It’s not easy putting Canada on stage – The Centennial Play

By Théo Martin

A little over 50 years ago, Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies co‑wrote The Centennial Play to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1967. In 1965, with financial support from Canada’s Centennial Commission, Davies began writing the bilingual play featuring Canada’s history with four other renowned Canadian writers: W.O. Mitchell, Arthur L. Murphy, Eric Nicol and Yves Thériault.

A black-and-white photograph of a man smiling while holding a cat near his shoulder.

Robertson Davies and a cat, 1954. Photo: Walter Curtin. Walter Curtin fonds (MIKAN 3959842)

The play was divided into many scenes depicting the regions and provinces of Canada and involving fictional characters and dancers representative of Canada’s diverse linguistic and cultural communities. The play was accompanied by an original score written by Canadian composer Keith Bissell.

Handwritten page with drawings in red ink.

Handwritten draft of the cover page of a draft version of The Centennial Play, with drawings by Robertson Davies, circa 1965 (MIKAN 128551)

Typewritten text with annotations in red ink.

Typescript of The Centennial Play annotated by Robertson Davies, circa 1966 (MIKAN 128551)

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New additions to the Virtual Gramophone!

By Margaret Ashburner

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to present a list of newly digitized recordings from our 78-rpm disc collection. These early 20th century recordings include a variety of Canadian musicians, performers, composers and publishers. We will present the new recordings to you in six installments over the next few months.

French songs

Our first batch of newly digitized songs includes a variety of French-language songs. The release dates on these range from 1918 to the late 1930s and reflect the influx of francophone immigrants to Quebec, and Montreal in particular. With the boom in a French-speaking population came some great artistic developments for Canada, including francophone popular music, a small sample of which we have here:

A colour photograph of a black circular label at the centre of a 78-rpm disc. Gold lettering reads: “His Master’s Voice. Victor. Y-A des loups (Quentin-de Bexeuil). Georges Beauchemin. 263510-A.”

A Georges Beauchemin record label for Y-A des loups; image from Library and Archives Canada (AMICUS 31386448)

A colour photograph of a black circular label at the centre of a 78-rpm disc. Gold lettering reads: “Starr, Tenor, Avec piano, A SON CHEVET (Fyscher), LUDOVIC HUOT (Au piano: J. Allan McIver). 15929-A”

Record label for À son chevet by Ludovic Huot; image from Library and Archives Canada (AMICUS 31394570)

Featured performers

Georges Beauchemin, baritone

Georges Beauchemin is an interesting early example of the potential that recording technology brought to musicians. Beauchemin possessed a light baritone voice that would not have been suitable for solo stage and operatic roles. However, the new recording technologies allowed musicians with less powerful voices to be recorded and amplified.

Hector Pellerin, baritone

A black and white image of a young man wearing a tuxedo.

Hector Pellerin, photograph taken from the Virtual Gramophone. (AMICUS 2653974)

Hector Pellerin was an industrious musician who started out training in piano and organ but quickly moved on to popular music through his work accompanying silent films. He continued to work in various musical capacities before landing his first recording contract at the age of 29. He recorded in both wax cylinder and 78-rpm formats, ultimately making over 140 recordings.


Margaret Ashburner is the Special Collections Librarian of music at Library and Archives Canada

Cylinders: our earliest audio recordings

By Margaret Ashburner

One of the fascinating elements of Library and Archive Canada’s (LAC’s) retrospective audio collection is that it captures both the history of Canadian music and the development of sound recording and formats. Audio technologies have developed and changed rapidly over the last century, from wax cylinders to digital. There is a story to be told in the recordings, but also in the formats themselves.

LAC’s audio collection goes all the way back to the beginning of recording technology, which was first developed in the late 19th century. The earliest audio format developed for production was the phonograph cylinder. These cylinders were produced in a variety of materials, though all had a similar in design.

A colour photograph of hands holding a dark blue grooved cylinder. In the background is the cardboard case for the cylinder.

Example of an Edison brand Blue Amberol cylinder.

Cylinders have small grooves etched into the outside, exactly like those of a vinyl disc. The recording can be played by a machine that rotates the cylinder while a needle traces the grooves. The resulting vibrations are then amplified. This YouTube video shows a cylinder in action: note that the needle is fixed and the cylinder moves, unlike a record player where the needle moves and the disc remains fixed. Early cylinders were made from wax, which produced good acoustic results, but were quite fragile. Later cylinders were made from plastic, some tinted different colours to create a distinctive appearance (Roll Back the Years, p. 32).

A colour photograph of a wax cylinder being pulled out of its protective cardboard container by a string that is attached on the inside of the cylinder. On the cardboard, the word “Concert” appears in uppercase letters, while above, in smaller print, can be read “National Phonograph Co, New York, U.S.A.” “Made at the Edison Laboratory, Orange, N.J.” is visible below.

An example of a wax cylinder and its cylindrical cardboard container.

While the sound quality produced by cylinders is no match to the digital recordings of today, it is important to remember that, at the time, there were no alternative methods of sound reproduction. Households that bought an Edison machine and cylinders for the first time would not have had any way of playing music in the home other than live performance. It would have been quite the magical experience to go from relying on amateur performance and concerts to having a device that could play music at any time.

Challenges of the cylinder format

The small size of the cylinder, and limited surface area, meant that recordings could not be very long; the typical playing time was two or four minutes. This placed limits on the repertoire that could be performed and often influenced the tempo for a selection. These two examples of “The Holy City” are both performed by Canadian Henry Burr: Version 1 is two minutes long and Version 2 is four minutes long. In both versions, Burr adopts a very elastic tempo, but one that is fairly consistent between the two recordings. In Version 1 he accommodates the smaller cylinder by abbreviating the song and omitting more than half of the music. Much of the poetic narrative is lost in this version, but this is the challenge posed by the cylinder format.

A colour photograph of a cylinder player with a Blue Amberol cylinder on a horizontal tube and the needle hovering above the cylinder.

A modern wax cylinder player.

These time restrictions had a significant influence on popular music compositions of the time, and have contributed to today’s trend of the three- to five-minute “hit single.”


Margaret Ashburner is a Special Collections librarian (music) in the Published Heritage Branch.

Glenn Gould podcast images now on Flickr

Colour photograph of a very well used wooden chair.

Gould’s folding piano chair (MIKAN 4111968)

Thirty-four years after his death, Glenn Gould’s extensive catalogue of recordings, and the bold artistic vision behind them continue to resonate with music fans the world over. His irreverent interpretations of piano repertoire and perplexing idiosyncrasies have become the stuff of legend.

Visit the Flickr album!

Library and Archives Canada releases its latest podcast episode, “Glenn Gould: Remixing the Classics”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Glenn Gould: Remixing the Classics”.

Thirty-four years after his death, Glenn Gould’s extensive catalogue of recordings, and the bold artistic vision behind them continue to resonate with music fans the world over. His irreverent interpretations of piano repertoire and perplexing idiosyncrasies have become the stuff of legend. In this episode we speak with Kevin Bazzana, author of the award-winning biography Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. He tells us about Gould’s extraordinary career in music and the surprising secrets revealed to him about Gould’s private life while conducting research at Library and Archives Canada.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

Portia White: In honour of the 75th anniversary of her Toronto debut

By Joseph Trivers        

Throughout the 20th century, great operatic singers have populated Canada’s cultural landscape—from Raoul Jobin, Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers to Gerald Finley and Measha Brueggergosman. Their lives are often as dramatic and inspiring as the roles they play on stage in an opera. The life of Portia White, Nova Scotian contralto, was no exception. Praised for her radiantly beautiful and consistently even tone as well as her regal and dignified stage presence, White was the first African-Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. November 7, 2016, marks the 75th anniversary of her triumphant national debut in Toronto and gives us a welcome opportunity to reflect on her life, accomplishments and career.

“I really made my debut here [in Toronto] when I sang in November, 1941. It was my fourth professional engagement, but it was my first big city. The next day I received a contract. I always feel it was Toronto which discovered me.” – Portia White

White’s remarks about her debut in Toronto might give the impression that her success came quickly. However, the path to that 1941 concert, and the contract that followed, was marked by years of hard work, some good fortune, and plenty of support from her family and the people and governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia.

Early life and education

It seemed as if Portia was destined for a career in the performing arts and to have a strong and determined character. She was given the name Portia after the heroine of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice by a family friend. In the play, the character Portia achieves her goal of marrying the suitor of her choice through intelligence, grace and quiet determination. Whether or not such a name foreshadowed these same traits in Portia White, her upbringing certainly encouraged them.

Her parents were themselves remarkable people. Her father, the Reverend William A. White, was the son of freed slaves from Virginia, only the second African-Canadian admitted to Acadia University and the first to receive a doctorate in Divinity from Acadia. He also served as the only black chaplain in the British Army in World War I. Portia’s mother, who was descended from Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, gave Portia her first music lessons. The family moved from Truro, Nova Scotia, to Halifax after Portia’s father returned from the First World War and became the pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.

The family’s life was centred around the church, so it is no surprise that much of Portia’s early musical life and education began there. She began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction. She later took teacher training at Dalhousie and became a teacher in black Nova Scotia communities such as Africville and Lucasville. The work helped to pay for her music lessons. Throughout the 1930s, she took lessons from Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music. A scholarship enabled White to study with the Italian teacher Ernesto Vinci at the Conservatory in 1939. It was Vinci who began to have her train and sing as a contralto.

Toronto and beyond

Portia White first gained recognition and acclaim in Nova Scotia by performing in local festivals and benefit concerts and by singing on her father’s weekly radio program. She won the Helen Kennedy Silver cup at the Halifax Music Festival in 1935, 1937 and 1938. Further opportunities beckoned when Edith Read, principal at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto, heard her singing. Read was originally from Nova Scotia and was on vacation from Toronto at the time. It was through the support of the Branksome Ladies Club that White came to sing at Eaton Hall in Toronto on November 7, 1941.

The Toronto concert was such a success that White was immediately offered a contract by a branch of Oxford University Press for concerts and a touring career. She resigned from her teaching job to devote more time to her music. In 1942 and 1943 she toured across Canada, which helped boost her Canadian reputation, eventually giving a command performance for the Governor General. White eventually gave her first performance in the United States at New York City’s The Town Hall, in March 1944, to wide acclaim. She moved to New York to be closer to her managers, and was supported financially by the governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia through the Nova Scotia Talent Trust. It marked the first time two different levels of government came together to support an artist’s career. White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated and went on to tour Canada, parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Later career and legacy

Concert life was hectic, and White eventually began to feel she didn’t rest enough between concerts and travelling. She started experiencing difficulties with her voice, and some critics began complaining of flaws in her voice. This, and disagreements with her managers, led White to retire from public performance. She settled in Toronto, where she took further singing lessons at the Royal Conservatory with the soprano Gina Cigna. She also taught singing privately and at Branksome Hall. White did perform again, throughout the 1950s and 60s, but not very often. One such notable concert was for Queen Elizabeth on October 6, 1964, at the Charlottetown Confederation Centre of the Arts in Prince Edward Island. Less than four years later, in February 1968, White passed away in Toronto after a battle with cancer.

As an artist, Portia White was renowned for her versatility and varied repertoire. She was equally at home singing spirituals as she was singing arias from Italian operas, German Lied or French mélodies. No commercial recordings of White were made during her lifetime; however, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquired audio recordings, from the White family, of concerts she gave in Moncton, New Brunswick, and New York City. Some commercial recordings were released posthumously, including the album Think on Me from 1968, two songs on the Analekta label’s Great Voices of Canada (Volume 5), and the album First You Dream (1999), all of which are in LAC’s collection. A documentary, Portia White: Think on Me, was directed by Sylvia Hamilton and released in 1999. White’s legacy continues to live on in the trust fund that was created in her name. Each year the Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship to a young person showing “exceptional potential as a vocalist.” The Government of Canada named Portia White a person of historical significance 1995 and honoured her with a millennial stamp issued in 1999.

A colour stamp featuring, in the foreground, a young woman singing and, in the background, a close-up of the woman’s face with her eyes closed. A musical score with notes and lyrics appears faintly in the bottom half of the stamp.

Portia White: Irrepressible Talent [philatelic record], 46-cent Canadian millennial stamp (MIKAN 2266861)


Joseph Trivers is Music Acquisitions Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The other side of Glenn Gould: thoughts on the Canadian pianist’s ongoing fame and his legacy at Library and Archives Canada

By Rachelle Chiasson-Taylor

As the 85th anniversary approaches…

The year 2017 marks the sesquicentennial of Canada’s Confederation, and it also coincides with the 85th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s birth. Performers, composers, music historians, broadcasters, philosophers, and music lovers from all walks of life around the world celebrate this peerless musical figure every five years, and 2017 is no exception. In fact some major events to celebrate both Canada’s and Gould’s anniversaries are in store:

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage reports that the Glenn Gould Foundation is proposing to mount a spectacular year-long “Canada 150 World Tour” that will culminate in an epic Canada Day concert in celebration of Gould and the “musical aspirations of all Canadians”.

Gould’s iconic grand piano, the Steinway CD-318, which was removed from display at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa last February while the NAC undergoes renovations will be restored to its display space on Canada Day, 2017. In 2012, the piano and equally iconic concert chair were gifted by Library and Archives Canada to the National Arts Centre, where the piano has begun a new life that includes being played in public performances.

A new biography, Glenn Gould: Remix (Dundurn Press) is scheduled for release in June 2017.

The list goes on…

Glenn Gould Fonds

Library and Archives Canada is the foremost institution for the care and control of Gould’s documentary legacy. In 1984, LAC acquired the contents of the Glenn Gould Fonds, which comprises over 16 thousand items pertaining to the pianist’s personal life and career: official and personal autobiographical documents; personal and professional correspondence; awards and honours; compositions; published and unpublished writings by Gould; writings on Gould in newspapers and periodicals; a collection of books, recordings, and scores annotated by Gould; photographs of Glenn Gould, members of his family, and personalities of the international music world; audiovisual material that includes outtakes from now-legendary recording sessions. The Glenn Gould fonds at Library and Archives Canada is a goldmine for researchers that continues to inspire a huge outpouring of literature, musical happenings, broadcasts, new compositions, and events.

Music collections and communications experts at Library and Archives Canada are putting together a substantial podcast designed to make the public aware of the “other side of Glenn Gould”, acknowledging his image as a solo pianist while going far beyond that image. Gould wrote copiously about music and things extra-musical: he performed with other instrumentalists and singers; he composed; produced documentaries, hosted television shows, gave interviews and created new artistic forms.

The other side

His apparently eccentric and secluded lifestyle raised eyebrows, but had the effect of increasing his fame. His retirement from the concert stage in 1963 also had a paradoxical effect: rather than Gould disappearing from the public consciousness, each of his recordings and broadcasts was viewed as a cult-like happening. His thinking on technology was prophetic, and his views on the authority of the performer in the interpretation of a musical work by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, or other composers from the canon of Western art music, while controversial, were always stimulating. As his friend, the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, wrote,

Glenn had […] the kind of daring which accounts for his freshness, the great sense of inquiry which made him suddenly understand Schoenberg and Liszt in the same category, or Purcell and Brahms, or Orlando Gibbons and Petula Clark. He would suddenly bring an unlikely pair of musicians together in some kind of startling comparative essay. […] Here was a man you could really come to love. He was about fifteen years younger than I, I think, but I never felt that he was my junior, in any sense. He was a real peer, in every sense. When he died, l just couldn’t bear it.

Leonard Bernstein, The Truth About a Legend

In preparation for Glenn Gould’s 85th anniversary year in 2017, Library and Archives Canada celebrates the great musician’s eclectic genius, prophetic vision, and compelling quest for meaning through music and art. These were the things that constituted the other side of Glenn Gould.

Related resources


Rachelle Chiasson-Taylor is a Music Archivist in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Subscribe to the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season

At the turn of the 19th century, the theatre scene was languishing in Canada. Some plays were a huge success, such as Colas et Colinette, which was performed between 1790 and 1807 and was written by Joseph Quesnel, one of the first playwrights in the country. However, it was often too expensive to maintain theatre companies on a permanent basis. Moreover, the companies faced the disapproval of the Church, which did not like these types of performances.

Most often, it was theatre lovers—members of the social elite composed of French Canadians, military members and British merchants—who arranged venues and presented shows. American actors on tour also entertained audiences in major Canadian cities. When the Theatre Royal opened in Montreal in November 1825, the dramatic arts in Lower Canada were given a new boost.

This watercolour painting of a street scene depicts a four-storey neoclassical building. In the distance, more modest buildings can be seen.

Mansion House Hotel (Theatre Royal), St. Paul Street, Montreal, by Henry Bunnett (1888). (MIKAN 2878039)

Support for the Society of Young Artists

Under these circumstances, shortly after the War of 1812, a company called the Society of Young Artists was formed. Driven by the revival of the theatre scene and the English Theatre’s move to the United States, it launched its first season in fall 1815, performing shows mostly in Montreal. The company promoted its season by printing a bilingual leaflet advertising its first play, Voltaire’s The Death of Caesar.

The leaflet’s main goal was to seek funding from the public through subscribers who committed to paying for tickets each month. For its part, the company promised to give four performances a month, under the best possible conditions, from November 15, 1815, to May 15, 1816. The ticket price was set at one dollar, for a monthly total of one louis (or one Halifax pound).

The Canadian newspapers at that time, such as the Spectateur Canadien dated November 20, 1815 (in French only), also promoted the Society’s shows.

Text printed in French explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in French for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814815)

Text printed in English explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in English for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814828)

An intriguing list

Interesting fact: a list of items was written on the back of the English leaflet. Valued at 25 pounds (Halifax rating), these items could have been used either on stage or to meet the Society’s needs. The list is very difficult to read, but the following items can be identified: millwork, cloth, a pulley, rope, green flannel, white iron and costumes—in short, the items needed for the company’s activities.

A list of items written in ink that is very difficult to read.

List of items on the back of the English subscription for the 1815-1816 theatre season (MIKAN 4814828)

Repertoire: Molière, Shakespeare and company

Unfortunately, we do not know all the plays performed by the Society of Young Artists. However, in his book L’activité théâtrale au Québec (1765-1825), Baudoin Burger gives us an idea of the repertoire on the French stage at that time. From 1814 to 1819, the Montreal and Quebec City audiences could enjoy the plays of Molière, Beaumarchais, Voltaire, Regnard, Bruyes and Dancourt. On the English stage, the artists performed Molière, James Kenney, and of course Shakespeare, who remained the most popular.

A unique record

Very few archival records remain that document the beginnings of Canadian theatre under the English regime. The leaflets from the Society of Young Artists are therefore important and even unique records of our theatre heritage. They also show the love of art that pushed the Society to take the stage despite financial difficulties and varying levels of attendance. These people are, in a way, pioneers who believed in artistic development in Canada.

 

Oscar Peterson

These photographs of Oscar Peterson and his family were taken in 1944. He was in his late teens and already an experienced professional musician. He had been playing regularly with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra since 1942, a popular swing band that played to the dance crowd in and around Montreal. Oscar left the orchestra in 1947 and began a residency at the Alberta Lounge, a club near Windsor Station, leading a trio there for two years.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson playing the piano in a lounge.

Oscar Peterson, photographed by D.C. Langford [1944] (MIKAN 4167283)

Given the vibrant jazz scene in the city, Oscar had lots of opportunities to play: he performed professionally, played live for CBC Radio broadcasts, attended jam sessions, and met and jammed with visiting musicians performing in town. He earned praise from Count Basie, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Oscar was based in Canada until 1949 when Norman Granz convinced him to join the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert series in Los Angeles. This marked the beginning of his international career.

Oscar’s parents were immigrants to Canada. Daniel Peterson, Oscar’s father, was from the British Virgin Islands and worked as a boatswain on a merchant ship. His mother, Kathleen Olivia John, was from St. Kitts, British West Indies, and worked as a cook and housekeeper. They met and married in Montreal, settling in Little Burgundy/St-Henri, a predominately black neighbourhood. Like many men living there, Daniel got a job at Windsor Station as a porter on passenger trains for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson with his father, Daniel. Both men are sitting at a piano, with their hands on the keyboard, smiling and looking up at the camera.

Oscar Peterson and his father, Daniel, at the piano [1944] (MIKAN 4542845)

With instruction and encouragement from their parents, the Peterson children became accomplished musicians.

Fred, the eldest child, introduced Oscar to ragtime and jazz when he played it on the family piano. Fred died in the 1930s while still a teenager. Oscar said Fred was the most talented musician of the family.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson seated, playing piano. His brother Charles, dressed in the uniform of the Canadian Army, stands next to him playing the trumpet.

Oscar Peterson on piano, with his brother, Chuck, accompanying him on trumpet [1944] (MIKAN 4542843)


Another brother, Charles, who served with an artillery battery in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, played in the regimental band. After the war, he continued as a professional trumpet player, doing studio work and performing at various Montreal nightclubs through the 1950s and 1960s. Like his siblings, he also played the piano, but was forced to give it up after suffering an industrial accident while working in a factory in Montreal after the war.

A black-and-white photograph of Oscar Peterson and his sister Daisy seated at the piano with their hands on the keyboard. They are looking at the camera and smiling.

Oscar Peterson with his sister, Daisy, at the piano [1944] (MIKAN 4542840)

Daisy, Oscar’s oldest sister, was also a virtuoso pianist. She earned a degree in music from McGill University and had a lengthy and influential career as a music teacher in Montreal. She was her siblings’ first piano teacher and introduced Oscar to her own piano teacher, Paul de Marky, a concert pianist who played in the Franz Liszt tradition. Daisy taught for many years in Montreal; her students included future jazz musicians Milton Sealey, Oliver Jones, Reg Wilson and Joe Sealy.

Related Resources

Library and Archives Canada releases latest podcast episode, “Celia Franca: Shall we dance?”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, Celia Franca: Shall we dance?

Discover the story of Celia Franca, a woman who introduced Canada to world-class dance performances, pioneered the internationally famous National Ballet of Canada and devoted her entire life to dance. In this episode we are joined by LAC archivists Michel Guénette, Théo Martin and assistant archivist Judith Enright-Smith who will speak to us about who Celia Franca was, and the dance-related resources available to researchers at Library and Archives Canada.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.