New additions to the Virtual Gramophone – Henry Burr

By Margaret Ashburner

A black-and-white photograph of a man standing in front of a car, holding a small dog and wearing a Bowler hat.

Henry Burr. Source: Library and Archives Canada music collection, Public Domain.

A prolific recording artist, Henry Burr is estimated to have performed in over 12,000 recordings over the course of his life. His given name was Harry McClaskey, but he recorded under a wide variety of pseudonyms, the most well known being Henry Burr. Burr regularly performed not only tenor solos, but also in duets, quartets and other ensembles. He often performed alongside Albert Campbell.


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

O Canada! A bilingual history

By Jessica Di Laurenzio

Library and Archives Canada has recently acquired the records of the Frederick Harris Music Company, a large Canadian music publisher often associated with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In the company’s early days, beginning in the 1910s, Frederick Harris rigorously fought to obtain Canadian copyright for as much music as possible. One of the songs he published around this time was the English-language version of “O Canada.” However, the “O Canada” that Harris first published was not the same song that Canadians know today as their official national anthem.

“O Canada” became the official national anthem in 1980, exactly 100 years after Calixa Lavallée first composed the music. He was commissioned to write it by Lieutenant Governor Théodore Robitaille of Quebec. Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier wrote the French lyrics at the same time, and the anthem was performed on Saint Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec City in 1880. “Chant National” (the original name for “O Canada”) was an anthem for the French-Canadian people, written in part as a response to the popularity of “God Save the Queen” in English Canada.

A black-and-white photograph of a man with a prominent mustache, wearing a suit and bow tie. The photo is oval-shaped on a grey matte board.

Portrait of Calixa Lavallée (MIKAN 3526369)

People in English Canada liked Lavallée’s music so much that, a couple of decades later, they decided to create their own version. However, rather than simply translating Routhier’s lyrics into English, several Anglophone lyricists wrote their own words, which helps explain why today the meaning of some of the French and English lyrics of “O Canada” differ greatly.

Sheet music cover. In the centre, there is a photo of a man in an overcoat and trousers holding a top hat and a cane. The composer’s and lyricist’s names are at the bottom between a sketch of the city of Québec and a tree that stretches to the top of the page to decorate the title with maple leaves.

Cover of the first edition of “O Canada” (AMICUS 5281119) L.N. Dufresne, cover “O Canada” (Québec: Arthur Lavigne, 1880). Musée de la civilisation, bibliothèque du séminaire de Québec. Fonds ancient, 204, SQ047145.

Original French lyrics by Routhier:

O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix!

Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur, de foi trempée,

Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.

English Translation:

O Canada! Land of our ancestors,
Glorious deeds circle your brow.
For your arm knows how to wield the sword,
Your arm knows how to carry the cross.

Your history is an epic
Of brilliant deeds.
And your valour steeped in faith

Will protect our homes and our rights,
Will protect our homes and our rights.

English-speaking lyricists took a different approach to the lyrics, often focusing on Canada’s natural beauty instead of the country’s valour and epic history. Sometimes, their approaches were a little too similar, causing accusations of plagiarism. Robert Stanley Weir and Edward Teschemacher were two of the Anglophones who came up with their own versions, and both chose to use the phrase “our home and native land.” The similarities created copyright tension between Delmar Music Co. and Frederick Harris, the respective publishers of the Weir and Teschemacher versions, both published around 1910.

Cover of sheet music for “O Canada!,” Canadian National Anthem by C. Lavallée.

Cover of sheet music for “O Canada,” published by Frederick Harris Music Co., 1914, words by Edward Teschemacher (AMICUS 21776210)

Along with Weir and Teschemacher, people across Canada came up with their own English versions of “O Canada.” By 1927, the Weir version had emerged as the most popular rendition, and was used as an official song for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. However, because so many other versions existed, it did not gain official status as the national anthem for some time.

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson tried to introduce a bill to make it the official version in 1967, but it was not until the centennial anniversary of Lavallée’s music, in 1980, that “O Canada” became the country’s official national anthem. Routhier’s original lyrics from 1880 made up the French version, while Weir’s words gained official status as the English version—regardless of the fact that their meanings were so different.

Photo of a rectangular postage stamp with colourful graphics of three men, with their names written beside them: Calixa Lavallée, Adolphe-Basile Routhier, and Robert Stanley Weir. The stamp reads “Canada Postes-Postage, O Canada! 1880–1980.”

Commemorative stamp, 1980, showing Lavallée, Routhier, and Weir (MIKAN 2218638)


Jessica Di Laurenzio is an archival assistant with Literature, Music, and Performing Arts, Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

 

A few pearls of forgotten dramatic works at Library and Archives Canada

By Théo Martin

In its published documents collection, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has several old dramatic works in French by authors unfamiliar to new generations of Canadians. Although these plays are clearly inspired by the melodramas and vaudeville shows of Europe, they nevertheless represent the beginnings of French-Canadian dramaturgy. These plays include copies of printed works by French‑Canadian authors from the Ottawa–Gatineau (formerly Ottawa–Hull) region who enjoyed both local and national success from 1886 to 1935.

One example is the play Exil et Patrie by Jesuit priest Édouard Hamon (1841–1904). Although this work was not created by an Outaouais writer, it was one of the first plays presented in 1884 by the Cercle d’art dramatique de Hull, one of the first theatre companies in Hull, Quebec. This play deals with a very topical theme of the era: the exodus of French‑Canadians to the United States in the late 19th century. LAC holds a very rare copy of this work.

A colour image of the cover of a book entitled Exil et Patrie and bearing the title and the names of the author and the publisher, all printed in black on yellowed paper.

Exil et Patrie by Édouard Hamon, circa 1882 (AMICUS 12504589)

The LAC collection also includes plays by Hull prothonotary Horace Kearney (1848–1940), who wrote and produced La Revanche de Frésimus in 1886. This play, which combines vaudeville and satire, was one of the most performed plays in the Outaouais, eastern Quebec and even the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Other plays by Kearney are preserved at LAC as well, including Amour, Guerre et Patrie (1919).

Two-page image, side by side: on the left is the cover with a black-and-white photograph of the playwright, and on the right is the first page of the first act.

La Revanche de Frésimus by Horace Kearney, 1886 (AMICUS 2767145)

There are also several plays, melodramas, comedies and vaudeville acts by Ottawa author Régis Roy (1864–1945), including La tête de Martin (1900), Nous divorçons! (1897), L’auberge du numéro trois (1899) and Consultations gratuites (1924). Roy had a career as a public servant in the federal Department of Agriculture and the Department of Naval Service.

A black-and-white picture of an older man wearing a bow tie and glasses.

Régis Roy, photographed by Jules Alexandre Castonguay, circa 1930 (MIKAN 3229816)

Rare copies of plays by another Hull playwright, Antonin Proulx (1881–1950), can also be found in the LAC collection, including Le coeur est le maître (1930), L’enjôleuse. Dévotion et l’amour à la poste (1916) and De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! (1930). Proulx worked as a library curator and journalist during his career.

Cover of a play showing the title, author’s name and price of 25 cents, in black print on yellowed white paper.

De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! by Antonin Proulx, circa 1930 (AMICUS 11378035)

After the 1930s, the authors of these plays, after several decades of success, seem to have been forgotten. Fortunately, LAC holds a few copies of their works, for the great enjoyment of theatre lovers of today and tomorrow!


Théo Martin is a literature, music and performing arts archivist with the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

New additions to the Virtual Gramophone – English songs

By Margaret Ashburner

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is fortunate to have a collection of early audio recordings that capture the popular music that Canadians were listening to in the early 20th century. This collection of newly digitized recordings is a broad sampling of popular songs recorded in the 78-rpm format.

Featured performer

Albert William Plunkett

Black-and-white image of a young man smiling.

Albert Plunkett. Source: Canadian Music Trades Journal, Toronto, Fullerton Pub. Co., ISSN 0383-0705.

Plunkett is best known for his work as a soldier-entertainer with The Dumbells group. The Dumbells was run by Albert’s older brother Captain Mert Plunkett. The group started in 1917 and was active until 1932.

Harry Macdonough

A black-and-white image of a man wearing a suit.

Harry Macdonough. Source: Library and Archives Canada music collection, Public Domain.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, as John Scantlebury Macdonald, the singer changed his name to Harry Macdonough in hopes that it would help his singing career. This popular ballad singer was a prolific recording artist and was involved in solo, duet and quartet recordings, many of which are among LAC’s collection.


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

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)

Continue reading

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.