiarity with European "connoisseur" music and advanced musical studies abroad, composers began to write with more sophistication. Susie Frances Harrison showed in her Trois Esquisses canadiennes (1887) how musical themes from folk songs could be developed for extended pieces. Molto Felice (1886) by Frances J. Hatton, is interesting for its chromatic main theme, and unusual technical demands. Also known by her married name, Hatton-Moore, she was one of four winners of an 1886 composition competition sponsored by the Ontario Music Teachers' Association. The other winners -- all men -- were among English Canada's musical elite of the day: A.E. Fisher, Davenport Kerrison and G.W. Strathy.

At the turn of the century, particularly in "connoisseur" music, European composers were stretching the key concept beyond chromaticism. Canadian Humphrey Anger furthered this new direction in his piano piece Tintamarre (1911). He used streams of Debussy-like parallel chords, but also wrote tone clusters, i.e. the simultaneous sounding of several adjacent notes (for example, F G A B). This might have been imitating the Acadian event known as "tintamarre" where celebrants bring spoons, whistles and other musical instruments to make as much noise as possible.

The "connoisseur" song aimed for a close connection of textual meaning and music through less rigid structures, unusual harmonies, chromaticism, changes of metre, and challenging, independent vocal lines. In Frühlingsabend: Spring Evening (ca. 1886) W.O. Forsyth used the piano accompaniment to heighten the meaning of the text, with devices such as staccato effects to illustrate dewdrops and figurations imitating the sound of a stream. Clarence Lucas and Gena Branscombe employed similar techniques in setting English texts, as did Achille Fortier and Alexis Contant for French. Canadian poetry was occasionally set to music. For Archibald Lampman's poem Lament of the Winds (1907), composer Ernest Whyte adopted a varied strophic form in which the accompaniment changed in each interlude and in each verse.

La Chanson de Nettaïck (1911), and descriptive event songs, such as La Catastrophe de la gare Windsor (1909), contain some elements of the new musical language. The latter song was performed in Montréal at the Ouimetoscope. There, in 1906, Joseph-Ernest Ouimet (1877-1972) had introduced programs of motion pictures interspersed with "illustrated" chansons -- projected images coordinated with songs performed by one or more singers accompanied by a pianist or a small orchestra. An evening's presentation could include up to sixteen such "illustrations". Many of these pieces were composed by the Ouimetoscope conductor, Henri Miro, who judiciously used key changes, diminished seventh chords and chromatic touches to great effect.13

Canadian composers were becoming increasingly aware of Canadian soundscapes. On the 1908 cover page of Louise I. Murphy's song Sweet, Sweet Canada; or The Song of the White-throated Sparrow (1908), the bird call is printed and its association with the word "Canada" underlined. This call of the "Canada bird" and that of the loon have been used subsequently by several Canadian composers including John Beckwith, John Hawkins, Norman Symonds and John Weinzweig. It is interesting to note that ethnomusicologists have discovered that some cultures have built their musical expressions on a birdcall prominent in their geographical location.

Early Canadian music was written with the market in mind, and composers generally deferred to the styles and opinions of both Europe and the United States. As the nineteenth century progressed, Canadians became increasingly aware, and proud, of their history, people and environment. They demanded music that reflected their national identity and experience. Composers incorporated themes from folk songs into their music and began to include lyrics from Canadian poets. "National" icons such as maple leaves, loons and lacrosse appeared with increasing regularity. The evolution of music in Canada from the early nineteenth century to the period before the First World War is a strong reflection of the country's metamorphosis from colony to nation.

Dr. Elaine Keillor
Carleton University

Selected Readings

Canadian Musical Heritage Society. - The Canadian musical heritage. - 25 vols. - Ottawa : Canadian Musical Heritage Society, 1983-1999. - See especially volumes 1, 3, 6, 7, 12, 14, 22

Encyclopedia of music in Canada. - Helmut Kallmann et al, eds. - Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1981. - 2nd edition 1992. - Also available online at (3rd edition). - See "Composition", "Dancing", "Ragtime", etc., and individual articles on composers and place names.

Kallmann, Helmut. - A history of music in Canada 1534-1914. - Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1960. - Reprinted 1969 and 1987

Morey, Carl. - Music in Canada : a research and information guide. - New York : Garland Publishing, 1997


1 Marc Honegger, Science de la musique : technique, formes, instruments, vol. 1, Paris: Bordas, 1976, p. 113

2 Volumes of chamber music, nos. 11, 13, 23, orchestral music, nos. 8, 15, 16, band and wind music, nos. 23, 24, of The Canadian Musical Heritage 25-volume series provide editions of certain extant works. These include Guillaume Couture's Quatuor-Fugue for string quartet published in Paris around 1875, and Ouverture : Patrie by Calixa Lavallée, the first Canada orchestral work to be performed abroad, in Paris on August 12, 1874.

3 George Heriot, Travels Through the Canadas, London: Richard Phillips, 1807, p. 257

4 La Gazette de Québec, October 19, 1820

5 French dancing masters modified the square formation into the cotillion that consisted of a series of movements by the four couples involved in "changes" and "the figure" which distinguished one dance from another such as "la grande chaîne" (grand chain) "le moulinet" (mill or star), "le petit carré" (small square) and "la queue du chat" (cat's tail).

6 Peter Buckman, Let's Dance : Social, Ballroom, and Folk Dancing, New York: Paddington Press, 1978, p. 135

7 Because of the many different combinations of figures used it gradually became customary during the nineteenth century to have an official "caller" to designate the moves to the dancers while the dance was being performed. The popularity of these dances in Canada is indicated with the listing of an ideal order of dances given in the Ten-Cent Canadian Ball-Room Companion and Guide to Dancing (Toronto, 1871). Of the 21 dances listed, there are six quadrilles and four lancers, making up almost half of the dances in the evening.

8 As in Le Chant des voyageurs each musical phrase connected with one or two lines of the text might be different, but more frequently in the nineteenth century one heard folk songs in Canada that would have a previously heard musical phrase re-occur within a strophe. Tunes of Irish provenance would often have a phrase A followed by a contrasting B phrase, followed by their reverse, B and A, while those influenced by British music hall songs would feature three different phrases, ABC, followed by a repeat of the opening one. Depending on the length of the strophe's textual line, each musical phrase would be four or eight bars in length.

9 The Canadian Anthem Book was published in Toronto in 1873, and John Medley's Church Anthems, Services and Chants was published in Fredericton in 1899. A selection of Canadian hymn tunes can be found in volume 5 of The Canadian Musical Heritage.

10 Jon Michael Spencer, The R. Nathaniel Dett Reader: Essays on Black Sacred Music, special issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, Vol. 5, no. 2, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991, p. 94


12 William H. Krell, Mississippi Rag, Chicago: The S. Brainard's Sons Co., 1897

13 Lucien Poirier, Songs III to French texts, Ottawa: Canadian Musical Heritage Society, c1992, p. viii


Chromatic/chromaticism: music characterized by the use of progressive semitones (F, F#, G, G#, etc.). A chromatic passage from Molto Felice:

Creole music: music of the descendants of French, Spanish and African settlers in Louisiana. It was originally often without instruments, or played on "found" instruments such as mule jaws, washboards or sticks. Instruments, particularly the accordion, were later added.

Duple metre: having two (or a multiple of two) beats to a measure.

Parallel chords: all the notes of the chord move together by the same interval. French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was noted for his use of parallel chords.

Staccato: notes are played much shorter than their normal duration, creating silence between the notes.

Syncopated: the emphasis is placed on a weak beat of the measure.

Tempo di polka: "polka tempo" -- a moderately fast speed.

Tone clusters: the simultaneous sounding of adjacent notes, such as F G A B. A tone cluster from Tintamarre:

Triple metre: having three (or a multiple of three) beats to a measure.