Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Music in Edmonton, 1880-1905

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Music in Edmonton, 1880-1905

Article excerpt

Helmut Kallmann has suggested that the main impression created by a study of musical beginnings in western Canada is that of "amazing speed and variety of development" (Kallmann 1960:170). Kallmann's account deals chiefly with Victoria, Vancouver, Regina, and Winnipeg, but it will become apparent that most of the factors responsible for this rapid growth were also at work in Edmonton. The presence of well-educated settlers, including many women who had learned to play the piano, the associated need to compensate for the hardships and cultural privation of pioneer life, and the influence of geographical isolation help to explain why musical establishments were, according to Kallmann, so quick to grow in western cities. It will also become clear that the presence of one energetic and talented person was often sufficient to act as a nucleus and catalyst for musical activities once the basic requirements for such activities were present. In addition, Edmonton's early years show how institutions of various kinds can be important in bringing such persons to a community and in providing continuity in times of transition.

Historical background

Edmonton House was first established on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River in 1795 as part of the rivalry between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. The two companies were amalgamated in 1821 and under the guidance of John Rowand, Edmonton House quickly became one of the most important furtrading posts in the Northwest, the depot for expeditions to the Pacific and to the Mackenzie (MacGregor [1967] 1975: 36).

In spite of its importance, it was small. When Paul Kane, the artist whose journal and paintings give us such a vivid record of life on the prairies and west coast in the middle of the nineteenth century, visited Edmonton House in 1847, there were 130 people living in the fur-trading post (Kane [1859] 1925: 92-93). These were mainly Hudson's Bay Company employees engaged in the fur trade, their wives, almost without exception native women, and a few others who made their living hunting, farming, cutting firewood and freighting for the Company.

By 1880 the population had grown very little: the Edmonton area now had a population of 275 (Edmonton Bulletin 27 December, 1880: 1). In other ways, however, there had been very significant changes. When Paul Kane had passed down the North Sasktachewan with the Hudson's Bay Company flotilla he saw thousands of buffalo. When John McDougall came to the Edmonton area in 1862 with his father, the Rev. George McDougall, there were still countless thousands of buffalo, and one of his main occupations in the winter was either hunting buffalo or trading with the Cree or Blackfoot Indians for buffalo meat to keep their missions at Victoria and Pigeon Lake supplied with food (McDougall [1903] 1983). By 1880 the buffalo were gone, the Indians, former lords of the Plains, were starving, and a transcontinental railroad was about to open the prairies to large numbers of settlers. Life in the Northwest Territories was changing very rapidly; in 25 years provinces and cities would exist where buffalo had grazed and Indians had camped. In that same time, musical life on the prairies grew from the simple customs associated with relaxation around the campfire and entertainment at Christmas dances to elaborate productions by amateur operatic and choral societies presented alongside a constant succession of musical and theatrical events organized by touring professional companies. This cultural growth is documented in the Edmonton Bulletin, which was inaugurated in December 1880 by Frank Oliver who later became a Member of Parliament for the Territories. He proudly called his new publication the smallest newspaper in the world - four pages, five inches wide by six inches deep - and it is from this time on that one can get a coherent, continuous account of life in early Edmonton. (MacGregor 1963: 140).

The churches, of course, were one of the main centres of musical activity in any frontier town. …

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