Canada's lost music

Elaine Keillor's research uncovers thousands of early music scores that bring to life the history of Canadian music

Date published: 2006-04-27 10:27:08 AM

When Elaine Keillor started the huge task of unearthing Canada's rich musical past, most of the artifacts—the manuscripts, recordings, photographs—were mouldering in basements, attics, garages, and archives across the country.

Keillor, a music professor at Carleton University and co-founder of the Canadian Musical Heritage Society (CMHS), first got interested in saving this little known part of Canada's heritage in the late 1970s while doing research for an encyclopaedia of Canadian music.

"There were so many cases where we found references to works of music and titles, but no one had any idea where these pieces were or even if there were still any existing copies," says Keillor. "Many of these works hadn't been played for more than 100 years, and we began to feel that the country was being robbed of an important part of its heritage."

So with funding from SSHRC, Keillor and the CMHS started looking for Canada's lost music. Two decades later, the CMHS has completed a comprehensive anthology of pre-1950 Canadian music. Along the way, the society tracked down some 22,000 compositions. The anthology includes: seven volumes of choral music; four volumes of songs; three volumes each of piano music, music for orchestra, and chamber music; two volumes each of music for organ and music for band; and one volume of operas and operettas.

To bring this unique piece of Canadian history to a wider audience, Keillor and the CMHS recorded CDs of many of the compositions in this great collection. They've also set up a distribution service to supply copies of compositions to institutions, musicians, educators, and the general public.

"Music is probably the one artistic practice that had the greatest impact on the pioneers of this country," reflects Keillor. "We see so much of the personality, concerns, and values of the early settlers reflected in their music. It really is an incredible way to get to know our history."

Elaine Keillor's contribution to Canadian heritage earned her the first Canadian Women's Mentor Award in Arts and Culture in 1999. She has received three grants from SSHRC.