Montreal Orchestra | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Montreal Orchestra

The Montreal Orchestra. Seventy-member symphony orchestra founded in 1930 as a co-operative venture by Montreal theatre musicians who banded together under the initiative of clarinetist Giulio Romano to give concerts when the new sound films put them out of work.

Montreal Orchestra

The Montreal Orchestra. Seventy-member symphony orchestra founded in 1930 as a co-operative venture by Montreal theatre musicians who banded together under the initiative of clarinetist Giulio Romano to give concerts when the new sound films put them out of work. Each musician reportedly received $4 after the first concert, 12 Oct 1930 at the Orpheum Theatre. Payment rose to about $15 in the last years before disbandment in 1941. Though it was the musicians' intention to engage guest conductors, they invited the first, Douglas Clarke, to take over on a permanent basis. This he did, serving without remuneration during the orchestra's 11 years. Shortly after the beginning of its first season of 25 concerts, the orchestra moved to His (Her) Majesty's Theatre, where it continued to play on Sunday afternoons, the number of concerts reduced to 20 annually 1931-3, 18 annually 1933-6, and 10 annually 1936-41. The orchestra gave 10 concerts in 1932 on the CPR radio network and alternated 1938-9 with the CSM on the CBC. It also gave children's concerts 1935-9 in the ballroom of the (Sheraton) Mount Royal Hotel. The notion of a musicians' co-operative soon was abandoned as production costs exceeded box-office receipts. A volunteer committee was formed to attend to the orchestra's business, and several benefactors were enlisted to cover the year-end deficit. Only in its last three years did the orchestra receive an annual subsidy of $1000 from the province.

There had been regular concerts in Montreal prior to those by the Montreal Orchestra, largely through the pioneering efforts of such people as Guillaume Couture and J.-J. Goulet in the 1890s and J.-J. Gagnier in the first three decades of the 20th century. But these men were working with ad hoc ensembles of 30 to 50 musicians, many of them amateurs, and their programs often were a mixture of symphonic extracts and solo pieces. By contrast the Montreal Orchestra employed some 70 professionals and introduced its audiences to full symphonic programs, often of works now regarded as standard repertoire but previously unperformed in Montreal - eg, Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique and Brahms' Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 4, and Piano Concerto No. 2.

Among those Canadian soloists who appeared with the orchestra were the pianists Ellen Ballon, Gertrude Huntly Green, Paul de Marky, Séverin Moisse, and Ross Pratt; the duo-pianists Etta Coles and Naomi Yanova Adaskin; the violinists Maurice Onderet (concertmaster of the Montreal Orchestra 1930-41 and soloist in the Brahms concerto), Kathleen Parlow, and Ethel Stark; the baritones Lionel Daunais and Leslie Holmes; the soprano Jeanne Dusseau; and the mezzo-soprano Cédia Brault. Canadians who conducted the orchestra included Claude Champagne in the Canadian premiere (1933) of his Suite canadienne, Reginald de Havilland Tupper in a 1934 performance of his Suite of Old English Pieces, Henri Miro, who conducted his Symphonic Praeludium in 1935, Alexander Brott in a 1939 performance of his Oracle, and Bernard Naylor, who conducted two concerts in 1941. Clarke conducted the Montreal premiere of Willan's Symphony No. 1 in 1937 and the premiere of Violet Archer'sScherzo Sinfonico in 1940. Foreign artists who appeared with the orchestra included Webster Aitken, Harold Bauer, Harriet Cohen, Georges Enesco, Emanuel Feuermann, Ria Ginster, Percy Grainger (who conducted his Green Bushes and Colonial Song in 1938), Gustav Holst (who conducted 'Jupiter' from his The Planets in 1932), Nathan Milstein, William Primrose, Felix Salmond, E. Robert Schmitz, Albert Spalding, Paul Wittgenstein, and Efrem Zimbalist.

The demise of the Montreal Orchestra was the result of a dispute between the English- and French-speaking members of the board. Some of the francophones, led by Mme (Louis) Athanase David, sought a greater role in the choosing of programs and soloists, which they regarded as excessively English - a charge not substantiated by an examination of the records. More likely the reason for the discord was Clarke's personality; he did not succeed in identifying with Canada, regarding himself instead as an Englishman residing abroad. He refused to abdicate any fraction of his authority in regard to program or the choice of soloists. The matter came to a head in 1934 when Mme David quit the committee and formed another orchestra, the CSM (MSO). Most of the musicians in the new orchestra had played under Clarke's baton for nearly five years and indeed continued to play in both. Thus in a very real sense the Montreal Orchestra was the father of the CSM and grandfather of the MSO. However, Montreal, which had difficulty supporting one orchestra, now found itself under the embarrassing obligation of supporting two. The contest could not continue for long: one or the other organization would have to withdraw, and Mme David had the singular advantage of political influence at a time when it really counted in Quebec. That the Montreal Orchestra continued for another six years is a measure of its pertinacity and standing. The onset of World War II and Clarke's serious illness led to the orchestra's collapse after the 1940-1 season.

Further Reading

Challenge yourself - take the CC Quiz!

The Canadian Encyclopedia is a project of Historica Canada, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization devoted to teaching Canadians more about our shared country.  We also produce the Heritage Minutes and other programs. If you believe all Canadians should have access to free, impartial, fact-checked, regularly updated information about Canada’s history and culture in both official languages, please consider donating today. All donations above $3 will receive a tax receipt.

Book a Speaker