Manitoba History: The Growth of Music in Early Winnipeg to 1920

by James B. Hartman
Continuing Education Division, University of Manitoba

Number 40, Autumn / Winter 2000-2001

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Winnipeg Theatre Orchestra, S. L. Barrowclough, leader (back row, centre).
Source: Archives of Manitoba

At the time of the entry of Manitoba into Confederation in 1870 there were only about 100 inhabitants in the village of Winnipeg, formally designated as the City of Winnipeg in 1873, that consisted of some thirty rickety structures. The population increased to 241 in the following year and to almost 170,000 by 1920. The growth of music in early Winnipeg reflected the rapid increase in population accompanying the economic development of the area that began in the 1880s and continued through the early 1900s. This article will chronicle the highlights of the activities of major organizations involved in various dimensions of the musical life of the community. The focus is mainly on “classical” or “serious” music as opposed to “popular” music, although many performances included both kinds.

The approximately chronological presentation is divided into two broad sections. The first, ‘The Genesis of Musical Culture,’ traces the evolution of musical activity over a period of about sixty years, including the arrival of pianos and organs beginning in the 1840s, the formation of bands starting in the 1870s, and the emergence of several major musical organizations, such as the Winnipeg Philharmonic Society and the Winnipeg Operatic Society in the 1880s. Several centres for formal music instruction were established in the 1890s that complemented the practical orientations of the performing organizations. The second period, ‘Consolidation and Expansion of Musical Activity,’ roughly from 1900 to 1920, documents the activities of new instrumental and choral organizations, such as the Winnipeg Orchestral Society and the Winnipeg Oratorio Society, that refined the focus of their predecessors in instrumental and choral music, respectively. New centres for musical instruction offered greater variety than those of the earlier period. Both periods included smaller musical clubs or societies, performing groups with specialized interests and functions.

The performing-group organizations generally are introduced by reference to their founding dates, but their dates of dissolution are for the most part unknown. A few of them evolved into other organizations while others just faded away due to a lack of sustained interest on the part of their members or their audiences.

The Genesis of Musical Culture

An early form of musical entertainment was the “folk” music of the frontier settlement in the early 1800s. Then the most popular form of music was supplied by the Red River fiddler whose lively strains caused some young men to wear out several pairs of moccasins during a night of energetic dancing. Manitoba’s earliest balladeers put into song the exploits of adventurers and other local happenings, and these were transmitted orally at entertainments in evening gatherings in settlers’ homes.

While the fiddle was associated mainly with rowdy carousing in public barrooms and dance halls, the piano occupied a prominent place as a status symbol in the secluded parlours of members of genteel society, reminding them of the dignity and conventions of their communities of origin. [1] The first piano in the Red River Settlement was brought from London, England, probably before 1840, by a teacher at the Red River Academy who later married the former chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company after he retired to the Settlement in 1824. As an important form of creative expression and entertainment, pianos occupied a central place in family life. The music played on them, chiefly by women of often modest technical accomplishments, consisted mostly of popular tunes. Classical pieces were performed by skilled players, for much of the chamber and symphonic music of the nineteenth century was routinely available in piano duet arrangements. For those lacking musical training, the player piano was an important option.

Pianos manufactured in Eastern Canada began to arrive by the mid-1840s. Until rail connections with Eastern Canada were established in 1886 these were transported across the United States to St. Paul, Minnesota, for shipment north to Winnipeg by Red River oxcarts or river boats. Public demand for pianos was sufficient for the first piano distributor to establish a business in Winnipeg in 1872. Eventually these popular instruments became standard fixtures in schools, church basements, community halls, and public buildings.

Reed organs, also known as harmoniums, melodeons, parlour organs, or pump organs, depending on their size, also played an important role in the musical life of the community. [2] Reed organs were the first organs installed in most churches. They were also the focus of religious devotions and family entertainment in homes. It is likely that the first reed organ in Manitoba was not imported but was built in the early 1840s by a medical officer of the regulars, later acquired by the Grey Nuns sometime after their arrival at the St. Boniface mission in 1844, then placed in St. Boniface Cathedral.

Most reed organs were built in southern Ontario by companies founded in the 1870s and supplied through Winnipeg agents or retail outlets that also offered tuning, repairs, and instruction. Larger church models had as many as twenty drawstops and sometimes pedal keyboards; these required an assistant to pump the bellows handle at one side of the case. Sometimes they were mistaken by the public for pipe organs because some of them had imitation pipes mounted on top of the case.

The peak period of popularity of reed organs was between 1870 and 1910. Their decline as a home instrument may be attributed to other innovations in passive musical entertainment such as the player piano, the gramophone, and the radio, all of which tended to supplant participatory musical activity.

The first pipe organ in Manitoba was installed in St. Boniface Cathedral in June 1875 by Louis Mitchell, the Montreal builder who accompanied his new instrument across the United States and down the Red River on the steamboat International. The combination of an expanding population, increasing wealth, and the growth of the various religious denominations resulted in the construction of many of Winnipeg’s largest and finest churches. A total of fifty-four pipe organs were installed in city churches in the period 1870-1920, twenty of these (including three in movie theatres) in the concluding decade. The larger, more affluent churches obtained fine instruments from various Ontario builders or from Quebec-based Casavant Freres, which still exists. Winnipeg newspapers published reports of the arrival of new organs, along with descriptions of their appearance and mechanical construction, often with complete stoplists. In the 1880s Winnipeg had two or perhaps three organ builders whose output of small instruments was insignificant.

Organ recitals by both local players and visiting virtuosos, mainly from eastern Canada and the United States, were reviewed in Winnipeg newspapers. Recital programs consisted of a mix of lighter pieces and serious original works for organ by contemporary composers. They also included many transcriptions of operatic, choral, or instrumental works by major composers that contributed to the musical education of the general public. Although the practice of including transcriptions in recital programs eventually attracted much criticism it provided the public with opportunities to hear works that otherwise remained relatively unknown. Sometimes organ recitals were shared performances involving church choirs, vocalists, or other instrumentalists. A “full house” at a recital in a large church would have amounted to an audience of over a thousand people, a significant number considering that the population of Winnipeg around 1900 was about forty thousand. Local organists occupied a prominent place in the musical development of the city, for many of them conducted various instrumental and choral groups in addition to their customary activities as church musicians.

A musical “first” in Winnipeg was the performance on 16 December 1870 by the band of the visiting Ontario Rifle, Musical, and Dramatic Association; the musical and theatrical entertainment consisted of orchestral selections, choruses, songs, and readings. [3] The first local band was formed in 1871 when the instruments of the departing soldiers’ band of the Wolseley Expedition, which had been sent to restore order after the Riel Rebellion, were acquired by some of the residents. Beginning with a brass band formed in 1873, other bands included the military bands of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Cameron Highlanders, the Veteran’s Band, the City Cadet Band (1882), the Foresters’ Band (1883), and the Sewerman’s Band (1906). In the late 1890s the Citizens’ Band performed frequently in the building of the Thistle skating rink. It was conducted by Paul Henneberg who also led Saturday matinee concerts of the Manitoba Hotel Orchestra. In later years Henneberg also conducted the Winnipeg Hotel Orchestra.

The Winnipeg City Band was organized in May 1902. Its chosen leader was Sam L. Barrowclough, a cornet player who had emigrated from England and opened a music store with a partner, Ernest Semple. Barrowclough’s outstanding band made successful tours through Ontario and the northern United States; a Toronto critic asserted that “it was quite the equal of Sousa’s celebrated organization.” [4] The band held regular Sunday concerts in the Walker Theatre for many years after the building opened in 1907. Some concerts had thematic content such as Patriotic Night and Operatic Night. A unique benefit concert was played in May 1912, with the Royal Alexandra Hotel Orchestra, for the families of bandsmen who had perished in the sinking of the Titanic a month earlier.

From the standpoint of the musician a veritable feast of harmony was enjoyed in this well-arranged programme which was not without its religious features. Particularly touching was the rendering of “Nearer My God, to Thee,” which was played under such tragic circumstances a few weeks before by the other musicians, in memory of whom the concert was given. [5]

The band played in city parks frequently and one time went to Winnipeg Beach where it played waltzes and two-steps for the holiday crowd. Later the band amalgamated with that of the 90th Rifle Regiment, which Barrowclough took overseas during World War I. Barrowclough also led the Winnipeg Theatre Orchestra in the early 1900s. Bandmasters were the leaders of the musical profession in the early years, and as promoters of instrumental ensemble music they provided the impetus for its evolution into more specialized forms.

Performing orchestras as we know them today gradually emerged from military or civilian bands, augmented by string sections or other available instrumental players as the situation required. These developing groups often accompanied oratorios, performed in theatres, or contributed to general musical entertainments that included vocal and instrumental solos as well as literary readings. The establishment of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Society, a performing orchestral group, took place in two stages. [6]

The first initiative was a meeting of musicians on 18 February 1880; a few days later a group of eighty players tried out several choruses, assisted by a ten-piece orchestra conducted by Prof. F. Hammerschmit. [7] Hammerschmit was prominent in the musical community: he conducted the Winnipeg Field Battery Band, operated a music store, and gave music lessons. He was an active entrepreneur, too, for he travelled to Portage la Prairie where he organized a brass band and sold the members a set of instruments. Later in the year the Society lapsed into inactivity, and the intention to give a “Grand Concert” to include Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer, which members had practised for two months, was abandoned, perhaps due to the withdrawal of Hammerschrnit.

The second stage was more successful mainly due to the efforts of Colonel W. N. Kennedy, the organist of Grace Church and a former mayor of Winnipeg in 1875-76. [8] Kennedy was chairman of a committee that met in April 1881 to resuscitate the Philharmonic Society. The intention of the new organization, which still included the Field Battery Band, was to make the Philharmonic Society one of the “solid institutions” of the city.

Joseph Hecker, formerly organist at Emmanuel Church, Montreal, who had just arrived in Winnipeg to accept the position of organist at Knox Church, was appointed conductor of the combined organizations. A newspaper report commented that “his arrival has given an impulse to musical matters, which have flattened out considerably of late.” [9]

Advertisement for the Heintzman Player Piano,
Manitoba Free Press, 8 October, 1912.

Hecker procured additional string instruments for the use of the musicians of the Society as well as several new instruments for the band. The singers and instrumentalists immediately began to prepare for a concert to include part songs by Mendelssohn and choruses from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer. The long-awaited concert took place in the Musical Pavilion on 4 August 1881, a civic holiday. Sir John George Henry Douglas Sutherland Campbell, Marquis of Lorne, Governor General of Canada, was in the audience. A newspaper report of the event mixed warm approbation for the music with complaints about audience behaviour:

The concert of the Philharmonic Society held in the evening in the Pavilion, was a most successful affair. The huge building was pretty well filled, the youth and beauty of the city, as well as the more staid citizens being profusely represented. The musical part of the proceedings was under the direction of Mr. Hecker and were pushed forward with considerable vigour. The various choruses rendered by the society were of great merit, and elicited the warmest approval. The selections from “The Sorcerer” were particularly pleasing, and did credit not only to the indefatigable teaching of Mr. Hecker, but also to the diligence and ability of the pupils ... A great drawback to the entertainment was the eternal clatter of people coming in or moving about. Most of the nomads had squeaking boots, and those who had not seemed to take delight in battering the floor with their heels, so that so far as those located in the hall were concerned, the musical effects were almost ruined. Some means ought to be taken to stop this nuisance. It is a pity to have good music spoiled by such thoughtlessness. [10]

The orchestra tackled fairly serious symphonic works from the outset, only later introducing lighter crowd-pleasing numbers in its concerts. Performances generated such positive public enthusiasm that the committee increased the conductor’s salary in recognition of his services. The orchestra under Hecker promptly began practising the music for a planned production of The Chimes of Normandy (there was no separate opera company at this time).

Another orchestral venture was the Apollo Club, a group of about thirty-five amateur instrumentalists that chose its name to identify with the mythological Greek and Roman god of music and poetry. The early efforts of the club, founded in 1881, were uneven but soon improved under Paul Henneberg, sometime solo flautist with the then noted Mendelssohn Quintette of Boston, who also led other Winnipeg groups around the same time. The instrumentalists offered three concerts each season at the Bijou Theatre; the following is a report of its first performance of the 1882 fall season, which featured Henneberg as solo violinist.

The audience was fashionable and appreciative to a certain degree, but was never over demonstrative (that which of course is bad form!), in its recognition of the excellent work done; for excellent it was, both comparatively with the previous efforts of the club, and positively on its proper merits. Much was expected and much was attained; the secret of the success being disclosed in the personality of the master musician, under whose guidance the votaries of Apollo have climbed to new heights never before in view. To Paul Henneberg, our amateurs seem to have found exactly what was wanted, for under his conduct, skillful, judicious and indefatigable, they have been rescued from a sea of mediocrity, and landed on good ground where they promise to flourish exceedingly. Mr. Henneberg has managed to infuse into the orchestra a spirit of enthusiasm like unto his own, and by patient and painstaking work, in which the club have sympathized and collaborated have achieved results, most gratifying and pregnant of still better to come. [11]

At this concert the audience heard a Mozart overture, a vocal selection from a Wagner opera, a Schubert symphony, and pieces by Victor Herbert.

About ten years later, in January 1892, the group commenced its weekly rehearsals, now conducted by Laurence H. J. Minchin, organist at All Saints’ Anglican Church, in preparation for the anticipated concert schedule.

New music that has been sent for are the following pieces: “Overture to L’Africaine,” “Masaniello,” “The Persian Peasant,” “Gavotte from Mignon,” “The Turkish Patrol,” “Selections from Ivanhoe and Olivette.” This is almost all music of a very light and bright character; perhaps, however, they intend to tackle something more classical later on. However, in taking up the above well known and popular numbers they are probably making a move in the right direction, that will at all events find favour with the majority of their audiences ... They are at present at work on “Der Freischutz” and “The Magic Flute.” [12]

William H. Dingle, organist at Knox Presbyterian Church, replaced Minchin as conductor of the May 1892 concert. In addition to the planned orchestral selections the concert included a piano solo, songs, and a cornet solo. Paul Henneberg returned as conductor for the ensuing years, leading a chorus of thirty members and an orchestra of thirty-five. Typical concerts included orchestral overtures, symphonic movements, marches, choruses, and songs (including female soloists), all by major composers and sometimes featured visiting soloists. Occasionally programs were repeated immediately due to popular demand. The successes of the Apollo Club represented the first tendencies toward the formation of a permanent symphony orchestra in Winnipeg, a goal that would not be fulfilled until 1947.

Musical entertainment also had its less serious side. By the late 1880s “smoking concerts” were established aspects of popular entertainment where groups of men spent evenings playing cards amid the fragrant odour of superb Havana cigars and being amused by singers, choruses, banjo and guitar selections, and mouth organ and piano solos. Many of these events were sponsored by the 90th Battalion. Robert Fletcher, the prominent organist and recitalist at Holy Trinity Church, performed ragtime piano pieces at these events, even though ragtime music generally was denounced in the press as unmusical rot that makes money.

A hundred years ago, few Canadian cities maintained opera companies for mounting large-scale productions on account of the hazards involved in making arrangements for visiting soloists, but touring opera companies were common and these visited Winnipeg from time to time. For example, the Nathal English Comic Opera Troupe opened the Winnipeg season in September 1880 with Robert Planquette’s comic operetta, The Chimes of Normandy, and stayed for several weeks. [13]

Although Winnipeg’s strong choral tradition began when the amateur singers of the city formed a glee club in 1876, the earliest attempt to establish a local amateur opera company did not take place until 1882. One of the city’s musical pioneers who was active in promoting opera was P. R. Maclagan. He arrived in the city in that year from Montreal, where he had attained great prominence as a musician, to become the organist at Holy Trinity Church, the first of several such posts he held in the city. Shortly after his arrival a newspaper announced that “Maclagan’s operatic and ballad concert” would take place in Wesley Hall. He was engaged as conductor of the Winnipeg Operatic Society in 1884. He also led the Madrigal Society before his untimely death of consumption in 1887 at the age of thirty-six.

Another impulse toward the formation of an opera company was the practice of touring prima donnas to sing operatic pieces accompanied by a local chorus assembled for the occasion. Miscellaneous musical entertainments of the time also included scenes, songs, and choruses from operas, in addition to tableaux (a representation of a scene by a person or group posing silently and motionlessly in appropriate costume).

The Operatic Society, once established, produced Gilbert and Sullivan works and other light operas throughout its history. Strong public support for this organization continued undiminished for many years, as expressed in this 1887 article:

Within the last five years Winnipeg has boasted a number of musical organizations which were, for a city of its size, really a credit, but, strange to say, all, with one exception, have been comparatively short-lived. The Operatic Society is now in its fourth season and in a more prosperous condition than ever. Only those familiar with the work involved in the preparation of an opera can realize the immensity of the undertaking. Our amateurs have in the past overcome many obstacles and succeeded in producing several operas in a most creditable manner, and, having attended a recent rehearsal, we are confident that in the coming performances of the “Chimes of Normandy” on the 8th, 9th and 10th inst., the society will sustain its reputation. The public in the past have shown its appreciation of these undertakings, and there is little doubt but that large houses will be the rule at the forthcoming performances. [14]

Announcement in the Manitoba Free Press, 7 June, 1880.

The Society revived The Chimes of Normandy early in 1908 following an earlier successful presentation:

“The Chimes of Normandy,” as presented by the Winnipeg Opera Company last winter, was unquestionably the most successful amateur operatic performance ever given in this city, and during the nine performances given of it at that time the interest never decreased, in fact, the audiences grew larger and larger, and it is still the talk of the town. [15]

The Chimes Opera Company, a group of “clever young amateurs,” was formed in December 1908. Clearly the group’s name was chosen to capitalize on the public’s insatiable fondness for the operetta The Chimes of Normandy. A newspaper account of its organization indulged in some uninhibited civic bragging:

It is perhaps not a too superlative boast to claim for Winnipeg a larger number of active amateurs than any other city in Canada—at least there are few cities which beat us. We have the makings of a first-class orchestra society, with 200 carefully selected, well-trained voices, the Chimes Opera Company and amateur dramatic clubs galore. What Canadian city can beat that? [16]

The musical public’s enthusiasm for opera demanded the erection of buildings suitable for the performance of large-scale musical works. Victoria Hall, later renamed the Winnipeg Theatre and Opera House, opened in 1883. The Princess Opera House, an imposing edifice at the corner of Ross and Princess streets, was inaugurated on 14 May 1883 with a performance of Flotow’s Martha by the visiting Grand English Opera Company. The company also offered ten other operas, including the ever-popular The Chimes of Normandy, before leaving the city. The building and its furnishings cost about $75,000; it had a seating capacity of 1,378, including 278 Huntington plush chairs in the orchestra, plus eight private boxes. This building was home to the Operatic Society until it was destroyed by fire in 1899.

In 1890 a charter of incorporation was granted to the Winnipeg Grand Opera House Company in connection with a proposed building. After a long delay, the building opened on 24 December 1908 with a production of Belasco’s The Rose of the Rancho. The pretentious title of the building did not indicate the actual use or suitability of the structure for major operas. It is more likely that small-scale operettas, like the opening production, were performed there. It was also used by touring acting companies.

Concerts by church choirs were frequently held in public theatres. One review of an early concert provided a chatty commentary on the event:

The Grace church choir concert attracted quite a large audience through the mud last evening though there was room in the building for a few hundred more. Those who attended went away feeling that they had enjoyed a treat; although there were not many very strongly marked features to impress themselves upon the memory above the others. There might have been a little more sentiment thrown into the selections, as they ran, perhaps, a little too exclusively along the line of babies, flowers, sleep and rest, and other images of a calm and soothing nature, yet the excited nerves of Winnipeg citizens no doubt require a sedative just now. The programme consisted largely of part songs, quartets and trios; and they all seemed to be in harmony with “Sweet and Low,” the one which received the chief applause of the audience, and a repetition of which was called for. [17]

Such events generally received enthusiastic reviews that were light in critical acumen but heavy in flattery:

It was a charming concert which Mr. Tee’s choir gave us at the Winnipeg Theatre last night—a menu of melodic dainties reserved to the taste of the music epicure.

Winnipeg’s four hundred—our musical elite—as usual composed the audience, the reinforcement which a programme of such merit ought to have drawn not materializing.

Loyal band this four hundred—even the attractions of a hockey match could not tempt them to be faithless. They are the mainstay of artistic effort in a young community as yet more concerned in dollars than art ideals.

May they live long and prosper and multiply—may they, too, always have with them James Tees, George Bowles and others of the undaunted few who in the face of discouragements are well and truly laying our musical foundations.

The programme arrangement was admirable. It is this conductor’s careful attention to detail—the thoroughness with which he does everything —which adds so much charm and interest to the delightful concerts he provides us at rare intervals. [18]

Winnipeg’s “musical elite” heard an arrangement of “The Lost Chord” by Sullivan; “Three Fishers,” a soprano-alto duet by Macfarren; “The Goslings,” a humorous composition by Sir Frederick Bridge (organist of Westminster Abbey); “Vale of Rest” by Mendelssohn; “The Angelus,” by Smart; and “A Love Symphony” by Damrosch.

The development of choral activity was stimulated by the participation of local choirs in the Cycle of Music Festivals of the Dominion of Canada in April 1903. This ambitious event offered programs of mainly British choral and orchestral music in most major Canadian centres. Each participating city provided its own chorus and soloists under an associate conductor for the area. The major event was conducted by Sir Alexander McKenzie, the touring principal of the Royal Academy, London. A chorus of about two hundred voices participated.

The origin of the Women’s Musical Club dates from 1894 when six women began meeting informally in one of their own homes as a practice and study group, and to provide cultural entertainment for others. The first official meeting of the Club was held on 13 November 1899, when a constitution was drawn up, officers were elected, and a program of composers for study and performance for the coming year was decided upon. An affiliate, the Junior Musical Club of Winnipeg, was founded in 1901 to provide performance opportunities for its members, but soon became independent. By 1907 the membership of the Women’s Musical Club had increased to 430. The club was incorporated in 1911 and a set of by-laws drawn up.

Winnipeg Choirmaster James Tees, 1901.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

With the larger membership, the weekly meetings were held in various public buildings and hotels. These program‑meetings were structured according to themes or specific composers, involving the presentation of papers for discus­sion. Sometimes performers were dressed in period costumes related to the topic. An early aspiration was that of bringing national and international performing artists of first rank to Winnipeg. One of these was Madame Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler, “one of the world’s greatest pianistes,” in 1906. In 1920 the club brought in Amelita Galli-Curci, probably the greatest Italian coloratura of her time. The roster in subsequent years included performing artists who already were, or would become, known world-wide.

The club’s interest in furthering the careers of young local musicians took the tangible form of an annual scholarship fund established in 1915. Several of the recipients eventually achieved notable success and wide recognition in their later careers. Philanthropic interests included donations to charities and hospitals, and to a London fund to support the relatives of musicians who perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

In 1916 the club formed a string orchestra, which joined forces with a similar group of the Men’s Musical Club in the following year. In spite of economic restrictions and social disruptions during the war years, club membership and finances remained strong into the 1920s and beyond. [19]

Music instruction in the early years was generally carried out by private teachers. As soon as trained musicians arrived, usually from England, they opened music studios to offer private instruction in voice, piano, organ, and violin. Many of them were also active in local orchestras or served as church organists and choirmasters, and sometimes they took employment in local music stores to supplement their meagre income from professional duties. However, formal centres for musical instruction soon were established.

In 1894 it was estimated that about five hundred people in Winnipeg were engaged in the study of music or related activities. Accordingly, several local musicians decided to establish the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music, so it was launched in that year as a stock company with a capital of $10,000. In the planning period the initiator and head of the teaching staff, Paul Henneberg, travelled to Minneapolis and Toronto to investigate their conservatories. The pro­spectus offered a comprehensive program of instruction in piano, organ, mandolin, guitar, clarionet, cornet, violin, violoncello, voice culture, harmony, orchestration, and music history. The class system of instruction was advocated as a better method of teaching for less money, in addition to fostering interaction among pupils with similar ambitions and aspirations.

In December 1898 the Winnipeg Piano Teachers’ Association met for the first time to discuss curriculum and ways to raise standards of teaching. The group discussed various subjects pertaining to the profession, including a uniform method of instruction, a curriculum for the different grades, the conduct of examinations, and the granting of certificates of proficiency. The group began with eighteen members and planned regular monthly meetings; members also presented public piano recitals in following years. Frida de Tersmeden was elected president (before coming to Winnipeg she had studied at Royal Conservatories in Stockholm, Berlin, and Copenhagen). Later in the month she received an offer from a New York agent to join a concert company as “solo pianiste” on a two-year European tour, an opportunity that she declined. One of her outstanding pupils was Eva Clare from Neepawa, who went on to a distinguished career as a pianist and teacher; the recital hall at the University of Manitoba School of Music is named in her memory.

Consolidation and Expansion of Musical Activity

The opening concert of the Winnipeg Orchestral Society, assisted by members of the Field Battery Band, took place on 4 February 1902: “The object of this society is to help along to the best of its ability the cause of good music, and its members are hard working and earnest in their purpose.” [20] On that occasion the audience heard some orchestral selections from works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner, along with a march by Sousa. At a concert in December 1908 the orchestra was joined by a choir to present The Ancient Mariner by L. Francis Barnett, first composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1860. Other selections included “O Peaceful Night” by Edward German, “God Save the King” by Elgar, and Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture. The piano accompanist was Fred M. Gee, who later achieved prominence as a full-time musical impresario; his Celebrity Concert Series brought hundreds of internationally acclaimed performers to Winnipeg between 1927 and 1960.

Former initiatives for the establishment of formal centres of musical instruction were strengthened in the early 1900s by the founding of several other teaching institutions. The Winnipeg College of Music, organized by Frank Hotchkiss Osborne, conductor of Grace Church Orchestra, opened in 1903. Its staff of fifteen teachers offered graded courses in piano, organ, voice, violin, harmony, and theory; special courses in piano technics, hand training, sight singing, ear training, keyboard harmony, physiology of voice, and interpretation; normal courses leading to certificates and diplomas; lectures on coaching and other topics; and the kindergarten music method for children. The year 1903 was marked by the establishment of two other instructional ventures: the Dominion Conservatory for instruction in piano and violin, and the Winnipeg High School of Music that offered courses in piano, organ, string and wind instruments, banjo, mandolin, guitar, theory, voice culture, languages, and painting, with a staff of twenty-eight. A newspaper announcement about its opening stated that it was established “for the purpose of affording superior advantages for pursuing the study of music in all its higher branches. The general plan of the school is similar to that of the European conservatories. The courses of the different studies are graded, leading from the elementary grades to the graduation and artist’s diploma.” [21] Students could choose private or class instruction and they would be encouraged to attend faculty concerts free of charge. A later entry into the instructional field was the Winnipeg School of Music, which opened in 1906 to give instruction in piano, voice, and theory. In the fall of 1908 Winnipeg newspapers carried an advertisement announcing the opening of the Imperial Academy of Music and the Arts, initiated by Prof. Emil Conrad Erikson:

This institution is affiliated with Die Konigliche Hoch Schule, of Berlin, Germany, which is one of the largest institutions in the world. The musical director has returned from Europe, having engaged eminent professors for violin, piano, and organ and all wind and string instruments. An eminent vocal teacher has been secured for voice production and coaching in interpretation and repertoire.

A beautiful site has been secured for the academy in one of the most picturesque spots in Winnipeg, and comfortable studios are provided for the various professors and students in which to prosecute their studies. [22]

Apparently the initiative was not without its critics, but it received enthusiastic support in a weekly publication:

It is now generally known that there is an attempt being made to organize an Academy of Music in the city upon a sound financial basis, and one that will have a competent and complete faculty. It is also known to some of us that a furtive and premature attempt has been made to kill this scheme in its very inception, which attempt will doubtless eventually rebound upon its perpetrators. It is really very difficult to imagine that any genuine and patriotic citizens of Winnipeg could have stooped so low as to become traitors to the interest of the people of Winnipeg and of the Province; and I am forced to the conclusion that the knockers have some personal interests in danger.

Let the Academy live, for you may not again be blessed with the financial and social support of such men as are behind this institution.

Anyway, let this institution have time and fair play, for we are badly in need of a large and well appointed educational alma mater of music for this and the surrounding cities and towns of Manitoba. [23]

Affiliation with the University of Manitoba was considered, but rejected, even though the University had been existence for thirty-one years. Erickson’s term as director of the Imperial Academy was short-lived, for he left the position in April 1909 as a result of legal actions surrounding alleged financial and contractual irregularities.

The first full-time director (1909-11) was Dr. Ralph Horner who came from New York, where he had resided for three years, to assume the position. Born and educated in England, he was a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory, a former professor at Nottingham University, a choral conductor, and composer. While in England he was Sir Arthur Sullivan’s conductor for about ten years, producing all of Sullivan’s operas. He also conducted grand operas at Alexandra Palace, London. One of his references was Sir Frederick Bridge, organist at Westminster Abbey. Homer conducted the Winnipeg Oratorio Society in 1909-12 and directed an opera troupe in the production of his own work, The Belles of Barcelona, in 1911. Throughout the war years the Homer Opera Company presented Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and other light works to Winnipeg audiences, including a patriotic concert in 1915 that featured a chorus of “Rule Britannia,” vocal solos, duets, and songs. Horner also served as a Canadian army bandmaster in 1916-17. In addition to teaching he composed much music (operatic works, sacred cantatas and oratorios, anthems, songs, instrumental works, and piano pieces). Soon after his arrival in Winnipeg, Horner began publishing a series of informa­tive articles on a variety of musical topics in the weekly newspaper Winnipeg Town Topics. These ranged from dis­cussions about specific composers and major musical works to discourses on musical aesthetics and practice. These articles contributed to the informal music education of the community and provided helpful background information for current concerts. Horner also served as editor of the music page of that publication. Homer, a leading figure in the musical community for many years, was later referred to as the “grand old man of music” in Winnipeg.

Late in 1908 some music teachers met to consider the formation of a Music Teachers’ Association, a group that would have a wider scope than the Piano Teachers’ Association, established several years earlier. This organization underwent several name changes throughout the course of its history, which reflected the extension of its influence to the whole of the province of Manitoba.

During the early 1900s several of the larger Winnipeg churches organized orchestras that gave periodic secular concerts consisting of instrumental selections, vocal solos or quartets, and literary readings. Newspapers announced and reviewed these entertainments in an attempt to promote quality music in the city. At the same time, the critics disparaged perceived departures from high musical standards: a proposed banjo and bagpipe orchestra was put down as “a fitting accompaniment to noisy and uncultured singing.” Nevertheless, a Catholic Club banjo and guitar orchestra (with piano) was established in May 1919.

In 1906 a number of musical enthusiasts, mainly active church musicians, formed the Clef Club, a social-educational group that sponsored concerts and met regularly for performances and lecture-discussions. Concert programs were varied in character; thematic concerts, for example, featured the works of Mendelssohn, Slavonic composers, English composers (almost all now forgotten), and selections relating to Scotland and Ireland. One of the programs featured the first appearance of a male voice choir. Musical concerts were often held in the Walker Theatre after it opened in 1907. A typical Saturday “musicale” consisted of a mix of piano solos or duets, instrumental solos, string quartets, and songs, chiefly by mainstream composers. In April 1909 the group offered a “Made in Winnipeg” program of works entirely by local composers.

Apart from the opera houses, Winnipeg did not have a major performing centre until the Walker Theatre, heralded as “Canada’s Finest Theatre—Steelcage Construction, Fire­proof Throughout,” opened in 1907. Its developer and manager was Corliss Powers Walker, who had arrived from New York ten years earlier; the musical director was Sam L. Barrowclough. The opening event was a triple production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in English, just three years after the opera had opened in La Scala, Italy. In the spring of 1907, in rapid succession, the management arranged for perform­ances by Josef Lhevinne, the “world famous Russian pianist,” Ernestine Schumann-Heinck, the “world’s greatest contralto,” [24] and Marie Hall, “English violiniste.” Jan Kubelik, a notable violinist of the day, appeared there in December 1907. [25] Ignacy Jan Paderewski, on the other hand, displayed his pianistic virtuosity at Central Congregational Church in January 1908. In 1912 Walker Theatre audiences heard Clara Butt, “England’s greatest contralto,” and John McCormack, “the great Irish tenor.” In May 1908 the Walker Theatre was the location of what was billed as “Western Canada’s First Great Musical Festival,” discussed below in connection with the Winnipeg Oratorio Society. The theatre served as the location for Sunday band concerts and other similar events throughout the years.

An attempt was made in January 1902 to form a choral society but only a few people attended the organizational meeting. The inertia lasted for five years until the Winnipeg Choral Society was formed in 1907 by a group of eleven prominent church musicians. This group was immediately succeeded by the Winnipeg Oratorio Society in 1908 with most of the originators of its predecessor as committee members. The new society was intended to establish a single organization comprised of local vocalists and instrument­alists that could present large-scale choral works.

In May 1908 the Society inaugurated a three-day event, The Western Canada Musical Festival. The intention was to offer both symphonic and popular programs. This balance was evident in presentations of Haydn’s The Creation and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers; two other concerts consisted entirely of popular compositions. Each festival included six performances by the fifty-member Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The vocal forces of the Oratorio Society were augmented by visiting and resident soloists as well as public school choirs. The marked success of Haydn’s oratorio in the festival provided the impetus for establishing the Society as a permanent organization that would sponsor an annual festival and occasional symphony concerts. The Society also participated in celebrations and special events of various kinds. During the war years membership in the Society grew from 120 in 1915 to 175 in 1917. The Society continued until its dissolution in 1924.

Dr. Ralph Horner, 1912. Director of the Imperial Academy of Music and the Arts, Horner was called the “grand old man of music” in early Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In October 1909 several church musicians inaugurated a new choral society to present the works of Sir Edward Elgar “and other composers of the more modern school.” The Elgar Society’s initial concert, described by the organizers as an “at home,” was designed to attract public interest as well as members to the group. The assembled choristers, mostly drawn from local church choirs, offered selections from Elgar’s works including his dramatic cantata The Banner of St. George, “The Challenge of Thor” and “As Torrents in Summer” from King Olaf, and “Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars” from The Light of Life (both published in 1896). Among those invited to the first meeting and concert was Sir Edward. The organizers received a letter from Lady Elgar containing this passage: “He (Sir Edward Elgar) begs me to assure you of the gratification it gives him to hear of the interest taken in his music in Winnipeg, and would like to send your society every good wish for all success.” The Society was active throughout the years of World War I; in May 1916 it gave a Grand Patriotic Concert under the auspices of the 203rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Although the Women’s Musical Club had been existence since 1899, its male counterpart did not emerge until later. The purpose of the Men’s Musical Club, established in December 1915, was to participate in music making, to encourage the development of young musicians, and to sponsor visiting performers. A newspaper account noted that “the new club will be operated on the highest moral plane and that only musicians of good standing will be admitted to membership .” [26] At the outset there were 125 charter members, including 35 professional musicians; membership was limited to 200 in 1916 when the club sponsored the formation of the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir. Like other performing groups that offered patriotic concerts during the war years, the group performed vocal and instrumental pieces in aid of a fund for Canadian prisoners in Germany in May 1917. In 1918 it founded the Manitoba Musical Competition Festival, with the first three-day event taking place in May 1919 in Central Congregational Church, involving about 2,500 participants in piano, instrumental, and vocal categories. This annual graded event for student and amateur performers, school and church choirs, and instrumental ensembles, adjudicated by both visiting and local professionals, continues today as the Winnipeg Music Competition Festival, with approximately 25,000 performers.

Princess Opera House, Winnipeg, circa 1886.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A new form of musical entertainment emerged with the advent of silent movie films. Pipe organs began to be installed in major theatres after 1915, and their resident organists provided improvised or arranged accompaniments to the action unfolding on the screen. Some theatre organists earned a living from this activity; others occupied posts as church organists at the same time. Their careers, involving moves from one theatre to another or presiding at the opening of a new instrument, were reported in the newspapers, perhaps in the belief that their fans would want to follow them from theatre to theatre. The role of the theatre organist changed with the advent of sound-synchronized “talkies” in the late 1920s, although these popular musicians continued to entertain audiences before picture showings and during intermissions for many years afterwards.

The Winnipeg Male Voice Choir was established in 1916 as a quartet of members of the Men’s Musical Club. Its numbers increased to forty-six by 1918 under its founding conductor George Price. After Price’s death in 1920 Cyril Musgrove was brought from England to replace succeed him, and in the following year Hugh Ross, another Englishman, took over and led the group through its 1922 tour of the United States with Percy Grainger as soloist. The choir’s performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, received enthusiastic praise from the critics. These first three conductors were all organist-choirmasters at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, a connection that was maintained in later years when succeeding conductors were brought from England to serve similar dual appointments.

Eventually institutions of higher education became involved in music instruction. In September 1918 Wesley College inaugurated its music department. Arnold Dann, local pianist, organist, and director of music at Grace Church, was appointed as head of the department, which offered courses in pianoforte, organ, voice production, theory, harmony, counterpoint, and violin. Dann’s frequent public recitals drew large and enthusiastic crowds. He maintained his position as organist at Grace Church, along with his teaching appointment at the College, until he left Winnipeg in 1923 for the United States, where he later became organist and choirmaster at a new one million dollar church in Pasadena, California, in 1924.

In May 1920 a new group, the Apollo Club, met “to study and produce operatic works of any kind that may be within the scope of its members.” The opening production was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. The choice of the club’s name reflected the Greek mythological reference to the son of Calliope and Apollo who played his lyre so sweetly that animals and even trees and rocks followed him, and similarly charmed Pluto into releasing his wife Euridice from Hades. Other singing groups included the Jewish Choral/Operatic Society; the Aurora Glee Club, organized in 1914; and a Handel choir, organized in 1916.

Coda and Legacy

What’s past is prologue (Shakespeare, The Tempest, II, i, 261)

From published accounts of instrumental and choral activity in Winnipeg, it is evident that the early period was one of sustained performer participation and enthusiastic audience response. Around 1900, in particular, musical successes were largely due to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals, chiefly church organists and choirmasters, who interacted frequently with one another on committees of planned or established performing groups, thus contributing to the rapid development of a common musical culture. The musical background of these leaders was in most cases extensive, for many of them had received their training in England and at major European conservatories. They came well equipped to fulfill their dreams and aspirations of bringing music to a new frontier. Many of the participating musicians, on the other hand, received their training from the leaders, either as private pupils or by enrolling in organized centres for music instruction.

The music that was performed generally represented the best of mainstream Western musical culture, including lighter pieces of the time. Regrettably, published reviews of music performances were superficial, simply reporting on audience attendance and overt response, and they did not exhibit any sensitivity to matters of interpretation or aesthetics that characterized sophisticated reviews in later years.

In the field of instrumental music, the specialized performing “clubs” of the early 1900s eventually were superseded by organizations more general in scope, such as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, incorporated as a joint stock company in 1947, and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, with players drawn from the Symphony Orchestra, established in 1972. The Manitoba University Consort flourished between 1963 and 1970. The Women’s Musical Club continues to sponsor visiting pianists and other artists. Organ music, by visiting and local players, can be heard through the Westminster Concert Organ Series, begun in 1989, and in seasonal programs offered by the Winnipeg Branch of the Royal Canadian College of Organists. Several small, local, instrumental groups perform from time to time in the city.

The subsequent development of choral activity included the Winnipeg Choral and Orchestral Society, a mixed group that emerged in the early 1920s, and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Society, a choral group initially specializing in oratorios, founded in 1922 and renamed the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir in 1929, which continues today. The Winnipeg Boys’ Choir was formed by the Men’s Musical Club in 1925. These groups were representative of a large number of church choirs and other singing groups that raised Winnipeg to a prominent position among the choral capitals of North America up to World War II. Winnipeg’s position was further consolidated with the founding of the Manitoba Opera Association in 1969 and the Manitoba Choral Association in 1981 (an educational and promotional group, formerly the Manitoba Choral Directors’ Association, 1976).

In practical music instruction, a Department of Music was created at The University of Manitoba in 1944, followed by the University School of Music in 1964. At present there are a large number of commercial enterprises offering musical instruction programs for children and adults at all levels. The respective interests of educators and practitioners were embodied in the founding of two province-wide organizations: the Manitoba Musical Educators’ Association in 1959 and the Manitoba Composers’ Association in 1982.

Although the explosion of musical activity in early Winnipeg was unique in the history of Manitoba, the period of consolidation and renewal that followed has ensured that the vibrant musical activity of the community will persist undiminished into the twenty-first century.


1. James McCook, “Pioneers Preferred Pianos,” The Beaver, Winter 1954, p. 9. For a general account, see Wayne Kelly, “Keyboards for Canadians,” The Beaver, December 1991/January 1992, pp. 14-20.

2. For a more comprehensive account of reed organs and pipe organs see James B. Hartman, “The Golden Age of the Organ in Manitoba: 1875- 1919,” Manitoba History, Spring 1995, pp. 31-45; James B. Hartman, The Organ in Manitoba: A History of the Instruments, the Builders, and the Players (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1997.)

3. Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg: A Narration of the Principal Events in the History of the City of Winnipeg from the Year A.D., 1870 to the Year A.D., 1879 Inclusive (Winnipeg: Times Printing and Publishing House, 1879), pp. 17-18.

4. Manitoba Free Press, 9 October 1909.

5. Manitoba Free Press, 5 May 1912.

6. Conflicting accounts concerning the establishment of the Philharmonic Society are given in various references, chiefly due to their neglect of the distinction between the two stages in 1880 and 1881, respectively. For example, Charles H. Wheeler, “Music in Manitoba,” in The Year Book of Canadian Art, 1913, compiled by The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto (Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913), p. 85, identifies Joseph Hecker, “an able German musician,” as organizer of the Society. This interpretation is repeated in Helmut Kallman, A History of Music in Canada, 1534-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 168, but Kallnaan does not identify his source of information. Both of those references neglect Kennedy’s organizational role in what was actually the second stage (1881). On the other hand, the anonymous author of “Fifty Years of Music in Winnipeg,” Musical Canada, 16(3), August 1920, p. 42 (the entire article was copied from D. B. MacRae, “Winnipeg in Music, Art and Culture,” Manitoba Free Press, 15 July 1920), correctly identifies Kennedy as organizer and Hammerschmit as conductor, but this is the second stage (1881). The accounts of the two stages that follow in this article are derived from newspaper accounts of the time. The message for historians is clear: cultivate a healthy scepticism of undocumented secondary sources.

7. The designation “Prof.” (professor) was a common appellation assumed by or assigned to any prominent person who practiced or taught music, even though not as a full-time occupation; it did not designate any current or past association with an academic or title-granting music institution. Other individuals adopting the label included ventriloquists, hypnotists, phrenologists, and some evident scam artists.

8. Kennedy commanded the Winnipeg Field Battery and the 90th Winnipeg Battalion of Rifles. He took a hundred men to serve with the British Army in the Nile expedition in 1884; he died in London in 1885 en route home from the Sudan. His brief biography is in Walter McRaye, Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba (Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925).

9. Manitoba Free Press, 2 April 1881.

10. Manitoba Free Press, 4 August 1881. The Musical Pavilion was formerly a curling and skating rink.

11. Manitoba Free Press, 18 November 1882.

12. Manitoba Free Press, 16 January 1892.

13. This work, which achieved immense popularity world-wide, was a perennial favourite with Winnipeg audiences; it was on the programs of two touring opera companies in 1894 and was offered by other troupes in later years. Composed in Paris in 1877 as Les cloches de Corneville, the work ran for 400 consecutive performances after its opening; its successes were repeated abroad, especially in London.

14. Manitoba Free Press, 5 February 1887.

15. Winnipeg Town Topics, 30 May 1908.

16. Manitoba Free Press, 12 December 1908.

17. Manitoba Free Press, 24 October 1888.

18. Manitoba Free Press, 21 February 1903.

19. This account is derived from Valorie Dick, A History of the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg 1894-1994 (Winnipeg: Women’s Musical Club, 1994), pp. 7-10. The publication was initiated and directed by past presidents Ruth Bredin and Kathryn Young with the author.

20. Winnipeg Town Topics, 25 January 1902.

21. Manitoba Free Press, 25 July 1903.

22. Manitoba Free Press, 3 October 1908.

23. Winnipeg Town Topics, 28 November 1908.

24. Madame Schumann-Heinck, “Queen of the Vocal Stars,” made several appearances in Winnipeg before her last on 27 May 1912, before returning to sing in grand opera full-time.

25. An accumulation of memories of performances in the Walker Theatre, along with reminiscences of other prominent people in music at the time, is given in Russell E. Chester, “Music in Winnipeg 1900-1907,” The Canada Music Book, Spring/Summer 1974 (Canadian Music Council, 1974), pp. 109-115.

26. Manitoba Free Press, 25 December 1915.

Page revised: 5 August 2015