Music in New France & Québec

Music in New France & Québec
Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal
St John’s, Smith Square, 15 February 2018

The Canadian choir, Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) was founded in 1974 by Christoper Jackson. For their UK debut, they presented a programme of music from Québec and the area of the North Americas generally known between 1534 and 1763, as ‘New France’, the northern part of which is now in Canada. In similar, if less flamboyant fashion to the Spanish and Portuguese Christian conquerors in Central and South America, the imported French musicians adopted some aspects of the aboriginal music styles, represented in this concert by a series of anonymous pieces sung in Abenaki, an almost extinct indigenous language.  The programme also included some of the earliest motets and plainchants composed in French North America alongside polyphony introduced by the first French settlers, whose only surviving sources are now in Québec libraries. As well as the early pieces, we also heard the European premiere of Ja de longtemps by Québec composer Maurice-G. Du Berge, setting an eyewitness account of the early explorations of the St. Lawrence River.

Although several of the composers were writing well into the Baroque era, their compositional style was, to varying degrees, written in relatively strict Renaissance polyphonic in style. One composer who stood out from the rest was Artus Aux-Cousteaux (c1590-1656), here represented by an alternatim Magnificat du deuxième ton and an impressive Missa quinque vocum Grata sum Harmonia, the mood of the latter unfortunately interrupted by a clearly partisan audience (which included members of the Québec Government Office) who applauded after each of the Missa sections. Aux-Cousteaux demonstrated a mastery of polyphonic writing, retaining a fine sense of momentum through the longer settings. That said, as far as I can ascertain, he had no connection with the French domains in Northern America, spending his time in the French churches of Noyon, Amiens and Sainte-Chapelle. Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy had a similar all-French background, spending his life in Paris rather than over the pond. His Ego sum panis was an attractively rhythmic piece contrasted four solo voices with the full choir. One composer who was linked to Canada was Charles-Amador Martin, a Jesuit priest who was involved in the musical life of Québec, although whether he actually composed the pleasantly melodic plainchant Prose de la Sainte Famille is open to question. 

The choir are clearly well versed in this repertoire, which is rarely heard outside the French community of Québec. Although the singing wasn’t always at the highest professional level, the ten singers generally gave the music a good showing, adding occasional ornaments in the mainland French manner. Of the soloists, soprano Marie Magistry and bass Normand Richard impressed me the most. They were conducted by their current director, Andrew McAnerney.

Although there was mention in the programme notes that the music of the time was usually accompanied by organ together with instruments such as flute, violin, viola de gamba or sackbut, and were often sung one to a part, for most of this a capella concert they sang as a ten-strong choir, only occasionally dropping to reduced forces. As Québec housed the important 540-page Livre d’orgue de Montréal, it was a shame that no organ music was heard.  

Some of the works on the programme are included on the CD Musique sacrée en Nouvelle-France (Atma Classique: ACD 22764) that they were selling at the concert. Unfortunately, there is nothing on the CD cover to reveal that this is a re-issue of a 1995 recording under the title Le Chant de la Jérusalem des terres froides – a subterfuge that I strongly disapprove of.


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