A Brief Historical Survey of Organ Music in the Province of Quebec

By Leclerc, Gilles Maurice | The American Organist, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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A Brief Historical Survey of Organ Music in the Province of Quebec


Leclerc, Gilles Maurice, The American Organist


THE PROVINCE of Quebec has a rich heritage of organbuilders, organs, organists, and composers that has contributed to Canadian music in a substantial way. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of Quebec's religious heritage is the multitude of large churches built at the turn of the last century when Roman Catholicism was in full expansion in La Belle Province (The Beautiful Province). Since the Quiet Revolution of the '50s and '60s, the Church has lost its central cultural authority in a newly secularized Quebec, and consequently many sanctuaries are being closed as dioceses respond to an ever-decreasing church attendance. Despite this, there are efforts to assure that pipe organs and church buildings remain part of the landscape of villages and cities throughout the province. And, in often less than ideal working conditions, Quebec organists continue heroically to serve the liturgy. This article will provide a brief historical survey of organs and organists that have contributed to Quebec culture from the 18th century to the present and will conclude with thoughts on the future of this instrument in changing times.

Early Organs

The first organs in Quebec go back to the 17th century. An instrument is mentioned in Le Journal des Jésuites as having been built for the Jesuit chapel in Quebec City as early as 1661. l Msgr. François de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, ordered an instrument from France in 1663. Msgr. de Pontbriand rebuilt Notre-Dame Cathedral in Quebec and ordered an organ from the Parisian builder Robert Richard in 1744.2 In Montreal, the first Notre-Dame church received a seven-stop instrument between 1701 and 1705. Not only were many of the early organs built in France, but there is an important document that attests to the organ repertoire performed in New France. This is the 540page Livre d'orgue de Montréal, which was rediscovered in 1978 in Montreal by musicologist Elizabeth Gallant-Morin. It was apparently brought to Canada in 1724 by Jean Girard, a young seminarian of the order of Saint-Sulpice. He was an organist in the first church of Notre-Dame of Montreal. Later, instruments from Britain would also be ordered, such as the Elliott organ built for the Quebec Cathedral in 1802.

However, it is only during the 19th century that professional organbuilding began in Quebec. In 1836, Samuel Russell Warren moved to Montreal from Rhode Island to establish a company that would set professional standards in organbuilding in Canada. Joseph Casavant (1807-74), father of Samuel and Claver, the founders of Casavant Frères (Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec), would build an instrument for the church of Saint-Martinde-Laval in 1840. A total of 17 instruments were built by him. Other notable builders are Louis Mitchell (18437-1902), Eusèbe Brodeur (d. 1913?), and Napoléon Déry (1843-1908?), from each of whom a few instruments are still extant.

These early instruments set the foundation for a tradition in organbuilding that remains vibrant till this day, albeit on a smaller scale. A catalog of the instruments built by Casavant Frères shows that over 100 organs were installed in Montreal alone between 1880 and 1920, and many of these were large three- and four-manual instruments. The opulence of some of these installations is illustrated in such churches as Notre-Dame (1890), Très-Saint-Nom-de-Jésus (1906), and Saint-Jean Baptiste (1915) in Montreal.3

These instruments, like so many others, would help sustain a school of organ playing that turned primarily to France for further studies in composition and organ performance. Achille Fortier (1864-1939) was the first Canadian student to be accepted in the Paris Conservatoire. More notable Quebec teachers in the first half of the 20th century were students of French masters. Paul Doyon, George-Émile Tanguay, Omer Letoumeau, and George Lindsay studied with Louis Vierne; Françoise Aubut-Pratte, Henri Vallières, Eugène Lapierre, Léon Destroismaisons, and Jean-Marie Beaudet studied under Marcel Dupré; Conrad Bernier and Henri Gagnon worked under Joseph Bonnet.

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