Musical Instruments | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Musical Instruments

The making of musical instruments in Canada has had a successful but specialized history.

Musical Instruments

The making of musical instruments in Canada has had a successful but specialized history. The dynamism, reliability and integrity of individual and family establishments in the 19th century, particularly the workshops of Thomas Heintzman (pianos) and Joseph Casavant (organs), guaranteed that the piano and the organ would become the principal musical instruments of Canadian manufacture for both national consumer markets and international export. The religious zeal which had been a significant influence in the settlement of Canada was given musical expression through the organ, Canadian-made harmoniums (reed organs) being especially popular from about 1870 to 1970.

The piano was both fashionable and popular before WWI in parlours, officers' clubs, church halls, schools, pioneer homesteads and gold-rush saloons. A post-Depression slump in the piano industry was followed by a rise to a record sales peak, about 11 000 instruments in the mid-1960s, but thereafter it suffered a dramatic decline in the face of foreign competition. By 1987, after successive financial failures and mergers, no pianos were manufactured in Canada. In contrast, pipe organ companies, headed by individual builders of high standards (Brunzema, Guilbault-Thérien, Kney, Letourneau, Wilhelm and Wolff) have acquired an international reputation. By the beginning of the 1980s, by maintaining both fine craftsmanship and reliance upon national products for certain components, CASAVANT FRÈRES LTÉE of St Hyacinthe, Qué, had developed an output of which 80% was exported, with 18 installations in Japan alone.

Canadian forests have provided timber suitable for the manufacture of keyboard and stringed instruments that could function in the nation's climate. The availability of excellent wood has been a factor in attracting skilled craftsmen to this country, such as the string instrument luthiers and bow makers Chanon (French), Karlsson (Swedish), Kun and Mach (Czech), Loerakker and Vann (Dutch), de Lellis and Righele (Italian), Erdész and Saint-Michael (Hungarian). The artistic traditions of the 19th-century Québec violin-making families Lyonnais, Martel, Lavallée and Bayeur recommenced with the opening in 1979 of a school for string-instrument making in Québec City by Sylvio de Lellis and Mario Lamarre.

Contemporary interest in the authentic performance practice of early music is also part of the creative partnership between luthier and materials. This is evidenced by the production of harpsichord makers Albarda, Beaupré, Kater, Redsell and Turner, and makers of lutes and other early instruments such as Allworth, Boudreau, Davis, Hobrough, Noy, Philpot, Schreiner, Titmuss and Zuchowicz, among others. Adding to these the high-quality acoustic guitars of such craftsmen as Dunn, Bay, Larrivée, Laskin, Manzer, Panhujsen, Lister and Wren, there is confirmed a healthy attitude to craft and a personal pride in home industry that is the present-day equivalent of Canada's founding 19th-century musical workshops.

Individual enterprise founded unique companies: the Stoermer Bell Foundry (Breslau, Ont 1931), Giutabec (La Patrie, Qué 1972). There has been little industrial or private manufacture of brass, woodwind or percussion instruments, with the notable exception of Sabian Ltd (Meductic, NB), world-famous for its cymbals in the Zildjian tradition. Likewise dependent upon imports are the free-bass accordion, in vogue since the 1960s and the button accordion vital to francophone and Newfoundland folk music.

Canadian-made musical instruments, in various states of playing condition, may be seen in pioneer villages, forts and museums of local historical societies. The sound of the 19th-century Québec violin makers is lost, with only a few examples in private ownership. Working examples remain of early organ builders Samuel Warren (Chambly, 1854), Louis Mitchel (Vaudreuil, 1871), Casavant Frères (Lacolle, 1885) and Napoléon Déry (St Roch-des-Aulnaies, 1874). Listed in the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MUSIC IN CANADA (2nd ed) are 26 public and private collections of instruments of Canadian and international provenance. The largest holding is that of the Royal Ontario Museum, based on the R.S. Williams Collection. More than 1000 instruments are divided among its Far Eastern, Ethnology and European departments. Native Canadian and non-Western instruments are found in the UBC Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver), the Provincial Museum of BC (Victoria), the Glenbow-Alberta Institute (Calgary), the Robertson Collection (Regina) and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Ottawa).

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