Between the Sheets

Illustrated cover of the sheet music for SONGS OF CANADA, by J.S. Hiller012: Between the Sheets
July 09, 2014

Listen Now [26 MB, length: 22:45]

Library and Archives Canada’s Canadiana sheet music collection has grown to become the most comprehensive in the country. It includes over 20,000 patriotic and parlour songs, piano pieces, sacred music and novelty numbers; some of which date back to the 1700s.

In this episode, archival assistant Gilles Leclerc from LAC joins us to discuss LAC’s sheet music collection. We will explore what sheet music is, what is in LAC’s collection and how it came about. We’ll also talk about the historical value of sheet music and why it’s still relevant today.

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Sheet Music Collection
Sheet Music from Canada’s Past Blog Post
Sheet Music Flickr album

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Podcast Transcript

Between the Sheets

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

In this episode, we discuss LAC’s sheet music collection. We will explore what sheet music is, what is in LAC’s collection and how it came about. We’ll also talk about the historical value of sheet music and why it’s still relevant today. Joining us from LAC is archival assistant Gilles Leclerc.

JO: Hello Gilles, thank you for joining us today.

Gilles Leclerc: Thank you.

JO: Can you explain what sheet music is?

GL: Sheet music is the format of the publication of songs—single songs—and they are usually from three to six pages at the most, on a fairly stiff cardboard-type paper. They are particularly for pop songs. They can be, as well, for some classical music. Or any individual piece published separately can be described as sheet music. When we think “sheet music” we think immediately of popular music in particular.

JO: Can you give an overview of what is included in Library and Archives Canada’s sheet music collection?

GL: We have quite the collection and apparently it is said that we have the largest collection of Canadian sheet music in the world, which kind of makes sense since we are Library and Archives Canada. That represents about 21,700 pre-1951 items of sheet music. So there is a lot of music there, a wonderful representation of just about everything that came out. We have popular songs, salon pieces for the piano such as dances, quadrilles, schottische, waltzes or marches. There are also the classical pieces that may come out from time to time. The entire collection really covers just about everything that’s been produced in Canada. It goes from the first piece—known piece—in Quebec City in 1840, “Le Dépit amoureux” by Napoléon Aubin, considered to be one of the early pieces in the country. Then the collection reflects the flourishing of sheet music in and around the 1850s. By 1867 or Confederation, there are about 600 titles in circulation, but from the 1890s to the 1920s, we are talking about an industry that is pushing out 100 to 300 titles a year. So it was really like the heyday of Canadian publishers. It kind of went down since, of course, but it does cover kind of the wide production of the songs that were being put out there by some of the more important publishers such as Nordheimer, and Whaley, Royce [& Co.]. I guess I should stress that a lot of the sheet music originally was also being published in newspapers. Some particular newspapers actually made a point of always including a song or two in their either weekly or monthly issues, depending on when they came out. Which when they came out… these weren’t necessarily dailies. It’s not like the Ottawa Citizen was putting out a song every day. It is interesting that that was one of the ways to disseminate the songs originally.

JO: Right.

GL: It’s only afterwards that the sheet music was sold separately.

JO: Okay. How was the sheet music collection acquired?

GL: Through those newspapers. If we have those newspapers, we consequently have the song. So we are able to tabulate some of those as well. Over the years publishers developed or emerged and we were able to go out there and get those as well. They are usually acquired through donations, but we have also purchased copies that we wanted that were either original or rare copies that we needed. From time to time when we get fonds or collections from individuals they may have sheet music in their collections as well, or organizations for that matter too. I must say that the bulk of the collection was really the fruit of the wonderful work of Helmut Kallmann. Helmut Kallmann was the first chief of the music section established in 1970 at the National Library of Canada. He had been collecting sheet music for years and had been working in collaboration with what was at the time the Canadian Association of Music Libraries. They had kind of a centennial project of trying to catalogue, as much as possible, a complete list of everything we knew was out there. Of course when he became the chief of the music section, he brought that work along with him. On that basis we really have an excellent overview of all of the sheet music production in Canada, thanks to Helmut Kallmann.

JO: Does the sheet music favour a type of genre or style?

GL: When you go through the collection as I did more recently… I finished cataloguing the Suddon collection (it was about 1000 pieces). Just having gone through that sample, of that piece, I think that a lot of the songs are love songs or romantic songs. There is a lot of parlour music, a lot of arrangements, there were dances for piano. Of course world events such as World War I, World War II, made for a vast production of recruitment songs or nationalist songs or patriotic songs. You would get titles like “For Canada and Empire,” “When Britain Calls,” “Heroes for Canada,” “Young Johnny Canada” (I’m not sure if this was a person, a real person or not). Anyway, those are all songs that really provided the… that wanted to lift up the spirits during the difficult years of the war.

JO: Right. Does LAC have any particular tools available to help find sheet music?

GL: Yes, we have of course the main catalogue, AMICUS, in which one can of course check out the content through song titles or genre. In many instances now, we have tried to attach PDF images to the AMICUS record so that now you can not only find out if we actually have it, but you can actually see the score. We also have the website Sheet Music of the Past through which one can search songs by various topics. I mean you name it… you can type in boating, children, colleges, dancing, flowers, vacation… I mean just type in a keyword and try and find something about it. The Sheet Music of the Past website kind of covers the period of pre-1900 to about 1920. In that case those are PDF files—in many instances for those records, not all of them, but quite a few of them.

JO: Can you tell me a little about who was writing this music? These pieces?

GL: It’s quite the variety of people. I mean you may have either soldiers who happen to be musicians or composers and are writing songs for the troops. You may have local music teachers who happen to be composers as well, or church organists who happen to be composers. Some of the stuff may have been composed for military bands so there was perhaps an instrumental version plus the version with the words as well, so it’s a whole variety.

JO: A lot of it, is it like sometimes there is a popular song and there are multiple interpretations and arrangements?

GL: There can be. That will of course happen because many people can sing the same thing but re-arrange the arrangements. I have no solid example there, people will have to discover that on their own.

JO: Okay. What are the highlights of the collection and does it include any really unique items?

GL: It’s a wide-ranging collection. I think what is interesting is that it covers all of the eras. I’ll mention some of the earlier war songs. If you think of war, you think of World War I or II. Of course there were the early [wars], even the seizure of Quebec. Apparently General James Wolfe was a composer and so the [song about the] seizure of Quebec, which is viewable online, apparently is in our collection. So we have these earlier songs which talk about Canada. The early Canadian hymnals are of interest because I think the earlier ones, perhaps “Union Harmony” published in St. John in 1816 or George Jenkins, he put out a selection from the Psalms of David published in Montreal in 1821 and Marc Burhnam, colonial harmonist, that’s the name again of the hymn book, put out [his version] in Port Hope in 1832, and [there’s] Le graduel romain à l’usage du diocèse de Québec published in Quebec City in 1800. So it goes back…

JO: Fairly far back.

GL: Yes, exactly. It’s amazing. So from there of course, things emerged and techniques for publishing improved and we were able to actually get the music out much more easily. A few other items of interest are “Le Dépit amoureux” by Napoléon Aubin, published in 1840. It’s considered to be one of the first known songs published in Canada because those earlier songs I mentioned are likely published in Europe or Great Britain, where this one (“Le Dépit amoureux”) is considered to be one the first known songs published right here in Canada.

JO: Right, so it would actually go back to the beginning of printing in Canada?

GL: Yes, that’s right, exactly. So it really covers the whole thing. There is a song called “Ode on Prince Arthur’s Nineteenth Birthday.” Who is Prince Arthur? He was Queen Victoria’s son who ended up being Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916, so there was a song for him. And of course we have a two-page manuscript of “O Canada” as set [to] the words by Robert Stanley Weir. It is essentially the version we now sing except for a few changes, because that has gone through quite a few changes in the last century, but we have the original two-page manuscript of that in our collection. So that is kind of interesting to see.

JO: So is there more to sheet music than just the musical notes and the notations?

GL: There is. I mean of course you can study [them] from so many points. You can talk about the music itself, the musical style, but if you start looking at the lyrics you realize that there is a whole set of social values in the various eras. Then you can look at the style of the words and use of certain words, which may have changed meanings today (from then) because language is such a living component. It’s never stopped at any given time. You can look at it from a point of social issues and how they were dealt with in an artistic way. You can even look at it strictly… the document, the sheet music itself, as a document and see the evolution of the music printing industry in Canada and just the way things were put on a page. You could even go through and have a study of commercial art and [see] how the covers of these sheet music were being drawn, how they were being done, with what technique. So there are various angles to it, but they are definitely embedded in each of these… in this collection is a whole history of the industry and the social trends and the social values. It’s quite rich.

JO: Yes, because some of the art work is quite extraordinary.

GL: It is. Occasionally they are identified, you sometimes have the name of the lithographer at the bottom. Often you don’t, as obviously it is an in-house corporate publication, but nonetheless it’s interesting to see the style. Of course all of these drawings and these covers are meant to enhance the emotional content of these songs. So, therefore, for these early war songs with mother waiting for son to come back, of course you’ll have a photo of an older woman, usually in her rocking chair by a fire. So it really just conveys the ambiance.

JO: So it really captures the social themes…

GL: It does.

JO: … of the various epochs.

GL: Yeah, it does. It’s quite fascinating.

JO: Is there much difference between, what you would say is French and English sheet music?

GL: That’s an interesting question. I guess… perhaps the topics. It’s a fact that there aren’t as many French war songs in World War I, but if you look at Canadian history, French Canada was not wanting to go to war as easily as English Canada. So therefore one would expect that. Conscription songs…

JO: Yes, conscription.

GL: … were just not popular. Well, that’s interesting to know that in the collection you have that reflected. You have that reality of Canadian history reflected even in the lack of…

JO: The absence.

GL: Yeah, the absence of it. That’s right exactly. That’s interesting from that point of view. As for the styles, of course many of the French Canadian composers and teachers had studied in Europe, so therefore you may pick up on a particular French style, mid to late 19th century. I know for Alexis Contant and his music, despite the fact he never studied in Europe, does have that French flavour to it. I guess it’s to be expected.

JO: Yeah.

GL: It’s quite a rich collection.

JO: Yes. Why would you say is the sheet music collection significant?

GL: It captures information about the period of time when it was published. It really is a record of—whether it be musical, social, commercial, artistic, linguistic, historical—that there is just so many aspects to it, you know. One would think that it is strictly music you know, but it is more than that and music always has kind of a deeper sense of it. There are interesting examples like the Ottawa Fire. Ottawa had a major fire around 1900 and somebody decided to write a song about that. What I must say is that it’s a rather light ditty considering the drama of that fire, but the Great Ottawa Fire is recorded as a song. That’s just an example, albeit lighter in its rendering because if you look at the score you see it’s rather light, music wise, but it documents an event. A lot of songs came out for the Royal Visit in 1939 with George VI and Queen Elizabeth, quite a few songs came out for that. Just a rousing of the crown so to speak, that also captures a moment, an emotion… you can almost say that it is capturing emotions.

JO: Who could be interested with sheet music?

GL: A whole array of people could be. Again, because of the various angles that one can look at. Definitely performers who would want to find out what was being sung. I mean anyone doing a documentary on early turn-of-the-century society would want to find out exactly what was the music being done. I’m sure they did that when they did the film, Titanic. They just went back and were able to find all of the hits of 1912 or 1911/1912. They were able to include that in the film, all that research provides documentation to reinforce the era. So film producers, as well researchers, who may even want to study performance practices because scores in themselves, although they won’t give direct instructions as to how and what style, they still convey a certain technique in the way they are laid out and how they are performed. Sheet music, usually the piano score and then there is the staff above for the singer and you’ll see in some of the tunes if they are more for like Broadway or a theatre, they may have a few little bars for the accompanist to keep playing over and over until the singer comes in and that’s right in the score. So that’s kind of an interesting aspect of the score. I guess it also documents, because of the success of the sheet music industry, it does document the fact that people have been making their own music. They have their pianos at home, a lot of people play the piano, it wasn’t abnormal for people to get around the piano and start singing together. That’s something we don’t do as much of today, so that’s an interesting social dimension to the music making that has been lost. At the time you often had the college glee songs, songs that would kind of razz up the students, the student body.

JO: Like barber?

GL: Yes, maybe sometimes barber shop. It could have been that. I’m not sure universities now have glee songs that will razz up 25,000 students. That was kind of a way of being able to have a sense of identity and group identity that came through. So all of these things are really tools for us to remember what happened before us, through music and sheet music.

JO: Right. Is the sheet music collection accessible or open to the public?

GL: It is. Of course a lot of the documents are fairly fragile so some of those cannot be consulted, others can be on site. Of course Sheet Music From Canada’s Past, the website, does provide musical scores and the AMICUS records from time to time will also have PDF files attached to them, but one can come on site and view the sheet music.

JO: It’s amazing the collection is so accessible. Thank you for joining us today to talk about the sheet music collection, it was very interesting!

GL: Thank you.

JO: To learn more about LAC’s sheet music collection, visit our website Sheet Music From Canada's Past at If you would like to learn how to use the website, visit our blog post Sheet Music From Canada's Past at If you’d like to explore Library and Archives Canada’s music collection, please visit us online at On our home page, select Discover the Collection and then select Music and Performing Arts. On this page, you will find links to our music Web exhibitions and databases.

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Gilles Leclerc.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at

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