Pierre-Aurèle Asselin was born in Sainte-Famille on l'Île d'Orléans, near Québec City, in 1881 and moved to Montréal at the turn of the century. In 1903, he married Cora Laviolette at Notre-Dame cathedral. They had three children. Asselin became a furrier in the early 1900s, a trade that would be his bread and butter for 50 years.
Blessed with a beautiful tenor voice, Asselin first began singing in churches. It wasn't until the age of 35 that he made his musical debut, in 1916, at a concert for the Ladies' Morning Musical Club of Quebec City, a club that promoted the appreciation of classical music. The same year, Asselin signed a recording contract with New York's Columbia Records. With Columbia, he specialized in recording arias from French operas, songs from operettas, and classics such as Mendelssohn's "Barcarolle vénitienne" (Columbia E 3015, December 1916).
In addition to making recordings, Asselin occasionally performed on stage, including an engagement in the oratorio Les Sept Paroles du Christ, by F.C. Théodore Dubois, at the Montreal Cathedral in April 1917. The following October, the tenor gave his first solo concert and briefly joined the short-lived Sociéte nationale d'opéra comique.
Between November 1918 and December 1920, Asselin's name began to appear on the Edison recording label, with the Royal Purple Grand Opera Cylinder Records 29000 series. Most of his recordings also appeared on the Blue Amberol 27000 cylinder series and the Edison Diamonds 74000 series of disks. The October 1918 edition of the Edison Amberola Monthly newsletter described Asselin as a new operatic artist. He first appeared on Edison's November 1918 list with his rendering of the tenor aria "Elle ne croyait pas", from Ambroise Thomas' opera, Mignon.
In March 1920, Asselin's vocal talents prompted the Edison company's advertisers to describe him as "stand[ing] among the best in the world today". Later the same year, Edison's listing described Asselin's voice as being a "bell-toned tenor" ("Aime-moi").
With Edison, the tenor continued to specialize in operatic arias and other serious vocal repertoire. Asselin also recorded Christmas music, including "Minuit, chrétiens/Cantique de Noël" by Adolphe Adam (known in English as "O Holy Night"), a perennial favourite during the holiday season.
In addition to recording, the Quebec tenor performed in concerts. In September 1918, he performed at the Cartier Theatre and at the Orpheum Theatre, both in Montréal, singing with French-Canadian singer Blanche Gonthier.
Although most of Asselin's recordings were in French, he did record in Latin "O Salutaris" from Richard Strauss' opera, Salome. Overall, the tenor seems to have favoured the music of French composers such as Jules Massenet and Charles Gounod for his recordings. Of the latter, Asselin recorded "Ah! lève-toi soleil" ("Ah! Rise, O Sun!"), the famous balcony scene from Roméo et Juliette.
Following common practice for the time, Asselin's records for Columbia were listed in their catalogue under the heading "French records" and contained the prefix "E," denoting "ethnic," to alert buyers that these recordings were in French. Edison, similarly, usually listed Asselin's recordings under either the "Royal Purple" or "French Songs" headings as specialty items, rather than including them in their main lists.
In May 1921, Asselin returned to the Columbia label and travelled to New York to record 8 songs. His repertoire included operatic arias by Godard, Donizetti and Massenet, as well as two popular melodies (performed as a duet with Guillaume Dupuis) and a version of Fauré's "Sur le lac d'argent", a duet with Blanche Gonthier.
In 1929, the tenor produced his last recordings in a studio in Plattsburg, New York, for the Brunswick record company. In a single recording session on July 1st, he recorded "Le rêve de Des Grieux" from the opera Manon and three songs signed Lalo, Flégier and Bohm.
Asselin appears to have abandoned his career as a professional musician in the 1930s to concentrate on his Montréal fur business. Just before his death on December 27, 1964, Asselin left his fur business to his son Raymond. Asselin was the brother of soprano Marie-Anne Asselin (1888-1971) and the great-uncle of pianist André Asselin (1923-2012).
Source: Unpublished research notes by Robert Thérien, music researcher, Montréal
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- Catalogue général français des disques à double face Columbia. Édition 1917. 16 p.
- "Edison Amberola monthly, October 1918". Edison Blue Amberol recordings. Vol. 2 (1915-1929). Edited by Ronald Dethlefson. New York : APM Press, 1981. AMICUS 2586905
- Moogk, Edward B. Roll Back the Years : history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy : genesis to 1930. Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1975. xii, 443 p. AMICUS 80154. Also published in French under the title: En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930
- Spottswood, Richard K. Ethnic music on records : a discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. Vol. 1 (Western Europe). Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1990. AMICUS 9217122