Guillaume Couture | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Guillaume Couture

Guillaume (William) Couture. Teacher, conductor, choirmaster, composer, organist, baritone, critic, b Montreal 23 Oct 1851, d there 15 Jan 1915. He studied solfège in primary school and at 13 became choirmaster at the church of Ste-Brigide in his native parish.

Couture, Guillaume

Guillaume (William) Couture. Teacher, conductor, choirmaster, composer, organist, baritone, critic, b Montreal 23 Oct 1851, d there 15 Jan 1915. He studied solfège in primary school and at 13 became choirmaster at the church of Ste-Brigide in his native parish. He also served 1868?-73 as choirmaster at St-Jacques Church, while teaching solfège at the École normale Jacques-Cartier. In the spring of 1873, with the support of Léon A. Sentenne, Sulpician and curé of St-Jacques, he went to Paris and on June 20 successfully completed the entrance examinations for the Conservatoire, in the foreign students' section. He studied voice with Romain Bussine and harmony with Théodore Dubois. In one year he covered a program normally spread over three, and by the end of the second year he had mastered counterpoint, fugue, and orchestration and had begun composition. In a letter to Sentenne (27 Jun 1874), Dubois wrote: 'I am happy to express my complete satisfaction with him. In the year in which he has studied with me, he has displayed assiduousness, eagerness and an intelligence worthy of the highest praise'. In March 1875 Couture's Memorare was sung at the Salle Pleyel, and the following 15 May the premiere of his Rêverie for orchestra was given by the Société nationale de musique under Édouard Colonne, at a concert which also offered works by the leading composers of the day, Duparc, Fauré, Franck, and Lalo.

Couture returned to Montreal at the end of the summer of 1875, resumed teaching as well as his post at St-Jacques, and became a critic for La Minerve. Penetrating in his perception of true musical values and lucid and articulate in praise of them, he made very high demands on himself in all that he undertook and vigorously berated ignorance, mediocrity, and charlatanism wherever he found them, to the point of arousing violent animosities towards him. In July 1876 the attitude of his compatriots caused him to return to Paris, where his erstwhile teachers and musician friends gave him a sympathetic welcome.

Establishing himself in the French capital, he taught, composed, and had some works published by Girod. When Dubois succeeded Saint-Saëns in 1877 as organist of the Madeleine, Couture replaced Dubois as choirmaster at Ste-Clotilde Church, where César Franck presided over the great organ and Charles Bordes over the choir organ. Though esteemed by his Paris colleagues - Bussine, Delibes, Dubois, Fauré, Franck, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, and Vincent d'Indy - and secure in a position which inevitably would lead to increasing success and prestige through his industry, professional conscience, integrity, and worth as an artist, Couture nevertheless decided to return to Canada. His decision probably was influenced by feelings of indebtedness towards his patron, M. Sentenne, but even more by a sense of having something to contribute to the musical life of his own country. In December 1877 'it was with a clear purpose that he turned homeward,' according to his grandson, the composer Jean Papineau-Couture, 'knowing full well he would meet with incomprehension, jealousy, artistic ignorance... and the bondage of a heavy workload'. With characteristic pertinacity he set about the task of training and reconstruction he believed to be necessary in Montreal, applying all his skills as teacher, orchestra conductor, and choir director. His demands brought frequent clashes with his employers; he went from one choir to another, from Trinity Church to Christ Church Cathedral, to the Gésu Church, to Notre-Dame Church, and finally, in 1893, to St-Jacques Cathedral, where he remained until his death.

Couture taught at several establishments - Villa-Maria Convent, the Hochelaga Convent, the High School for Girls, the Protestant High School, and the McGill Cons - and in 1896 he even took on duties at the New England Cons in Boston. Among his Canadian pupils were Guillaume Dupuis, Lynnwood Farnam, L.J. Oscar Fontaine, Achille Fortier, Henri Gagnon, George Alfred Grant-Schaefer, Arthur Laurendeau, Édouard LeBel, Léo-Pol Morin, Ada Moylan, Rodolphe Plamondon, and Caroline Racicot. Alexis Contant also took some lessons with him.

Couture was extremely active as a conductor - at the helm of the Société des Symphonistes which he organized in 1878, and after 1880 as conductor of the Montreal Philharmonic Society, a position he retained for 19 years. He also conducted the orchestra for some concerts by Emma Albani. He acquainted the public with the oratorios and a few operas of the great classical and romantic composers, notably the operas of Wagner which he had thoroughly studied during a journey to Bayreuth (summer 1897), and of which he was an ardent champion. After 1890 he founded in succession the Montreal Amateur Operatic Club (first concert in 1892), the Montreal Ladies Vocal Society, and, in 1894, the first MSO, which he conducted for two seasons. To ensure the quality of some events he went to the length of importing players from Boston, or even, on occasion, the whole Boston Festival Orchestra. As a critic he wrote for the Revue de Montréal in 1877, for La Patrie ca 1879-84, and for the Montreal Daily Star 1889-90 under the pseudonym 'Symphony'. His many activities did not always run smoothly. While the US critics appreciated his worth and paid tribute to the Canadian conductor, in his own city regular campaigns of denigration and slander were unleashed against him, particularly in L'Étendard and the Montreal Daily Witness. Resolutely Couture rode out the storms and made his mark by dint of his talent, personality, and artistic merit.

His intense activity left him little time for composing. At the request of his wife, Mercédès Papineau, he wrote a Requiem Mass, performed in 1906 at the funeral services for the federal minister and former mayor of Montreal Raymond Préfontaine (and later at his own funeral). At the request of a group of friends and through the intervention of the Archbishop of Montreal, Mgr Paul Bruchési, who granted him the necessary free time, he spent the years 1907-9 on his major work, the three-part oratorio Jean le Précurseur, based on the life of John the Baptist. Its premiere was planned for November 1914 but was postponed because of the onset of World War I. Couture never had the pleasure of hearing a public performance of the work into which he had poured all his heart and talent. It was premiered in February 1923.

According to Léo-Pol Morin, Couture was 'the first great musician in the history of Canadian music... the most learned, the most intelligent, the most cultured of his time. He was moreover the first great [music] educator in our country'. If some aspects of his work may seem disappointing, he nonetheless was responsible for manoeuvring Canadian music vigorously towards those standards of quality which characterize it today. Couture deserves unbounded admiration above all for his pioneer achievements and his contribution as an educator. It is in those areas, perhaps, that his claim to fame is strongest.

France honoured Couture by naming him Officier d'Académie in 1900 and Officier de l'Instruction publique et des Beaux-Arts. Montreal named a square in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district after Couture in November of 1951, the 100th anniversary of his birth, and an avenue in the northeast part of the city in December 1962; in 1985 the Saint Fabien Park was renamed Guillaume Couture Park, adjoining the primary school of the same name. The Canadian Music Centre has granted him associate status posthumously. Several of his manuscripts and other signed documents have been deposited at the University of Montreal. The Répertoire numérique du fonds Guillaume-Couture (P14) by Francine Pilote and Jacques Ducharme, with a preface by Papineau-Couture, was published by the Service des archives of the University of Montreal in 1979 (an unpublished revision of the Répertoire was prepared by Pierre Quenneville 981-2).


'Ave Maria' Opus 7. 1875. Ten, violin, violoncello, organ. Ms?

'Hymne national canadien-français' Opus 4 (N. Bourassa). 1875. Chor, orch (piano). Ms

Memorare 'Prière à la très sainte Vierge' Opus 1. 1875. Soli, chorus, orch (organ). Girod 1875

Salut de la Fête-Dieu 'Trois morceaux en plain-chant traités en contrepoint fleuri' Opus 6. 1875. Chor, organ. Girod 1875

Salut pour les double majeur et mineur Opus 5, arr of 3 chorales. 1875. Chor, organ. Girod 1875, CMH vol 5 (arr of 2 chorales)

Atala, cantata. 1876 or 1877. Sop, tenor, bar, piano. Ms

'Ave verum'. 1877. Sop, bass (bar), organ. Ms

'Sub tuum'. 1877. Sop, chorus, organ. CMH vol 9

'O mon pays, terre adorée' (L. Fréchette). 1883? V, piano. Album musical, Apr 1883

2 'Berceuse'. 1884. V. 1890. V, piano. Both mMs

'Épanchement' (Turquety). 1884. V, piano. CMH vol 7

'Rêverie' (Lamartine). 1894? V, piano. Piano-Canada 20 Feb 1894. CMH vol 7

'Veni Creator Spiritus'. 1894? Ten, orch, organ. Ms?

Messe de requiem. ca 1904. Soli,chor, orch (organ). Ms

'Le Souvenir' (L. Nastorg). 1907. V, piano. CMH vol 7

Also 3 'Tantum ergo' for chorus and organ (no. 2, CMH vol 9); 'Three Horsemen Rode Out' for voice and piano; 'Le Drapeau rouge et noir' ('Chanson des étudiants,' Hardy ca 1890); harmonizations of plainchant; various arrangements

See also Jean le Précurseur.


Guillaume Couture, 'Une oeuvre canadienne,' Canada artistique, vol 1, Aug 1890

'Emery Lavigne,' ibid, vol 1, Oct 1890

'Le nouvel orgue de l'Église de Notre-Dame de Montréal,' Montreal Le Monde, 4 Jul 1891

Guillaume Couture letters, published in R de l'U Laval, vol 16, (May 1962)

Many articles in La Minerve, Revue de Montréal, La Patrie, Montreal Daily Star


Marche triomphale. 1875. Orch. Ms?

La Perle cachée, incidental music. (1875? Ms?)

Quatuor-Fugue, Opus 3. 1875. Str quartet. Girod 1875

Rêverie, Opus 2. 1875? Orch. Girod 1875, CMH vol 8. RCI 233/Cap ST-6261/4-RCI 513 (CBC Winnipeg Orchestra)

Fugue en ré mineur 'Grande fugue'. 1876 or 1877. Org. Ms?

Petit Menuet 1884. Pf.(violin, piano). Ms

Souvenirs de couvent 'Feuille d'album'. 1906. Pf. Ms

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