Nothing reflects the essence of a society and its people more clearly than arts and culture. The songs born of a culture are often true windows into everyday life of that society. By that measure, Ernest Gagnon was a keeper of the culture in Quebec. His own compositions and his attention to other contemporary songs – he collected and documented them over the last half of the 19th century – are timepieces of the culture of that province.
The folklorist, teacher, administrator and historian is probably best remembered for his compilation of folksongs, titled Chansons populaires du Canada. The collection, which is considered by some to be the landmark of 19th century folk song research in Quebec, first appeared in 1865 in six installments published by the journal, Le foyer canadien. It was also published the same year by the Foyer canadien printing office, with a new preface, as a single volume for sale to the general public.
Folklorist Luc Lacourcière sets out three reasons for the strengths of Gagnon’s collection:
• An organist himself, Gagnon noted the melodies with great precision;
• He included data on those catalogued inside and the regions where song information was collected;
• He published the first songbook of its kind.
Generally, the idea of collecting folksongs in French Canada was still in an embryonic stage at the time. Contemporary collections often took a casual approach to documenting musical renditions. Gagnon’s work had a more precise, studied direction. His Chansons populaires collection contains complete textual and musical scores for more than 100 songs. Individual song notations and essay commentary reveal his extensive knowledge of traditional song. He respected both verse forms and the different inflections of the tunes within his transcriptions.
Gagnon’s work was so exacting, in fact, that it attracted the attention of folklorist-collectors in France who had compiled similar collections in that country. They accorded Gagnon the singular honour of making him a member of the Société des Compositeurs de musique de Paris. For the subscribers of Le Foyer canadien, Gagnon’s compilations helped preserve their cultural heritage and national French-Canadian consciousness. He was an active participant in the nationalism movement in the province.
Born in 1834 near Trois-Rivières, Gagnon studied music and took piano lessons at a young age. In later years, he met leading musicians of the day in both Montreal and Quebec City. He became the first music instructor of the new École normale Laval in 1857, but left shortly thereafter to study and travel in France and Italy. Upon his return to Quebec, he resumed teaching at the École normale Laval and was known for engaging in public debate on the roots and meanings of songs and their accompaniment.
His imprint was felt in many areas: he was the organist at the Quebec Basilica and he helped found the Académie de musique de Québec, for which he served four terms as president. Later, he became a civil servant, attached to both the Quebec premier and to other cabinet ministers. He continued to write historical pieces, many of them focused on the contribution of music to Quebec life. In 1902, he became a member of the Royal Society of Canada. A former president of the Académie de musique once described him as, “a man of rare discrimination and high ideals, guided by a deep love for the characteristics of his country.”