Folk-music-inspired Composition | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Folk-music-inspired Composition

The music of the Indigenous peoples and the folk songs of the settlers have prompted composers to produce a large literature of arrangements and new compositions.

To 1920

The music of the Indigenous peoples and the folksongs of the settlers have prompted composers to produce a large literature of arrangements and new compositions. This literature ranges from chordal harmonizations and figurational accompaniments of the tunes to extended works employing folk motives, authentic or newly invented, as thematic material. The most frequently employed medium, the setting for voice and piano, is followed in popularity by the three-part or four-part choral arrangement. Medleys, suites, rhapsodies, themes and variations, and overtures have been favoured forms for longer compositions. Examples of music from a variety of cultural traditions treated in different ways will be provided in the following columns.

The occasional attempts of European composers in the 18th century to imitate Indigenous music are hardly germane to the present discussion since they were based on fancy rather than on authentic models. (See references to Rameau and Grétry in the article on Canada in European and US music 1/Stage works.) Probably the earliest piece of music inspired by listening to Canadian folk music was Thomas Moore's 'Canadian Boat Song' (1804). Many editors and commentators have failed to realize that Moore's song is not a harmonization or a new version of a voyageur song but a new tune using the opening motive of such a song merely as a point of departure. The first published volume of Canadian Airs (London 1823), collected by Lieut George Back during his travels on the Coppermine River, NWT, shows little respect for the French-Canadian songs: the text is replaced by new English words, and the keyboard accompaniments, written by musicians who had never visited Canada, freely adapted the tunes into the mould of current harmonic fashion. (For further notes on this book see Ethnomusicology; Folk music, Franco-Canadian.)

The oldest extant settings of folksongs must be the two Chansons de voyageurs canadiens, 'Mon père a fait faire un Étang' and 'En roulant ma boule,' arranged for piano and voice by Frederick Glackemeyer ca 1817 and preserved in a private collection in Quebec City in manuscript (no. 2 printed in CMH, vol 7). In 1818 Stephen Codman offered to publish Introduction and Variations on a Canadian Melody on a subscription, but no copies are known to exist. Folk tunes began to appear in print ca 1840 in Canadian periodicals. Examples are 'C'est la belle Françoise' (January 1840) and 'Le Fils du roi' (March 1840) in the Literary Garland, and 'À la claire fontaine' (June 1846) in the Album littéraire et musical de la Revue canadienne, both of Montreal. They were arranged to suit the modestly skilled pianist, as were several medleys and sets of dances. Among the tunes most frequently included in these medleys were 'À la claire fontaine,' 'En roulant ma boule,' 'Vive la Canadienne', and 'V'là l'bon vent'. Typical are Antoine Dessane'sQuadrille canadien (1855) and Ernest Gagnon'sLe Carnaval de Québec, 'quadrille sur des airs populaires et nationaux' (1862).

Perhaps the first piece imitating Indigenous music was Gagnon's genre piece Stadaconé, a 'danse sauvage' for piano (1858, reproduced in CMH, vol 1). Gagnon's love of folk music bore fruit in his famous collection of over 100 songs, Chansons populaires du Canada (Quebec City 1865). The book provided only unaccompanied tunes, but Gagnon's choral arrangements of numerous folksongs appeared in the collections Les Soirées de Québec (1887) for three voices and piano, Cantiques populaires du Canada francais (1897) for SATB and organ, and Chants canadiens (no date) for SATB and piano ad lib. After 1865, whether inspired by Gagnon or drawing on personal familiarity with folksong, more and more musicians adapted such material. Oscar Martel, for instance, wrote Airs canadiens variés, Opus 2 for his violin recitals, Alexis Contant composed a set of Variations sur 'Un Canadien errant' for the piano, and Jules Hone contributed two violin-and-piano pieces, La Canadienne and Souvenir d'Arthabeska (sic). Achille Fortier in his 20 Chansons populaires du Canada (1893) provided piano parts that are moderately difficult and display harmonic resourcefulness. Probably the first of many Anglo-Canadians to utilize the French folk idiom was Susie Frances Harrison ('Seranus') in her Trois Esquisses canadiennes (1887) for piano and her opera Pipandor (late 1880s). The French organist Eugène Gigout wrote a Rhapsodie sur des airs canadiens for his instrument (Durand, before 1898).

Band and Orchestra Works

A list of turn-of-the-century band and orchestra works is given in approximate chronological order:

Lavallée. Pas redoublé sur des airs canadiens, band (probably 1870s; first page reproduced in La Presse, 9 Nov 1912)

Vézina. Mosaïque sur des airs populaires canadiens, band, 1880

Paul Gilson. Fantaisie sur des mélodies populaires canadiennes, (La Guignolée, V'la l'bon vent; Le Canadien errant), orchestra (Breitkopf, 1891)

Contant. Fantaisie sur des airs canadiens (1900)

Harriss. Canadian Fantasie, orchestra, performed 1904

Sir A. Mackenzie. Canadian Rhapsody, Opus 67, orchestra (Breitkopf ca 1905)

L.-P. Laurendeau. Laurentian Echoes, medley for band or orchestra. The Shores of the St. Lawrence, medley for band

The collecting of English-language folk music did not begin in earnest until the early 20th century. Since most of the songs were in the Maritimes and Newfoundland and most of the composers in central Canada, little fertilization took place. However, James Paton Clarke'sLays of the Maple Leaf, or Songs of Canada (1853) deserves recognition as an effort to write songs in the folk idiom to words dealing with the realities of Canadian life.


The 1920s, in some ways a bleak decade in Canadian musical life, were of extraordinary importance in relation to the topic under discussion. They brought about an intimate contact between collectors, composers, performers, and promoters, between folksong and composition. Canada now had a number of well-trained, gifted, and sophisticated young composers who responded enthusiastically to the discoveries of collectors such as Marius Barbeau, E.-Z. Massicotte, W. Roy Mackenzie, and others. Barbeau and Massicotte in 1919 published a new collection of tunes and organized the 'Soirées du bon vieux temps' in Montreal. The folksong recitals begun there by Charles Marchand the following year and continued by his male quartets, Le Carillon canadien (1922) and the Bytown Troubadours (1927), created a practical need for arrangements. Pierre Gautier and Oscar O'Brien became his principal arrangers, and O'Brien in turn implanted an interest in folk-music-based composition in his pupils Hector Gratton and Lionel Daunais. Furthermore, along with Geoffrey O'Hara, O'Brien wrote the accompaniments for John Murray Gibbon'sCanadian Folk Songs, Old and New (1927), a book of French-Canadian songs, with French and English words, that achieved wide circulation.

While Barbeau deserves first place among the collectors of this decade and Marchand among the performers, nobody surpassed Gibbon as a publicist and organizer. A literary scholar and archaeologist by background, Gibbon became publicity agent for the CPR in 1907. Twenty years later he began to organize a series of festivals (see CPR Festivals) that combined the promotion of CPR hotels and travel with displays of Canadian folk music, handicrafts, dancing, and other arts. At least 17 festivals are known to have taken place between 1927 and 1931, in cities from Victoria to Quebec and in the town of Banff. In 1928 the Quebec festival included the announcement, and sometimes the performance, of the winning works in the E.W. Beatty Competition for compositions based on French-Canadian folksongs. Prize-winning works included George Bowles' Suite for String Quartet, Champagne'sSuite canadienne, and an orchestral suite by Arthur Cleland Lloyd. Compositions and publications of the highly productive years 1927-9, many a result of Gibbon's initiative, include Ernest MacMillan's Two Sketches for Strings, based on French-Canadian airs, Six Bergerettes du bas Canada for voices and small chamber ensemble, and Three Indian Songs of the West Coast (the fruit of a visit to the Nass River people of British Columbia with Barbeau); Willan's ballad operas L'Ordre de Bon Temps/The Order of Good Cheer and Prince Charlie and Flora (to words by Gibbon, and using Scottish melodies) and two volumes of Chansons canadiennes for voice and piano (from the Barbeau collections); O'Brien's folk operas Scène des voyageurs and Une Noce canadienne-francaise en 1830 and his Sonata for cello and piano on the theme 'Dans les prisons de Nantes'; the first two of Gratton's four Danses canadiennes, for violin and piano; Champagne's Danse villageoise; Henri Miro'sVox populi for soli, choir, and orchestra; and settings by Alfred La Liberté, Léo-Pol Morin, Leo Smith, and Alfred Whitehead. An important collective effort was the 1928 volume Twenty-one Folk-Songs of French Canada/Vingt-et-un Chansons canadiennes (F. Harris), edited by Ernest MacMillan with arrangements by MacMillan, O'Brien, Achille Fortier, La Liberté, and Leo Smith. The list amounts to a who's who of the prominent Canadian composers of the time. Nor should one overlook a number of compositions written earlier in the decade: Benoît Poirier'sRhapsodie d'airs canadiens (1922) for piano, and arranged for band by Joseph Vézina, G.A. Grant-Schafer's French-Canadian folksong settings published in 1921 and 1925, La Liberté's Recueil de chants populaires du Canada (1925), and settings of songs from a variety of cultural traditions by W.H. Anderson, Gabriel Cusson, Léo Roy, and many others. One should add, as well, four works by foreign composers: Arthur Somervell's 12 Ancient French-Canadian Folk-Songs (Boosey 1927), Maud Wyatt Pargeter's String Quartet on Canadian Themes (Ditson 1929), H. Maurice Jacquet's Suite canadienne for violin (or cello) and piano (Birchard 1927), and Louis Victor Saar's A Cycle of Canadian Folk Songs (C. Fischer 1928).

The folksong movement - as much of a musical 'movement' as Canada ever had - was Canada's phase of musical nationalism, that phenomenon which had swept 19th-century Bohemia and Norway and early-20th-century Spain and Hungary. Some composers, O'Brien, Gratton, and Lapierre among them, thought that in folk idioms lay the true potential basis of a distinct Canadian music. If this prophecy has not been fulfilled (largely owing to the poly-racial mix of Canadian society, and also because a distinct national idiom presupposes a degree of cultural isolation almost impossible to maintain in any developed country in the later 20th century), it remains true, nevertheless, that many of the folk-influenced compositions of the 1920s have survived to become a permanent and valuable part of the Canadian concert repertoire, and folksong as the basis of composition has remained an important element in the work of many Canadian composers, even those whose outlook is primarily international.

A few works of the 1930s deserve mention. MacMillan's Three French Canadian Sea Songs for voice and string quartet, O'Brien's stage works À Saint Malo, Dix Danses limousines, and Pastorale, and Colin McPhee'sSea Shanty Suite (Kalmus 1930; based on British Columbia sailors' songs) all date from 1930. Gratton wrote two more Danses canadiennes. Léo-Pol Morin made an important contribution to piano literature with his Three Eskimos and also made numerous adaptations of French, First Nations, and Inuit songs, among them 'Trois Chants de sacrifice' (Inuit, for choir and two pianos) (see list in Catalogue of Canadian Composers 1952). Anderson, Alfred Bernier, François Brassard, Gabriel Cusson, J.-J. Gagnier, Gratton, La Liberté, Roy, J.-Antonio Thompson, Whitehead, and many others went on making arrangements (most of which remained unpublished in 1990). Among foreign composers' contributions Vaughan Williams' piano accompaniments to some of the songs in Maud Karpeles' collection Folk Songs from Newfoundland (1934) are worth special note.


The decades between 1940 and 1990 have yielded such a rich harvest of Canadian compositions that only a selection of works based on folk music may be offered here. Those on music stemming from the European traditions will be surveyed first; those on Indigenous music will be outlined next.

As before, settings for voice and piano and for accompanied or unaccompanied choir are the most frequent. Treatments of the tunes vary considerably, from the simple but often unconventional accompaniments by Richard Johnston in Folk Songs of Canada, Folk Songs of Quebec, and More Folk Songs of Canada and Helmut Blume's in Canada's Story in Song to settings employing artful compositional devices such as John Beckwith'sFour Love Songs and Five Songs, Keith Bissell'sSix Folk Songs from Eastern Canada and Ten Folk Songs of Canada, Derek Healey'sSix Canadian Folk Songs, and Harry Somers'Five Songs of the Newfoundland Outports. In the Somers work, for example, after a first statement of the melody with relatively traditional harmonies, the composer varies rhythm, melody, and harmony separately or together to create an original work which at times appears to owe little to the folklore which inspired it. Other composers who have made vocal and choral settings include W.H. Anderson, Louis Applebaum, Violet Archer, Michael Baker, Leslie Bell, Maurice Blackburn, Howard Cable, Champagne, Stephen Chatman, Donald Cook, George Coutts, Lionel Daunais, Raymond Daveluy, Richard Eaton, Dennis Farrell, Robert Fleming, Harry Freedman, Hector Gratton, Jacques Hétu, Leonard Isaacs, Kelsey Jones, Talivaldis Kenins, Alfred Kunz, William McCauley, Michel Perrault, Imant Raminsh, Godfrey Ridout, Jean-François Sénart, Nancy Telfer, Robert Turner, and León Zuckert. Trevor Morgan Jones has written several folk operas, and John Fenwick has used folktunes in his musical play Johnny Belinda. Significant settings by non-Canadians include Émile Vuillermoz' Chansons populaires francaises et canadiennes (Salabert 1946), Paul Creston's French Canadian Folk Songs (Colombo 1968) for voice and piano, and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs' Five Canadian Folk-Songs (OUP 1960) for unison voices and piano.

Many an instrumental work of the mid-20th century extends a folk melody by applying to it a variety of the techniques available to a composer trained in the western tradition. For instance, in Gratton's Dansons le carcaillou and Variations libres sur 'Isabeau s'y promène' orchestration and harmonization transform the song to such an extent that there can be no doubt the creation is the composer's. Other works, eg, Champagne's Symphonie gaspésienne, use folk-like themes which are purely the invention of the composer.

The rhythms and tunes of fiddle music have captivated a number of Canadian composers and have appeared either as actual materials or as strong influences in many theatrical and concert works. The 'Fête villageoise' from Miro's Vox populi and Champagne's much played Danse villageoise, both of 1928, are two early 20th-century instances. Later came Beckwith's Quartet (based on actual fiddle tunes), Blackburn's Fantaisie en mocassins, Donald Coakley's Directions North (the first section, 'Rattle on the Stovepipe,' is in the style of a square dance tune), François Dompierre'sConcerto for piano and orchestra and Les Diableries for violin and orchestra, the Friends and Neighbours Dance in Fleming's ballet Shadow on the Prairie, the central scene of Freedman's ballet Rose Latulippe; André Gagnon'sPetit Concerto pour Carignan; Pierick Houdy'sMesse québécoise; and Ridout's Fall Fair.

Several immigrant composers, among them S.C. Eckhardt-Gramatté, George Fiala, Talivaldis Kenins, and Tibor Polgar, have used folksongs of their homelands in works written before or after their arrival in Canada. Works based by foreign composers on Canadian folksongs include Benjamin Britten's Canadian Carnival (1939) for orchestra, the Brazilian composer Francesco Mignone's Tres Preludios sobra temas canadenses for piano, the US composer George Frederick McKay's Rocky Harbour and Sandy Cove for string orchestra (Birchard 1950), the US composer Alan Shulman's A Laurentian Overture (Chappell 1952), and Vaughan Williams' music for the film The 49th Parallel (1941).

In addition, composers of film and incidental music have drawn extensively on folk material whenever appropriate.

Compositions Inspired by Indigenous Music

First Nations and Inuit music also have attracted composers' interest after World War II, although the number of published collections of tunes on which to draw remains small. The most frequent use or free invention of such material has been in extended works.

Examples of music inspired by First Nations music include:

Murray Adaskin Nootka Ritual for orchestra

Jean Coulthard Love Song of the Haida Indians (orchestrated by W.M. Miles) for soprano and orchestra

Malcolm ForsythThree Métis Songs from Saskatchewan for voice and orchestra or piano; Atayoskewin for orchestra; Canzona for voice and orchestra

J.-J. Gagnier Journey for english horn and strings

Graham GeorgeSongs of the Salish for orchestra

Theo GoldbergSongs of the Loon and the Raven for orchestra and tape

Derek Healey Three Quiet Pieces for organ (one based on an Ojibway song)

Talivaldis Kenins Sawan-Oong for narrators, choir, orchestra

Colin McPhee Four Iroquois Dances for orchestra

Séverin MoisseVariations sur un thème huron for piano

Léo Roy Chant de joie for piano

John Weinzweig The Great Flood for choir and percussion; 'Tribal Dance' and 'Ceremonial Dance' from Red Ear of Corn (ballet) for orchestra

An Indigenous opera, Tzinquaw, a musical dramatization of the Salish legend of Tzinquaw the thunderbird and Quannis the killer whale, was performed in 1951 by the Cowichan Indian Players in New Westminster, BC. A large cast of dancers and singers performed to a piano transcription by Frank Morrison. Derek Healey's opera Seabird Island is based on a legend of the Tsimshian. Arthur Honegger's Le chant de Nigamon for orchestra (1917) is based on Huron and/or Iroquois themes found in Tiersot's Ethnographie musicale (1905) which may have been collected in Canada.

Inuit music has been used or imitated in a number of compositions:

Murray Adaskin Qalala and Nilaula of the North for orchestra

Violet Archer Three Sketches for Orchestra

John Beckwith Arctic Dances for oboe and piano (based on themes collected by Beverley Diamond)

Udo KasemetsRecitative and Rondino for string orchestra

Talivaldis Kenins Fantasy Variations on an Eskimo Lullaby for flute and viola

Paul McIntyreFantasy on an Eskimo Song for woodwind quintet

John Weinzweig Edge of the World for orchestra; To the Lands over Yonder for choir

Mention should be made also of Morris Eisenstadt's Suite of Three Canadian Dances (1952), which includes one movement of Indigenous- and one of Inuit-based music, and of Archer's Evocations for two pianos and orchestra, which is based on two Inuit tunes and one Tsimshian tune.

In addition to its first role of preserving for history what the populace sang, the notated folksong has found another function, as a focus for the evolution of a music which, to the degree that the folksong's essence and singularity are maintained, could be described as peculiarly Canadian. The majority of composers, however, even those charmed by folk material, have been inclined to use it more for its incidental and intrinsic appeal than for any self-conscious desire either to champion or to capitalize on its 'Canadian-ness'.

Folk-music-inspired Works

Folk-music-inspired works of the period 1940-90 include:

Murray AdaskinAlgonquin Symphony for orchestra; Saskatchewan Legend for orchestra

Violet Archer Habitant Sketches for piano; Ten Folk Songs for piano four hands

Lorne BettsFantasia Canadiana for orchestra

Keith Bissell A Folk Song Suite for woodwinds; Variations on a Folk Song for piano

Alexander BrottFrom Sea to Sea for orchestra

Howard Cable Newfoundland Rhapsody for band; Quebec Folk Fantasy for band, Chappell

Morley CalvertSuite from the Monteregian Hills for brass quintet

Claude Champagne Paysanna for orchestra; Symphonie gaspésienne for orchestra

Stephen Chatman, Variations on a Canadian Folk Song for 2 pianos and orchestra

Neil ChotemSongs of the Maritime Provinces for voice and orchestra

Jean CoulthardCanadian Fantasy for orchestra, Berandol

Maurice DeCellesSix works on French Canadian tunes for band

Maurice DelaTriptyque for orchestra

Anne EgglestonOn Citadel Hill for string orchestra

Walter Eiger Overture on Canadian Folk Tunes for orchestra

Robert FarnonÀ la claire fontaine for orchestra; Canadian Impressions for orchestra

Robert Fleming Four Fantasias on Canadian Folk Themes for orchestra or band; Maritime Suite for chamber ensemble; Shadow on the Prairie (ballet) for orchestra

Stewart GrantOf Maids and Men for voice and orchestra

Hector Gratton Fantaisie sur 'V'la l'bon vent' for orchestra

Frank HaworthSongs of Canada for recorders, Whaley Royce

Eugene HillSerenade québécoise for string orchestra

Kelsey Jones Miramichi Ballad for orchestra

Rudolf KomorousSinfony No. 2 'Canadian' for orchestra

William McCauley Canadian Folk Song Fantasy for band; Kaleidoscope québécois for chamber ensemble; Newfoundland Scene for orchestra; Quebec Lumber Camp for orchestra, 1953

Ben McPeekFive Pictorial Sketches for mandolin and orchestra; Piano Concerto

Roger MattonL'Escaouette for solo voices, choir, and orchestra; Concerto for two pianos and percussion

Léo-Pol Morin Suite canadienne for piano (reprinted in CMH, vol 6)

Kenneth PeacockEssay on Newfoundland Themes for small orchestra

Michel Perrault Sea Gallows (ballet) for orchestra

Eldon RathburnSteelhenge for steel band and orchestra

Harry Somers Little Suite for String Orchestra on Canadian Folk Songs

John Weinzweig 'Barn Dance' from Red Ear of Corn (ballet) for orchestra

Further Reading

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