Ernest Gagnon | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ernest Gagnon

(Frédéric) Ernest (Amédée) Gagnon. Organist, folklorist, teacher, historian, writer, administrator, b Rivière-du-Loup-en-haut (now Louiseville), near Trois-Rivières, Que, 7 Nov 1834, d Quebec City 15 Sep 1915; D LITT (Laval).

Gagnon, Ernest

(Frédéric) Ernest (Amédée) Gagnon. Organist, folklorist, teacher, historian, writer, administrator, b Rivière-du-Loup-en-haut (now Louiseville), near Trois-Rivières, Que, 7 Nov 1834, d Quebec City 15 Sep 1915; D LITT (Laval). Fascinated by the arrival of a piano in the family home, Gagnon was given lessons by his older sister Bernardine. During his classical education 1846-50 at Joliette College, he studied piano with a certain Beaudoin, and is reported by Arthur Letondal to have won first prize in a music competition held at the college. In 1850 Gagnon moved to Montreal where he took music lessons with John Seebold. He supported himself by working for different merchants, one of whom was the clockmaker and music dealer Louis Bilodeau. He also made the acquaintance of a number of leading Montreal musicians of the day, such as the French immigrant Charles Wugk Sabatier. It is possible that Gagnon received lessons from Sabatier who later remembered him as a talented young musician. In 1853 Gagnon moved to Quebec City where he became organist at St-Jean-Baptiste Church. When the École normale Laval was established in May 1857, Gagnon was among its founding members and its first music instructor. However, instead of teaching for the initial school year, Gagnon obtained a study leave and travelled to Paris in 1857, one of the first of many Canadian musicians to go to Europe for study purposes. The stimulus for the trip may have come partly from his contact with European immigrant musicians such as Sabatier and Antoine Dessane. He studied in Paris with Henri Herz and Alexandre Goria (piano), and with Auguste Durand (harmony and composition). He also met Auber, Marmontel, Niedermeyer, Francis Planté, Rossini, Thomas, and Verdi and was in Italy for a short time.

Returning to Quebec City, Gagnon taught 1858-77 at the École normale Laval, at the Petit Séminaire de Québec, and for the Ursulines. He wrote articles on historical topics - notably in the Courrier du Canada - and entered into heated newspaper debates with Dessane, first on the subject of Adam's Noël and then on plainchant accompaniment. He succeeded Dessane as organist 1864-76 at the Quebec Basilica, and in 1866 was one of the founders and first director of the Union musicale de Québec. He also was a founder of the AMQ in 1868 and served as its president four times (1868-71, 1874-6, 1887-8, 1889-90). In 1873, as correspondent for the Courrier du soir, he made a second trip to Europe with his colleague Pierre-Minier Lagacé. After 1875 he gradually gave up his activities as organist and teacher in favour of a career as a provincial civil servant. He was secretary in that year to Premier Sir Charles-Eugène Boucher de Boucherville and 1876-1905 to the minister of public works. During this period and in his retirement he contributed to La Revue canadienne (1887-1915) and published several historical works. The seventh chapter of his Louis Jolliet is an often-quoted description of musical life in 17th-century New France, and his La Nouvelle-France contains a chapter on Quebec music at the time of Bishop Laval. Gagnon's interest in native music is reflected in an address, entitled 'Les Sauvages de l'Amérique et l'art musical,' which, in 1906, was presented to the 15th Congrès international des américanistes in Quebec City and was later published. Other works appeared posthumously, notably Pages choisies and Nouvelles pages choisies. An essay on the noël in Quebec called 'La musique et les noëls populaires' appeared first in 1891 in La Revue canadienne and was reprinted in the Pages choisies.

Gagnon is best remembered for the Chansons populaires du Canada, a compilation of folksongs ('collected and published with annotations') which first appeared 1865-7 in six issues of Le Foyer canadien. The second revised edition appeared in 1880 and was reprinted 13 times to 1955, making it one of the most widely published music books in Canada. In its historical context, the collection is exceptional in that it contains complete textual and musical renditions with selected variants for over 100 songs. The individual song annotations and opening and closing essays reveal Gagnon's thorough knowledge of traditional song which he had gained through careful study of contemporaneous French sources. He took care over the texts and, although he fitted words to music in the manner customary at that time, he clearly understood verse forms; moreover he respected the modal inflections of the tunes in his transcriptions. (See Folk music, Franco-Canadian.)

Gagnon was an organist in the virtuoso tradition and a fluent improviser. In 1902 he became a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He was a corresponding member of the Société des compositeurs de musique de Paris and an officer of the Instruction publique de France. He was described by Arthur Letondal as a 'personality richly endowed with artistic talents, a man of rare discrimination and high ideals, guided by a deep love for the spirit and the characteristics of his country.'

Gagnon's sister Élisabeth (1838-1897) married Paul Letondal in 1860. His daughter Blanche (1867-1951) published Musique (6 vols), Musique religieuse (1903), and Musique sacrée (1915). Besides works composed by members of the Gagnon family, including her father, these books contain music from the Gagnon family collection that was written by European (mostly French) composers. Blanche also published several of her father's individual works such as 'Ave verum' for three-part choir and 'Cantique pour la communion' and 'Tantum ergo,' both arranged alternatively for two or three equal voices (all three works published 1915). Blanche wrote and published several monographs 1921-48 in Quebec City under the pseudonyms Bibliophile, Manrésien, or Amicus. Collections of her father's essays, Pages choisies and Nouvelles pages choisies, were published through her efforts. She wrote a column and various articles, 1919-20, for La Musique. Her article 'Notre chant national,' which appeared in Le Soleil, 29 Jun 1907, under the pseudonym Frimaire, gave her version of the genesis of the national anthem 'O Canada'; in it Ernest Gagnon has a much more active role than in the account of Nazaire LeVasseur (Montreal La Presse, 11 Dec 1920). She presented her version again and with additional details in her Réminiscences et actualités (Quebec City 1939).

Selected Compositions

Stadaconé 'danse sauvage pour piano'. Lovell 1858, CMH, vol 1

Un Soir à bord, quadrille. Pf. Lovell 1859

Souvenir de Venise 'grand nocturne pour piano'. Lovell 1860, CMH, vol 1

Le Carnaval de Québec 'quadrille sur des airs populaires et nationaux pour piano.' St Laurent & Co 1862, CMH, vol 1

À la claire fontaine 'transcription de salon.' Pf. Lavigueur & Hutchison 1894

Accompagnement d'orgue des chants liturgiques 'en usage dans la province ecclésiastique de Québec.' ? 1903, Boucher 1912, 1918

An accompaniment to 'Ô Canada, mon pays, mes amours.' WR 1912; P-T, 21 Jun 1913; CMH, vol 7


Chansons populaires du Canada (Quebec City 1865-7, 1880, 1894, 1900; Montreal 1901, 1908, 1913, 1918, 1925, 1930, 1935, 1940, 1947, 1952, 1955)

Lettres de voyage (Quebec City 1876)

Louis Jolliet (Quebec City 1902, Montreal 1913, 1926, 1946)

Choses d'autrefois, feuilles éparses (Quebec City 1905)

Chansons des soldats de Montcalm (Quebec City 1907)

Les Sauvages de l'Amérique et l'art musical (Quebec City 1907)

La Nouvelle-France (Quebec City 1908)

Drapeau de Carillon (Quebec City 1910)

Feuilles volantes et pages d'histoire (Quebec City 1910)

Famille Charles-Édouard Gagnon (Quebec City 1914)

Hommes et choses d'autrefois (Quebec City 1917)

Pages choisies (Quebec City 1917)

Nouvelles pages choisies (Quebec City 1925)

Choir or Voice

'Ave Maria,' no. 1 of Échos du sanctuaire. V, SATB. Lovell 1859, CMH, vol 2

'Le Chant de l'Iroquois.' V, piano. Journal de l'Instruction publique, May 1859

'Chant des voltigeurs canadiens' (L.-H. Fréchette). V, piano. Cazeau 1862, CMH, vol 7

'Je me voyais au milieu de ma course.' SATB, piano. Écho du cabinet de lecture paroissial, Oct 1862

'Ça bergers, assemblons-nous.' SATB, piano. Écho du cabinet de lecture paroissial, Dec 1862. RCA Victor 56-5231-A (Petits Chanteurs de Granby)

'Tantum ergo in D.' 3 female voices, organ. Foyer domestique, Mar 1879

Chants canadiens. SATB, piano. A. Lavigne 1887?, Boucher 1929, 1938

Les Soirées de Québec. 3 voices, piano. Langlais 1887, Boucher 1887, 1905. Bluebird B-1265 (Imperial Grenadiers)

Cantiques populaires du Canada francais. SATB, organ (piano). Brousseau 1897, CMH, vol 2

'Chanson des soldats de Montcalm.' V, piano. Revue canadienne, 1907

Petite Maîtrise des collèges. 3 or 4 voices; Book I 1907, Book II 1908; (selections) CMH, vol 2

Cantiques populaires pour la fête de Noël. SATB, organ. Boucher 1909, 1922, 1938

'Silence ciel! Silence terre!' V solo, choir, piano. Boucher 1951

'Sortez de vos hameaux.' V solo, SATB, piano. Boucher

A 'Ave Maria Stella' recorded by the Tudor Singers of Montreal (CBC Musica Viva MVCD-1039)

A harmonization of Henry Dumont's Messe des anges for 4 voices and organ, published by Boucher

Also L'Incantation de la jongleuse. Vn, piano. Lovell 1862

Further Reading