- Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity
The writing of a history of music in Canada at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a prodigious undertaking, not because so much still needs to be discovered and chronicled (it does) but because so much has been done since Helmut Kallmann wrote his pioneering A History of Music in Canada 1534–1914 almost fifty years ago. Elaine Keillor has produced a book that incorporates the work done during those fifty years both for music related to the European tradition and for the indigenous music of the First Nations. One can only be impressed by the ambitious undertaking of the author and the compendiousness of the information.
The very scope of the book, however, becomes its chief problem. For one thing, the musical cultures of the First Nations and of [End Page 206] the Europeans are quite unrelated and although they have always coexisted in Canada, to deal with them in the same book, however creditable, is to deal with two separate streams that never meet. The section on music of the First Peoples occupies the uncomfortable position of appearing to be the curtain-raiser to the main European act.
The encyclopedic coverage precludes much reflection or commentary that might weld the material together. The reader is left to make connections as, for example, in the case of Alexander Cringan, who is a Toronto music educator on page 122 and sixty pages later a recorder of First Nations songs. It is unlikely that a reader who did not already know about Cringan would connect the two references as referring to the same man. The book is organized by subject and period, but often the separated parts lack narrative cohesion.
Because so many Canadians have had careers abroad, there is inevitably a question of how to include them in a national survey such as Music in Canada. The composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee is an example. Interesting as he was, McPhee, who was born in Montreal and grew up and began musical studies in Toronto, studied mainly in Baltimore and lived all his professional life outside Canada. Nevertheless he is accorded a page and a half in a book that is, after all, a history of music in Canada. By contrast, Calixa Lavallée, who also spent much of his life in the United States but who did certainly have a Canadian presence, is referred to in a number of scattered references that must be connected by the reader in order to gain any picture of the man.
Sometimes the informational detail is accurate but incomplete or misleading. The composer Harry Freedman is correctly said to have been 'Polish-born,' but omitted is the surely important fact that he came to Canada at the age of three. And Ernest Gagnon has several widely separated references, but his most important work, the Chansons populaires, is relegated to a distant endnote with no indication of its importance or long publishing history.
About two-thirds of the book is text, the remaining third comprising appendices, notes, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. The ten items in the appendices are interesting enough but strike me as arbitrary and not necessarily illuminating of the text or useful for the reader. The same text edition of Music in Canada is available with or without a CD recording by the author of thirty-six short piano pieces, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the final evaluation, merit must override reservations; Elaine Keillor's Music in Canada is a remarkable achievement in establishing a new standard for the study of the musical life within our borders.