The history of Roman Catholic Church music in Canada follows that of the Church itself, for which historian Nive Voisine has identified several periods; these have been used in the present article.
1608-1760: The Nascent Church
The Church, dedicated to evangelizing and teaching, was not strictly obedient to Rome. Titles of plainsong books may have reflected adherence to the principles of the Council of Trent and the popes' instructions, but this new Church was essentially Gallic. In those difficult days when practical matters prevailed over theory, priests, missionaries, and members of religious orders made use of song handbooks without worrying much, it would seem, about whether they originated in Paris, Lyons or elsewhere. In addition to the motets used in New France, of which Erich Schwandt has given a fine account, Roman Catholic Church music was based on plainsong, canticles sung in French, through-composed masses, and organ works such as the Livre d'orgue de Montréal.
1760-1838: The Period Of Submission
Following the Conquest, Britain maintained the structure of the Church, provided that it be answerable to Rome only. But relations with France were never cut off, as evidenced by the history of religious music in the 19th century. Despite a decrease in religious vocations and observance, this period revealed a growing paradox: officially obedient to Rome but in contact with France nonetheless, the Church and to a certain extent its music became Canadian.
1840-1896: The Revival
Religious orders prospered once again. In France, the Revolution and other political events had produced a new wave of immigration: the Oblates arrived in 1841; the Jesuits came back in 1842; the Clerics of St Viateur followed. Educational establishments such as seminaries (Quebec City, La Pocatière, Saint-Hyacinthe, Nicolet and Trois-Rivières) expanded and multiplied. The whole province was alive with patronal festivals, days of obligation, pastoral visits, religious events of all types, daily prayers, chaplets, processions, frequent Communions, particular devotions, pilgrimages and Te Deums.
Source Materials In The 19th Century
Catholic religious music in 19th-century French Canada was based on three main types of source materials that implied organ accompaniment: plainsong (and polyphony) books from Europe, similar collections published in Quebec, and compositions for religious and liturgical choirs.
In such institutions as the Quebec City and Trois-Rivières seminaries or the Sulpicians' seminary in Montreal, scholar-priests taught plainsong with the help of the principal theoretical works popular in France at that time. The literature that has been preserved gives a very accurate picture of European plainsong in the days of Berlioz and Liszt. It includes Encyclopédie Roret (1836, 1849), methods, cantors' manuals, and theoretical works by Le Besnier, Chaussier, Clément, d'Ortigues, Choron, and Lafage. Works by Lambillotte or Dom Pothier were also well known.
Collections of chants, graduals, antiphonaries, and vesperals were shipped from Paris and other French bishoprics (Lyons, Poitiers, Dijon, Rennes), although in small numbers. The so-called Ratisbonne (Germany) editions, which stood in the way of the Solesmes reform movement for a long time, were surprisingly few, even though they claimed to offer a 'supplementum' intended for Canada, namely the Vesperale romanum of 1883 (Pustet).
At the end of the 18th century, a need for new editions was felt: 'A shortage of liturgical song handbooks, the diversity of the manuscripts still in use and sometimes copied by (often) clumsy individuals [...] were so many reasons to call for a common edition' (J. Pelletier, 'Aperçu historique sur le chant liturgique de l'Église en Europe et dans la province ecclésiastique de Québec,' doctoral thesis, Laval University 1933).
John Neilson then published the first collections of liturgical chants: Graduel romain (1800), Processional [sic] romain (1801), and Vespéral romain (1802). One learns in the preface to the Graduel romain that this publication was prepared in accordance with that of the Livres de Lyon, considered the edition most accurate and closest to the old Gregorian stock. The first half of the century saw revised and augmented editions of these volumes, and later, in 1883, the first Recueil de messes, d'hymnes, de proses et de motets...., by Alexis Mailloux of the Quebec City seminary. All of these books were re-issued many times before the end of the century.
Following the first Concile provincial de Québec (1851), Augustin Côté printed new editions of the Graduel, the Vespéral, and the Processionnal (1854). These editions, inspired by books from Malines, Paris, Reims, and Cambrai, showed the growing influence of tonality on modality, particularly through the addition of leading tones. They were released during a period of transition when two tendencies coexisted in Europe and in France in particular: the first promoted faithfulness to the spirit of editions modified following the Council of Trent, the second, more tradition-minded, advocated going back to the medieval manuscripts, along the lines of the so-called Reims and Cambrai Commission. This revival was exemplified particularly by the one that Dom Guéranger imposed at Solesmes Abbey, which resulted in the Vatican edition of 1903.
In Quebec, volumes from the second half of the 19th century reflected this transition period. Pierre-Henry Bouchy, the editor of the 1854 editions, did not hesitate, in the preface to the Graduel, to warn that it 'can be valid only for a limited duration'. The report of the Commission on the reprinting of collections of chants (1861) reveals the same indecision by noting the 'merits' and 'weaknesses' of both previous editions, thus leaving the bishop responsible for making the choice. Finally, in 1864, an edition very similar to that of 1854 was issued by Desbarats, a Quebec City publisher.
The second half of the 19th century saw numerous re-issues of these volumes and the release of new ones that reveal the extent of plainsong practice at that time: Chants liturgiques extraits du Graduel, du Vespéral, du Processionnal (1860), the Paroissien noté (1883). Most of these collections preserved a repertoire typical of French Canada: Messe royale and Messe du 2ème ton by Du Mont, or Messe bordeloise and Office de la Sainte-Famille.
One should also mention the appearance of many hymnbooks not always of religious origin, but including plainsong notation.
Throughout the 19th century plainsong, in fact, consisted of several types of plainsong:
- 'orthophonic chant' (Le Besnier, Manuel du chantre, 1838, used at the Séminaire de Québec): recitatives and psalmody;
- 'plainsong proper' (Processionnal romain de la province ecclésiastique de Québec, 1854), reserved for the 'schola' and trained soloists (antiphons, responsories, pieces of the proper: introits, graduals, alleluias, offertories, communions, etc.);
- plainsong may be measured or non-measured. This raised the issue of long and short values, in proportional notation or based on the meter of Latin verses. This is the kind proposed in several methods such as La Feillée's Méthode nouvelle (2nd edition, Poitiers 1754), of which several re-issues were found in Quebec. This plainsong with a beat was taken up in various 19th-century methods in use all over the province;
- 'plain-chant musical' or 'chant figuré', measured and ornate, by Baroque composers, of which collections printed in Canada kept numerous traces until the 20th century (masses by Du Mont, Messe bordeloise).
Moreover, there were collections intended for Native peoples, canticles in French, and even manuals for pilgrims.
Publications from France frequently contained polyphonic settings of plainsong, particularly in fauxbourdon, choral pieces from France and Italy, and plainsong with organ accompaniment (D'Anjou, Nisard, Niedermeyer). In Quebec, following the contributions by Jean-Chrysostome Brauneis II or Joseph-Julien Perreault, the compilations of several composers, organists and choir masters deserve mention. Jean-Baptiste Labelle published Le Répertoire de l'organiste in 1851, Pierre-Minier Lagacé, Les Chants d'Église, harmonisés pour l'orgue suivant les principes de la tonalité grégorienne (1860), Romain-Octave Pelletier, Accompagnement du nouveau manuel de chants liturgiques de l'abbé [Cléophas] Borduas (1889). Antoine Dessane, a defender of dramatic choral music, close to oratorio, and Ernest Gagnon engaged in a dispute about organ accompaniment which remains noteworthy. Gagnon favoured following closely the recitation of liturgical texts and psalmody (Accompagnement d'orgue, ca 1903) with syllabic rendition of texts, a homophonic style, discreet organ accompaniment in keeping with the teachings of the Niedermeyer School in Paris and the precepts of European St Cecilia societies.
As in Europe, 19th-century plainsong was associated with secular repertoire, even theatre, where opera and bel canto were present; bands and fanfares, such as that of the Société Sainte-Cécile of the Quebec City seminary, took part in some services where cornets were still in use.
1896-1940: The Church Triumphant
The Church of Quebec, which conformed to the social and missionary doctrine spelled out in Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, was a national and omnipresent institution. Quebec was covered with steeples, presbyteries, and colleges. The new feast days created in Rome (Sacred Heart, Christ the King) were adopted immediately. Leo XIII confirmed the official status of the feast day and service of the Holy Family. Those were days of impressive gatherings, eucharistic congresses, pilgrimages, even crusades and leagues.
Pius X's Motu proprio (1903) ordered that mixed choirs be replaced by children's voices, and forbade the use of any instrument other than the organ. French Canada was one of very few jurisdictions in the world to comply faithfully with the pope's orders. This was the golden age of choirs, plainsong and Palestrina-like polyphony, as witnessed in the flourishing of instruction in Gregorian chant, conventions, journals (Revue Saint-Grégoire) and the founding of the Schola cantorum in Montreal (1915). Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey was established in 1912 and Dom Georges Mercure published his Rythmique grégorienne in 1937. Even though the 'Solesmes School,' more precisely that of Dom Mocquereau, gained supremacy, cantors maintained such 19th-century practices as slow tempi, detached syllables in plainsong, bel canto, and French-style singing.
After 1940: The Church Re-examined
In barely a few decades, the status of religion collapsed. In the storm that followed Vatican II, the Church, which was seeking new avenues itself, was also seeking its music. Texts on music were poorly interpreted; Gregorian chant, polyphony, choirs, and organists were removed from churches. This signalled the beginning of a painful and confused era marked by conflicts between advocates of 'popular' music (guitar, rock, songs) and those who defended traditional music and professionalism.
However, certain trends in the early 1990s hinted at a return to a more serene equilibrium. Propositions for renewing or even going back to Gregorian chant were inspired less by nostalgia than by well-trained musicians and organists, and the circulation of musicological works from Solesmes (Dom Cardine, Graduale Triplex of Solesmes, 1979), the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome and numerous European, US, and Canadian musicologists. Historical knowledge of liturgy and classical Gregorian repertoire led to serious propositions coming from the Semaine de Fribourg (1965), the Congrès de Strasbourg (1975) and the Congrès international de chant grégorien de Paris (1985): reflection on the notion of participation of the faithful and the contribution of professional scholars, cantors, and organists; on the notion of modality and musical forms, on the relative place of Latin and French, etc. Founded in 1978, the National Council for Liturgical Music, a consultative body of the National Liturgical Office, promoted a high standard of repertoire and encouraged unity among the various French-speaking regions in Canada. Dedicated to research and educational activities, it acted as a liaison between heads of music and liturgy in dioceses.
After Lucien Brochu, Claude Lagacé, and Antoine Bouchard, Canadian experts advocated a return to the origins of Gregorian paleography. The following were active in the early 1990s: the Chanteurs Saint-Coeur-de-Marie directed by Claude Gosselin in Quebec City, the Choeur des moniales de Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, the Choeur grégorien of St-Jean-Baptiste Church in Montreal under Dom André Saint-Cyr, the Petits chanteurs de Trois-Rivières under Father Claude Thompson, both doctors of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. In 1986, that institution awarded an honorary doctorate to Clément Morin, indefatigable teacher and choral conductor at Saint-Germain Church in Outremont (Montreal), who stimulated the taste for studying ancient manuscripts both in Canada and in Europe, thus assuring a convincing and energetic continuation of the tradition.
In the early 21st century, Gregorian chant was preserved in the liturgies of the monks at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac and the Bénédictine nuns of Sainte-Marie-des-Deux-Montagnes. A few lay choirs took up the challenge of Gregorian chant, and some were even called upon to embellish the liturgy with a plainchant updated according to the most recent paleographic works.