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.

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.

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.

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 tenth podcast episode, “The Virtual Gramophone: Early Canadian Sound Recordings”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, The Virtual Gramophone: Early Canadian Sound Recordings. LAC’s Virtual Gramophone is a multimedia website devoted to the early days of Canadian recorded sound, providing an overview of the 78-rpm era in Canada.

Gilles Leclerc, Archival Assistant, and Gilles St-Laurent, Head Audio Conservator from LAC join us to explore the Virtual Gramophone website and music collection. They discuss the different aspects of the collection and bring to light some incredible stories about maintaining the collection for future generations.

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.

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

Sheet music from Canada’s past

Did you know that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has one of the most comprehensive sheet music collection in the country? Thanks to Helmut Kallmann, the founding Chief of the Music Division at the National Library of Canada (now part of LAC), who collected any early Canadian sheet music he could find.

Recently, over a thousand pieces of sheet music from this collection were digitized and are now available online. These titles were published before 1918 and include a wide variety of patriotic and parlour songs, piano pieces, sacred music, etc.

Colour image depicting people dancing in a barn.

Sheet music cover image of a musical piece entitled, “The Village Barn Dance” by Mollie King. Source

Visit LAC’s Sheet Music from Canada’s Past website to learn more or to search for music sheets. Here’s how:

  1. Click on Search Sheet Music located in the left menu.
  2. In the first box, click the down arrow and choose the time period you would like to search, e.g. “1900-1913.”
  3. In the second box, click the down arrow and choose the type of search, e.g. Title keyword (song title).
  4. In the third box, you can enter a search term, e.g. “barn”.
  5. Click the “Submit” button at the bottom.

The browsing options in the fourth box allows you to limit your search to digitized music for which there is either printed music or audio files available. Please note that default searching has been set at “All Time Periods”, “Any Keyword” but you can modify these settings by following the above steps.

Once you have found a piece of sheet music, you will see some or all of the following information:

  1. A description of the music.
  2. A small colour image of the front cover.
  3. A large colour image of the cover.
  4. A “View sheet music” icon.
  5. An “Audio” icon

As the sheet music is available as PDFs, you can print the music on letter size paper.

Yesterday Once More: Canada’s Music Industry in Portraits

Do you have a favourite popular musician or rock group from the last three or four decades of the 20th century? There’s a good chance you’ll be able to find their photographs documented in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Portrait Portal.

The Portal contains photographs taken between 1963 and 2000, selected from LAC’s RPM fonds, an archive that includes thousands of Canada’s and the world’s most popular artists and bands. It also features actors, music and entertainment executives, broadcasters, politicians and sports figures rubbing shoulders with music industry greats. These portraits have been digitized and added to the Portrait Portal as part of LAC’s ongoing digitization initiatives.

What is the significance of the RPM archive to the Canadian music industry?

Founded in Toronto in 1964, RPM was a Canadian weekly trade publication that focused on the Canadian music recording and radio industries. In 1964 it established the RPM Gold Leaf Awards (also referred to as the Maple Leaf Awards), which would soon evolve into the JUNO Awards. RPM was among the parties that lobbied for Canadian content regulations in the broadcast media, and it inaugurated the RPM MAPL logo (with MAPL standing for music, artists, production, lyrics) that has been widely used to identify the Canadian content of commercial sound recordings. The periodical ceased publication in 2000.

According to Cheryl Gillard, a Library and Archives Canada music specialist, the collection of RPM photographs, now available online through the Portrait Portal, “allows anyone, anywhere to take a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the music industry. Also, for the first time, the Portal’s collection of RPM photos allows less high-profile but historically important Canadian music professionals to be documented and honoured.” This collection showcases Canadian popular culture and reflects the interconnection between the music industries in Canada and the United States.

You can search for photographs of popular musicians in the LAC Portrait Portal simply by entering the name of your favourite band or musician into the keyword search field.

For more information about Canada’s music industry, check out LAC’s RPM database, which contains the digitized versions of the music charts in RPM Weekly from 1964 to 2000. The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) website is also a great place to search for a list of past JUNO award recipients—and more!

Celebrate Glenn Gould on the 80th Anniversary of His Birth (1932–1982)

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) celebrates, today, the life and career of iconic Canadian musician Glenn Gould .

Born in Toronto, Ontario on September 25, 1932, Glenn Gould is internationally recognized as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Gould was, and remains, a pianist widely revered for his probing musical thought, his clear sound and his unearthly, flawless technique. His performances and recordings of works by Johann Sebastian Bach are renowned.

Did you know?

LAC is the official home of the Glenn Gould Archive, which contains:

  • handwritten diaries and unpublished writings
  • annotated scores and compositions
  • incoming and outgoing correspondence
  • concert programs
  • school and conservatory records
  • recording session logs and papers designated by Gould as “keepers”
  • promotional material
  • medical and financial records
  • photographs and non-commercial audio and video recordings

LAC gifted Glenn Gould’s piano and equally iconic custom-made chair to the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa this year. Read about the piano by visiting NAC’s website [http://www.nac-cna.ca/en/stories/series/glenn-goulds-piano].

To learn more about Glenn Gould and listen to samples from the Glenn Gould Archive, visit LAC’s virtual exhibition on Glenn Gould.

Please remember that not all of our material is available online. Consult our article:
How to Consult Material that Is Not Yet Available Online.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Listen to Canada’s Musical History with the Virtual Gramophone

From patriotic songs and sentimental ballads from the First World War era to classical vocalists and instrumentalists from the 1920s to 1940s; that is what you will find on the Library and Archives Canada website the Virtual Gramophone. This is a great place to listen to recordings from our music collection!

Our Virtual Gramophone website documents the history of the recorded sound industry in Canada, provides biographies of Canadian performers, presents a video of a working gramophone, allows you to search the database, and you can listen to some recordings.

Some of the recordings available online include:

  • Patriotic songs and sentimental ballads of the First World War era
  • Recordings from the rising vaudeville and jazz scenes, and the dance band craze of the 1920s
  • Music from Quebec in the 1920s and 1930s, including the recordings of Madame Édouard (Mary Travers) Bolduc
  • Popular music of the post-First World War era, including recordings from New Brunswick’s Henry Burr, the most prolific recording artist of his time
  • Classical vocalists and instrumentalists from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, including Emma Albani, Pauline Donalda, Sarah Fischer, and Hubert Eisdell
  • Military bands, popular songs, and other material in both English and French recorded or released by the Berliner Gramophone of Montreal circa 1901 to 1910

Although the website is no longer updated, it is still a great place to access some of our digitized recordings of the 78-rpm and cylinder music collection held by Library and Archives Canada.

If you have a keen interest in Canadian music, our other websites may also be of interest:

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!