James P. Clarke | The Canadian Encyclopedia


James P. Clarke

James Paton Clarke, composer, conductor, organist, choirmaster, teacher (born 1807 or 1808, likely in Edinburgh, Scotland; died 27 August 1877 in Toronto, ON).

James Paton Clarke, composer, conductor, organist, choirmaster, teacher (born 1807 or 1808, likely in Edinburgh, Scotland; died 27 August 1877 in Toronto, ON). An outstanding professional figure in Toronto's early musical development, James P. Clarke was the first conductor of the Toronto Philharmonic Society. A church organist who taught singing, piano and guitar, Clarke also composed piano pieces and songs — most notably Lays of the Maple Leaf, or, Songs of Canada (1853) — and wrote and edited church music. Toronto's King's College granted him Canada’s first bachelor of music degree in 1846. Six of his compositions were re-published in the Canadian Musical Heritage series and some have since been recorded.

Early Years

The son of a musician, Clarke was first employed as a music dealer's assistant in Edinburgh. By 1829, he had become the leader of psalmody at St. George's Church in Glasgow, and two years later he signed the second edition of his Parochial Psalmody as “Leader of the Music [at that church] and Professor of the Piano Forte and Singing.” In 1834, he became the organist at another Glasgow church, but in the following year he immigrated to Canada, settling in Elora, some 85 km west of Toronto, presumably as a farmer.

Early Career in Canada

By 1842, he had established contact with St. James' Anglican Cathedral in Toronto (the records mention his being paid for organ and piano tuning), and in 1844 he became the organist at Christ Anglican Church in Hamilton. In 1845, he attended the founding meeting of the Toronto Choral Society and conducted one of the two concerts organized by John McCaul to celebrate the King's College Triennial Commemoration. He then that year moved to Toronto and became conductor of the newly formed Toronto Philharmonic Society, as well as a teacher of piano, guitar and singing.

In Clarke, McCaul apparently found the right person to help realize his ambitions for the performance of music by the great masters from Handel to Mendelssohn. Clarke and McCaul collaborated until 1855 as president and conductor of a succession of musical societies, and again in 1872 in the revival of the Philharmonic Society. On 28 February 1873, Clarke conducted Handel's Messiah — his first and last full-scale performance of an oratorio in Toronto.

During his first eight years in Toronto Clarke rose to musical prominence. In 1846 and 1847, under the influence of McCaul, he programmed some of the first Toronto performances of Beethoven and Mozart symphonies. He submitted an eight-part anthem, “Arise, O Lord God, Forget Not the Poor,” to King's College (Toronto) in 1846 and received for it the first bachelor of music degree issued by a Canadian university. He was not on the staff of the college, but may have been employed there as an adjunct teacher.

Musical Career in Toronto

Clarke was the organist at St. James' Cathedral for the year prior to its destruction by fire in 1849. At about the same time, he taught at the Toronto Normal School and the Toronto Academy, a boys’ school. His compositions were published by Nordheimer and in the Anglo-American Magazine, and won three prizes offered by King's College in 1848.

However, fortune reversed itself around 1853. A Mr. R.G. Paige, who had appeared with his daughters in one of Clarke's concerts, won such popular favour that the Toronto Vocal Music Society appointed him conductor in Clarke's place in 1853, an action that split the membership and destroyed the society. In the same year, Clarke's application for a teaching position at Trinity College was turned down in favour of G.W. Strathy's, while a year later the Daily Leader of Toronto (31 May 1854) attacked Clarke's songs as being “below mediocrity” and “sadly deficient in both design and originality,” and argued, rather unfairly, that “the meretricious drapery of the accompaniment” served to hide poor melody.

Despite the apparent reverses in fortune that affected his career, Clarke seems to have been held in high respect. In his first Toronto advertisement (in the British Colonist, 11 November 1845) he called himself a piano teacher with 20 years' experience and a pupil of Domenico Crivelli, a voice teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Clarke was an exponent of Johann Bernard Logier's system of piano teaching which, despite its pitfalls, represented progress in its emphasis on class instruction. Thus it probably was not incompetence but only illness, intrigue or bad luck that caused Clarke, between his Philharmonic Society concert in May 1855 and the early 1870s, to play a very minor role in the musical life of Toronto. If he was absent from the city for a while, he certainly had returned by 1861, yet no record exists of any conducting, church or teaching appointment after 1855.

In 1861 Clarke edited, with John Carter and G.W. Strathy, A Selection of Chants and Tunes for the Church of England's Toronto diocese (Toronto, 1861). That same year, he directed a gala concert to celebrate the opening of Toronto's first streetcar line and a performance of selections from Il Trovatore, both in the newly opened Yorkville Town Hall. The directories for the 1860s list him as a music teacher. It was only with the revival of the Philharmonic Society in 1872 that Clarke rose again to prominence, but failing health soon curtailed his activity.


Before emigrating from Scotland, Clarke had published songs in such publications as Border Garland (ca. 1829), The Western Garland (ca. 1832), The Harmonicon (1832, 1833), and Chameleon (1833). The most interesting of these, “Away to Loch Long” (in Chameleon), is a through-composed song with an interesting accompaniment, displaying rhythmic and harmonic variety. This song suggests that the simplicity of Clarke's other vocal pieces was deliberate, not involuntary.

Echoing tendencies of his time, Clarke strove, both in Scotland and in Canada, to write “for the people” and to build a national literature. His Canadian titles provide a mirror of the country: “The Wild Stream Leaps” (performed in 1851); “The Maple Leaf” (Nordheimer, ca. 1852); “The Trapper's Song” (Anglo-American Magazine, September, 1852); “A Forest Home” (ibid. October 1852); “A Canadian Christmas Carol” (ibid. January, 1853); and, above all, his Lays of the Maple Leaf, or, Songs of Canada (Nordheimer, 1853), a cycle of seven songs for solo voice, duet and chorus, which won immediate acclaim and deserves a modern revival.

Only three instrumental pieces have been traced: The Janus Minuet (Musical Times, New York, 25 April 1852), a contrived piece that sounds alike when played forward or backward; the Burlington Polka (1851); and the sprightly Favorite Toronto Air, “arranged as a Rondo for the piano forte,” and dedicated to Mrs. John McCaul (Nordheimer, before 1853). These three pieces, along with seven of Clarke's songs and choral compositions, have been reprinted in Canadian Musical Heritage vols. 1, 2, 3 and 5. Favorite Toronto Air has been recorded by Elaine Keillor. Clifford Ford’s piano piece A Little Fantasy on J.P. Clarke's Ballad “Summer and Winter” (1986) is printed in Musical Canada.

A younger contemporary of Clarke reported that “during the latter portion of his career he composed a number of chamber trios and quartets of an original and pleasing character, and constructed on the best classical models” (“Music in Toronto,” The Mail, 21 December 1878). That instrumental rather than vocal works are meant is suggested by the same writer's report that in his later years Clarke played second violin or viola in chamber ensembles.

Degree Controversy

Whether Clarke received a musical doctorate (the first to be granted by a Canadian university) is likely to remain a mystery (see Music Degrees). The University of Toronto’s program for commencement on 1 July 1856 listed Clarke among those who were to receive degrees. However, on the copy in the University Archives, Clarke's name is crossed out and a delete symbol is marked in the margin, suggesting a last-minute withdrawal. Other university records and a number of respectable dictionaries credit him with the doctorate, yet even after 1856 Clarke identified himself only as a B.Mus. After his death it was asserted, incorrectly, that he held a doctorate from Oxford.


Clarke is not only the earliest musician in Canada who found his way into the standard music dictionaries (which, unfortunately, perpetuate as many errors as truths), but also the first musician in English-speaking Canada to have written and published a sizable number of compositions. In addition to the Parochial Psalmody and A Selection of Chants and Tunes, which he co-edited, his compilations include The Choir (Glasgow? 1835, a selection of choruses, anthems, etc. co-edited with A. Thomson) and Canadian Church Psalmody (Toronto 1845, with two Te Deums and seven other pieces by Clarke).

See also: Hugh Clarke (his son); Inventions and Devices.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading