Musical Life in Eighteenth-Century Halifax

By Hall, Frederick A. | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1983 | Go to article overview

Musical Life in Eighteenth-Century Halifax


Hall, Frederick A., Canadian University Music Review


When Captain William Moorsom wrote a series of letters from Nova Scotia in the early nineteenth century he presented a picture of a wilderness settlement lacking most of the cultural attributes of English society. The following statement sums up his and many other visitors' views of the cultural life of this area of Canada:

The exquisite powers of musical concert, and of all that has been so emphatically comprised . . . under the term "Conversation" are here almost unknown, and, except in two or three solitary instances, hardly attempted (1830: 97).

The opinions of Moorsom and others to the contrary, the Canadian Maritime settlements did know about the "exquisite powers" of music and had produced in a very short time a musical life that formed an integral part of their social pastimes.1

When the British established Halifax in 1749 a new era in Maritime history began. The first year was spent in creating adequate fortifications to defend against Indian attacks which never materialized and in establishing a town outside the garrison walls. In a letter from Nova Scotia that appeared in the London Gentlemen's Magazine, the anonymous writer recorded this first year at Halifax:

When I look back upon the 21st June, the day of our arrival, I am astonished to see the progress made; there are already about 400 habitable houses within the fortifications and not less than 200 without. So surprising is the growth of this colony . . . .2

By 1755 a population of over 1,700 souls was recorded in a census. Throughout the 1750s and 1760s the town proper grew sporadically as large troop movements and migrations to inland settlements tended to cause fluctuations in the population. However, by 1769 five thousand people were settled in Halifax and a large commercial area on the waterfront and adjoining streets had been established. These businesses relied on supplies from Boston and several other southerly ports as well as regular shipments from England. The society that emerged during this period catered to the needs of frontier defences by providing goods to the troops and by growing some crops that could feed the town and garrison. A limited class structure was in evidence, with commanding officers of troops and their chosen civilian authorities controlling the town's legal and military affairs. Nevertheless, middle-class merchants, farmers, and laborers had no choice but to mingle in such a small settlement. Public social events were open to most townspeople for the price of admission.

It was a harsh system that imposed social order on this disparate group of settlers. Liquor offenders were punished with the lash and public stockade, housebreakers with execution, and counterfeiters, judging from the case of one Christopher Moore, sentenced to stand on the pillory for "one hour his ears to be nailed to the pillory and to be whipped . . . ."3

What role did music play during these formative years in struggling settlements established for defence and territorial occupation? From evidence in newspapers, letters, and other original documents, one can observe the gradual growth in the popularity of music in these volatile times. After survival was assured and the main elements of social order were in place housing, legal authority, and adequate food supply - inhabitants sought forms of relaxation and entertainment to make the long winters more tolerable. Settlers undoubtedly brought small instruments and some music with them from their original homes. Dancing, singing in homes, taverns, and coffeehouses, and worship in churches constituted early musical activities in which all townspeople could participate.

Opportunistic merchants, seeing a potential market for music, were soon importing supplies for these aspiring musicians along with seeds, clothing, and farm implements. Within the first five years of the new settlement, the Halifax papers began to advertise music and instruments. Auctioneer William Craft, in August of 1754, offered a songbook entitled Cupid, opera glasses, and two German flutes, plus fishing rods, gunpowder, muskets and a tobacco engine. …

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