Religious Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Religious Music

Religious music may be said to have begun in Canada with the arrival of the first settlers, though the indigenous peoples used music in a religious context prior to the 16th century.

Religious Music

Religious music may be said to have begun in Canada with the arrival of the first settlers, though the indigenous peoples used music in a religious context prior to the 16th century. The first Christian service of which we have a record was a mass sung at Brest (Bonne Espérance Harbour) in Labrador on 14 June 1534. Missionaries in the early 17th century soon found that the Indians' love of music could be a powerful factor in their conversion to CHRISTIANITY. They were easily taught the simpler forms of church music. In 1610 the converts sang the Te Deum at the baptism of the Micmac chief Membertou and his tribe at PORT-ROYAL. The so-called "Huron Carol" is a relic of these times - a French Christmas tune wedded to Huron words. There is some doubt about both dates and authenticity, but the first religious composition to have been written in Canada may well have been the Prose for the "Office de la Sainte Famille," attributed to Charles-Amador Martin, which dates from about 1700. The JESUIT RELATIONS contain many references to church music, both choral and instrumental. It is known that there was an organ in the Jesuit Chapel in Québec City by 1661.

There is a disappointing lack of references for the first half of the 18th century, although there are collections of polyphonic music in libraries in both Montréal and Québec City dating from this period. By 1775 the picture becomes clearer. English-speaking settlers had brought the Church of England and Protestant observances with them, choirs had been established (eg, St Paul's Church, Halifax, in the 1760s), and churches in a few towns had organs (eg, Montréal, Québec City, at both the Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, and Halifax). There are references to a continuing tradition of sung high masses and vespers in the Roman Catholic Church, while the Church of England and other congregations relied more on the singing of psalms (metrical versions, almost certainly), hymns and, occasionally, anthems (see ANGLICANISM; CATHOLICISM).

The early years of the 19th century saw a growth of choral activity in the East and a gradual spread westward across the country. The popularity of the singing school movement gave an impetus to this development. Trained church musicians appeared on the scene. Most importantly, these years saw the start of what was to be, by the latter years of the century, a flood of publications devoted to church music. Le Graduel romain was published in Québec in 1800, Stephen Humbert's Union Harmony appeared in Saint John in 1801, Mark Burnham's The Colonial Harmonist in Port Hope [Ont], in 1832, and, in Toronto, William Warren of St James's Cathedral published A Selection of Psalms and Hymns (music edition in 1835). The greater availability of published materials encouraged the formation of choirs in smaller centres and facilitated the introduction of a repertoire based on a European heritage, particularly in the Church of England (to become the Anglican Church of Canada in 1955). There was a vested choir at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Québec City in 1804, though Toronto had to wait until 1868 for its first choir to appear in surplices. This was at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Anglican choirs at this time led their congregations in the singing of metrical psalms and hymns and often sang, as anthems, adaptations from the works of the great composers (eg, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini). The appearance of Canadian Church Psalmody in 1845 paved the way for the use of Anglican chant for the psalms.

Roman Catholic Church music in the 19th century also reflected a European heritage. Though factual evidence is hard to discover, some choirs did sing music by Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini and Gounod. Music by Canadian composers J.C. Brauneis, Jr, and Antoine DESSANE was also available, though this may not have been known outside of Québec. The motu proprio on sacred music, issued by Pope Pius X in 1903, ordered a return to the renaissance ideals of unaccompanied polyphonic music and restored the pre-eminence of Gregorian chant. In Catholic churches around the world this order made for a glorious period of good music, reverently sung.

A parallel development in the early years of the 20th century had an immense effect in the Anglican Church. Cheap editions of liturgical music by the great masters of the Tudor and Jacobean period in England facilitated a return to simple, uncluttered music and fostered a similar style of composition. However, the music of Stainer, Barnby, Gounod, Spohr, Simper and Maunder still had a stranglehold, especially in smaller towns and churches.

 Meanwhile, the Protestant churches had been moving slowly towards a form of worship in which music, both congregational and choral, could take a larger part. BAPTIST, METHODIST and CONGREGATIONAL churches had always allowed the organ, and eventually PRESBYTERIAN churches welcomed its inclusion in their service. Even quite small churches acquired instruments and formed choirs, and began to undertake the singing of an anthem. Large churches gave their choirs visibility and gowned them and finally began to spend money on them; often there would be a paid quartet of professional singers, who not only led the choir but also sang solos. This type of organization also spread to Anglican churches. Better choirs, in addition to leading Sunday services, now undertook to perform oratorios, or extracts from them, in almost concertlike circumstances. The first oratorio performance in a Canadian church is known to have been given in 1769 in St Paul's Church, Halifax, though we do not know what was sung. In the Protestant churches a mixed choir was the norm, often with a junior choir of children of both sexes. All-male choirs of men and boys were common in larger Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

By the mid-20th century, in the Roman Catholic Church, choirs were occasionally all-male but more often mixed, were sometimes vested but mostly unvested in rear galleries, sang a repertoire spiced with Palestrina, but based more often on 18th- or 19th-century settings, and used plainsong with varying degrees of success. These choirs were almost never paid, and frequently the posts of organist and choirmaster were divided. In the Anglican Church, choirs were either mixed or all-male (the latter showing a decline in numbers from 1950 onwards), were almost always vested, and sat in choir stalls in a chancel area. The repertoire was largely English in origin but drawn from a wide range of periods. Some members of the choir might be paid, and the organist-choirmaster was often well trained. The typical Protestant church would have a senior mixed choir and a junior choir. It was always visible, often sitting in curved stalls behind the minister, and was gowned. Its repertoire is hard to characterize but would have a leaning towards 19th- and early 20th-century English music, with some American and Canadian compositions. The qualifications of the choir director and organist could vary greatly with the affluence of the church. Organs were often large.

Developments in the second half of the century changed the pattern of religious music in Canada. Vatican Council II of 1962-65, while specifically recommending the continuing use of Gregorian chant, was taken by many Roman Catholic clergy as giving them "carte blanche" to do away with Latin, Gregorian chant and polyphony in one clean sweep. The use of vernacular texts, and a new spirit of liturgical experimentation, led to a "popular" style of church music. "Song leaders," armed with microphones, are now the arbiters of sacred music, though there are some pockets of resistance.

In the Anglican Church, change has not been quite so widespread or so sudden. Many clergy, however, have copied the Roman Catholic reforms and, fortified with new texts as alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer, have seen congregational participation as the only goal of church music. This trend has resulted in some parishes in so-called "folk masses," hymns in "pop" style, and the downgrading of choirs and organs. In some areas change has been minimal, and in other churches sympathetic pastors and musicians have compromised so as to make effective use of the vast heritage of church music.

Modern change is harder to describe in the Presbyterian and United churches. Traditionally, these denominations relied less on forms and texts from a missal or prayer book, so the shift to contemporary texts has not been a potent force. Nevertheless, styles of acceptable church music have changed in response to movements in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical churches.

The LUTHERAN Church has been active in Canada since the 18th century. As its members have come from a wide variety of countries, there has been a lack of tradition in the form of service. The US is the major source for hymnbooks, service music and anthems. Choirs are active, almost exclusively amateur, and church musicians have generally been trained in the US.

Music plays a central role in the SALVATION ARMY's ministry, particularly hymn singing with or without band accompaniment. Choirs are formed both to lead services and to give concerts.

"Gospel" music has an important teaching and persuasive role in Evangelical churches (see EVANGELICAL AND FUNDAMENTALIST MOVEMENTS). A soloist is normally featured, with choir and an instrumental group providing a back-up. The fact that televised services are an integral element in this ministry has some effect on the styles of presentation.

Jewish religious music in Canada is divided between traditional chants, some of great antiquity, sung by the cantor, and more modern music (often late 19th-century in style) sung by choir or congregation, or both. Canadian cantors have studied with older European-trained cantors or have trained in the US. Music is seen as a vital part of synagogue worship, in both Orthodox and Reform traditions, though only Reform synagogues admit the use of the organ.

Other Christian denominations that have strong musical traditions, of congregational singing based on European practices, are the various MENNONITE churches, the Christian Reformed Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

All denominations have produced composers of church music. The name of Healey WILLAN stands out. English-trained, he wrote mostly for the Anglican Church in a wide variety of forms but his music has been sung in Roman Catholic, United, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches and has been used in both England and the US. Earlier musicians wrote for the church, particularly in Québec for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is doubtful that their works are much heard these days. Other composers include W.H. Anderson, Alfred Whitehead, Bernard Naylor, Keith Bissell, Ben Steinberg, Srul Irving GLICK and Barrie Cabena.

New liturgies and texts have called for new compositions. Much of this music is in one or other "pop" style and has modelled itself on American works. Many churches now rely heavily on music written and published in the US.

Publication of religious music in Canada, while in no way equalling the volume in the US, has continued, though the British legacy of many of the churches with choirs means that much music is imported. Waterloo Music Company, Frederick Harris Music Co Ltd and Gordon V. Thompson Ltd are particularly active in English-language music. Most of the major denominations have their own Canadian hymnbooks (see HYMNS). Many of the larger churches in Canada have issued recordings of their choirs, thus enabling them to reach a wider audience. Several organizations exist to assist choirs and choirmasters to achieve better standards, particularly the various provincial choral federations, the Royal School of Church Music, and the Royal Canadian College of Organists.

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