Songs of the Season

Colour image of three children wearing winter clothing, holding sheet music and singing. 050: Songs of the Season
December 11, 2018

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Library and Archives Canada has the largest collection of Canadian music in existence. There are over 250,000 sound and video recordings alone, not to mention huge collections of sheet music, printed scores, concert programs and books. Therefore, it goes without saying that LAC also has the largest collection of Christmas and holiday music as well. On today’s episode, we speak with Joseph Trivers who elaborates on Christmas and holiday music in LAC’s collection.

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Podcast Transcript

Songs of the Season

[Narration]

Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Josée Arnold. 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.

Library and Archives Canada has the largest collection of Canadian music in existence. There are over 250,000 sound and video recordings alone, not to mention huge collections of sheet music, printed scores, concert programs and books. Therefore, it goes without saying that LAC also has the largest collection of Christmas and holiday music as well.

Joining us today to talk about some of this Christmas and holiday music in LAC’s collection, is music archivist, and LAC co-choir leader, Joseph Trivers.

Josée Arnold (JA): Nice to see you again, Joseph.

Joseph Trivers (JT): Nice to see you too, Josée.

JA: Let’s talk about Christmas music at LAC. What sort of stuff do we have in the collection?

JT: Well, I did a big search for Christmas items in our library catalog just to see exactly what we have under the subject heading Christmas Music, and there were over 2,000 records in the catalog that came up for Christmas music.

JA: Wow.

JT: Now, that is a combination of sound recordings, some video material and books through to music scores and sheet music. If we just limit all of that to maybe sound recordings, we'd have around 1,600 different recordings of Christmas music in the collection. That covers everything from full albums straight through to singles. With the majority of those formats being in either CD, vinyl or cassettes.

I suppose those numbers could go up if I added one particular piece of music in particular.

JA: What would that be?

JT: That's Handel's Messiah. Historically, that is the major work that has been the most often performed throughout Canada’s history during the Christmas season. It even dates back to the early settlers here in Canada. Portions of the Messiah were performed as early as December 1793, and the first full performances of the complete oratorio took place in Quebec City and Toronto in 1857.

We've got about 140 different recordings of the Messiah in the collection, either the full oratorio or just excerpts thereof. If we add all of that together, plus recent acquisitions, we could get close to 2,000 recordings in the collection since 1969 alone.

[Music]

JA: Wow. What kind of recordings do we have in the collection?

JT: Well, we've got recordings of just about every single ensemble you can imagine. We've got stuff from solo artists, to choirs to, purely instrumental albums, including Leona Boyd’s A Guitar for Christmas and the Canadian Brass.

It’s also worth noting too that some artists have released multiple Christmas albums. Ginette Reno has released three different Christmas albums. Celine Dion has released two different Christmas albums. It’s just not Christmas, full Christmas albums we're talking about. We're also talking about stand alone singles that could have come out, or songs on albums that have a Christmas theme, where the song has a Christmas theme but the full album is not a Christmas album.

Corey Hart released Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as a single in 1985. Joni Mitchell’s very famous song, River, was included on--What album was that? Blue, wasn't it? I'll get back to you on that, Josée!

[laughter]

Plus The Band had a song, Christmas Be Tonight, and all of these weren't intended for Christmas albums per se. In fact, one of Canada’s best known singers, Gordon Lightfoot, never even released a Christmas album, but his song, Song For a Winter’s Night, has been used and covered by Sarah McLachlan on her Christmas album, as well as Blue Rodeo.

JA: How does LAC collect all that music?

JT: Well, it depends. One of the major collecting mechanisms for Library and Archives Canada, particularly on the published heritage side, or the library side, is something called legal deposit. Now, legal deposit essentially has been enforced and legislated in Canada for 65 years. We just celebrated the 65th anniversary this year. What that means for book publishers, every publisher of a book has to, by law, send two copies of that work to us at Library and Archives Canada. For sound recordings, any sound recording that’s been produced, made, or written by a Canadian or sung by a Canadian, one copy of that album, in any format, needs to come to Library and Archives Canada.

For a lot of our published collection, like albums and CDs that we will have collected that largely through legal deposit. In some cases, before 1969, that’s when legal deposit came into effect for sound recordings, we might have to go back and purchase some of these older recordings or acquire them through donations. When you think of our collection of material on old 78’s or wax cylinders or old shellacs, that material may have been acquired through donation or through purchases at auctions.

JA: You’ve alluded to pretty old songs in the beginning of the interview. I’m interested to find out, tell me about the oldest songs, the Christmas songs in the collection?

JT: Well I suppose technically speaking, the oldest Christmas song in Canada, or at least that was written in Canada, is Jesous Ahatonhia or the Noël Huron or Huron Carole. Now, this carol has been attributed to Father Jean de Brébeuf. It could have dated back as early as 1642 when Brébeuf, so it’s been told, wrote the words in the Wyandot language telling of the Christmas story as part of his missionary work to Huron people.

JA: That’s very interesting.

JT: Yes. Unfortunately, we don’t have early recordings of this from, say, the 1910s or the 1920s. One of the more interesting recordings we do have in the collection of the Huron Carol comes from Bruce Cockburn. He actually made a point to sing it in the original Wyandot.

[Narration]

JA: Here is that version of the Huron Carol by Bruce Cockburn, off his 1993 Christmas album, entitled, Christmas.

[Music]

[Interview]

 JT: There are other old pieces of music in the collection that we do have scores of. One of them is a Christmas motet that was either written or at least known in Quebec as early as 1700. This motet is called Magnus Dominus. While we don’t have a recording, the score was transcribed by the Canadian harpsichordist, organist, musicologist Erich Schwandt. It was published by Jeu Editions in Victoria, and that’s a part of our collection.

[Narration]

JA: A motet is an unaccompanied short, piece of sacred choral music, based on a sacred Latin text

[Interview]

JT: There appeared to be older manuscripts in Quebec, quite notably in the Archives nationales du Quebec, showing the kinds of carols that were sung in La Nouvelle-France. In our collection, we do have evidence of some of these early carols that were sung. Most notably in a collection of works called Cantique populaire pour la fête de noel. This collection of carols was compiled by the organist, folklorist, teacher and historian, Ernest Gagnon. Gagnon is a very important figure, not only for this conversation, but also in the study of Quebec folk song and folk music in general. He was best remembered for his work, Chansons populaires du Canada, which was a compilation of folk songs that were sung in Quebec historically.

What is good about the Cantique populaire pour la fête de Noël is that many of the harmonizations that he wrote for these traditional Christmas carols in Quebec, many of his arrangements are still used today and sung by people today. We do have some early recordings of these arrangements in our collection and quite notably, in our Virtual Gramophone. If you get the chance, I would recommend taking a listen to Ça bergers assemblons-nous. You hear it sung by a choir of four voices: soprano, alto, tenor, bass and the organ.

[Music]

JA: You mentioned the Virtual Gramophone. We have done an episode about that, but for our listeners who haven’t had the chance to listen to that episode, can you give us an overview of what the Virtual Gramophone collection at LAC is?

JT: The Virtual Gramophone is a multimedia website devoted to the early days of sound recording and commercial sound recording here in Canada. It provides a good overview of this 78-rpm era in Canada. It contains information about the ‘78s. It will, in some cases, present an image of what the actual record label looks like. It will provide information about the performers on those '78s. In many cases, actually provide you with a sound recording that you can listen to, in MP3.

All of these physical ‘78s are in LAC’s collection, but due to their fragile nature, we don't want to just let people play them so often, and because, let’s face it, the equipment to be able to play these old ‘78s is pretty rare and scant. So audio conservators here at LAC have digitized some of these recordings. They’re available on online at the Virtual Gramophone.

[Narration]

JA: To access the Virtual Gramophone website, listeners can go to LAC’s main page and simply search ‘Virtual Gramophone’. There are over 12,000 songs from the early days of recorded music in Canada that you can listen to, and even download. It is also a great resource for biographies of artists, and for learning about the history of recorded sound in Canada.

[Interview]

JA: What different types of music can we find in that collection?

JT: We can find anything ranging from recordings from the vaudeville era of the 1920s. The music and entertainment scene in Quebec during the '20s and the '30s. There’s orchestral instrumental and religious music, opera recordings by famous singers like Raoul Jobin, Emma Albani, and First World War era military bands and popular music.

JA: I can listen to it for hours and never hear the same song twice?

JT: Presumably, but you might hear the same song but there would be different performers doing different takes on it. In terms of Christmas music, I’d say it falls more, on the Virtual Gramophone, it falls more towards the religious end of the spectrum. Stuff with organ, with a small orchestra, maybe choirs and just singing, or vocal music.

[Music]

JA: Our listeners might actually be surprised to learn that Library and Archives Canada has a choir. Tell us about it? How did it get started and how did you become the conductor?

JT: I’d like to call myself the co-leader of the choir because I work in tandem with Rachelle Chiasson- Taylor, who was a music archivist here at Library and Archives Canada, but she's now working in policy. We get together and choose the repertoire for the choir.

But, to answer your question, the choir started back in June 2014 wherein we were invited, or some of us were invited, to perform two songs at the Open Doors event during National Public Service Week. We sang two pieces from our collection that were part of our archival fonds. We had enough fun singing these pieces that we thought, let’s just get together maybe once a week and just have fun singing music. That grew into us singing two different concerts a year.

The first leader and conductor of the LAC choir was Gilles Leclerc, and if you go back and listen to that podcast on the Virtual Gramophone, that’s one of the voices you’ll hear there. And monsieur Leclerc is still the organist at the Saint-François Parish in Hintonburg, in Ottawa. He’s also a composer of some repute as well!

[Interview]

JA: How do you choose the songs that the choir sings?

JT: It’s usually a balance between finding material within our collection and also some well-known pieces of music that generally, people would be able to recognize. While we do have very talented musicians, we’re not professional musicians, so, normally we choose recognizable or familiar enough music so that it presents less of a hurdle for us to learn it. However, we do like to go into our archival fonds, or look for some generally more obscure pieces of Canadian choral music, that’s relatively easy enough to sing to be able to present that.

In the past two years, we’ve performed some pieces at our Christmas concerts from the collections that were really quite exciting, I thought, because they both came from our archival fonds, and the same pieces can be found in the library collection. Those pieces were L’Imagerie by Hector Gratton, and the other piece last year was Voices in the mist by the BC composer, Stephen Chatman.

[Music]

One of our podcast producters, David Knox, spent a lunchtime with some of the choir members. He asked a few questions and recorded some of their rehearsal.

JA: I want to put you on the spot, Joseph. I want to know, what is your favorite Christmas song from LAC’s collection?

JT: Well, I’m going to cheat, because I can't choose just one song,

JA: Understandably

JT: …and I’d like to highlight a few different recordings, just because I think they're fascinating and interesting.

Back in the early 1990s, LAC embarked on a project with Analekta. Analekta is a classical music record label based in Montreal. We released together a series of five discs called The Great Voices of Canada. There was an office at the old music restoration studio at 395 Wellington. Engineers from Analekta were there, as well as audio conservators here at LAC, and they worked on these discs together. Two out of those five discs are exclusively devoted to Christmas music.

Disc number four is called Les Grandes Voix du Canada chantent Noël, and it’s exclusively devoted to French carols and French singers in Canada, or francophone singers here in Canada.

The other disc is volume five, Great Voices of Canada sing Christmas, and in those, you have English carols and the like, sung by some of our more notable Canadian artists from the past. What’s interesting, is that some of the recordings that are featured on these two CDs are featured on the Virtual Gramophone, but some of the recordings aren’t on Virtual Gramophone too. And from disc number four, Les Grandes Voix du Canada chantent Noël, I'd like to highlight the first tract, Minuit, Chrétiens.

JA: A classic.

JT: A classic, as sung by how Raoul Jobin, who was, I’d say, Quebec’s best known tenor. He was also recognized as one of the leading interpreters of French music in the 20th century as a singer.

[Music]

From the fifth volume, the great voices of Canada sing Christmas. I’d like to highlight two different tracks on it sung by Portia White. Portia White, she was an African-Canadian woman who had an astounding career as a mezzo soprano, and on this recording, she’s singing two different spirituals, I Wonder as I Wander and-- Well, the song is spiritual. I Wonder as I Wander and Rise Up Shepherd, which is a spiritual.

[Narration]

JA: If you want to learn more about Portia White, you can visit the discoverblog.com and search for the article about her, written by today’s guest, Joseph Trivers! We’ll also link to it in the show notes on LAC’s main podcast page.

[Interview]

JT: But that’s older material. I also like some of our other recordings coming more into the '70s and '80s, if you will. One of the other things with Christmas, and I’m still cheating.

JA: Cheater!

JT: I'm going to keep on cheating even though we have been talking about Christmas music. That’s not the only kind of holiday music that has been recorded in Canada with traditions and holidays associated with the end of the year, most notably in November and December.

We do have some music in our collection that’s related directly to Hanukkah, and one of the more interesting albums that I can talk about is one released by Alan Mills. Alan Mills was an opera singer, a folk singer, and an actor who was active in Canada, mostly in Quebec and the States from the '40s until the '70s when he died of cancer. He decided to go full hog. He released a holiday album but he called it a curious collection of tales of songs  from various sources, and in it, he sings songs related to the holidays of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Hanukkah, and Christmas.

JA: He covered everything.

JT: He covered everything. On another neat note is that, on one of his tours in Canada and United States, he was accompanied by a certain gentleman named Bram Morrison, who is of Sharon Lois and Bram. They’ve released a couple of different Christmas albums too, much like I had talked about Ginette Reno and Celine Dion, but one of their albums, Candles Long Ago, is exclusively devoted to children’s music for Hanukkah.

JA: That’s great.

[Music]

JT: We do have some novelty items in the collection or even comedic items. After all, we do have Bob and Doug McKenzie 12 Days of Christmas, and we do have a recording of Honky The Christmas Goose as sung by the great Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender, Johnny Bower.

JA: That I have to hear.

JT: Yes. ‘Honky, the Christmas Goose, got so fat that he was no use.’

[laughter]

JA: You really have talent.

JT: [laughs]

JA: Well, thank you so much, Joseph, for taking the time to speak with us today. It was a pleasure.

JT: Likewise. Thank you very much.

JA: If you’d like to learn more about music at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca.

Thank you for being with us. I’m Josée Arnold, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Joseph Trivers. Special thanks also to Theo Martin for his contribution to this episode.

This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.

If you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on our website, iTunes and Google Play. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

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