Organ in Canada - a performer's guide

After the Russian Federation, Canada is the world’s 2nd largest country, at nearly 10 million square kilometres; but because much of its territory is uninhabited wildreness it is also the world’s 9th most sparsely populated country at an average of just 3 persons per square kilometre. Ethnically its population of 31 million is 44% of British origin, 25% French origin, 20% other European origin and 11% other ethnic groups. 

Though the land now known as Canada is thought to have been inhabited for over 5000 years by Tsimishan people, who crossed from Asia on a now-vanished land bridge across the Bering Strait, it was first reached by Europeans (Scandanavians) in the 11th century, by French and British explorers and colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries, Loyalists to Britain fleeing American independance in the 18th century, and a steady stream of immigrants from the rest of the world ever since. It became a dominion independant from Britain in 1867, and is composed of ten provinces and three northern territories. Its capital city is Ottawa (Ontario), and its three largest cities are Toronto (Ontario), Montréal (Québec), and Vancouver (British Columbia).

Two significant challenges face organ concert presenting in Canada: economic and geographic. Being in a relatively young nation with a weak (and I might add significantly eroded) tradition of arts funding by the organ’s traditional sponsors, govenrment, educational institutions and the church, many concerts have no revenue source other than paid audience admission. Moreover, as church and church-related institutions do much of organ concert-presenting in Canada, earlier reliance on their now depleted congregations has given rise to a certain complacency, a poor standard of publicity and promotion, and a fear of really investing in events to assure their success. Add to this the high cost of transporting artists, maintaining organs and so on in a huge and sparsely populated country, and you have a most challenging situation.

However with its British and French heritage, and relatively high level of church attendance among the countries of Western Christianity, Canada is culturally sympathetic to the organ. As a member of the Group of 8 (G8) major industrialized nations, ranking 18th in the world by GDP per capita, and with a literacy rate of 97%, it is a proud and thriving cultural centre, with activity concentrated in many large cities. Although not every major Canadian city has an active organ recital scene, they all have fine organs and thriving cultural lives, as do many smaller cities as well. Fine organs are predominantly found in churches in Canada, although there are a number of them in concert halls and university auditoria.

The most extensive collection of organists and organ concert presenting activity in Canada is a professional organization called the Royal Canadian College of Organists, but there are many presenters not reachable through its membership, including the member sections of the Federation quebecoise des amis de l’orgue, universities and concert halls, music festivals, many church concert series and community presenters, and the entire theatre/popular organ scene. Many presenters feature the organ as but one of many musical attractions in their seasons’ activities. In some cases suggesting an organ concert will be greeted with some surprise and even resistance: but with proper marketing many, Canadian and international artists give concerts each year. This area of the OrgAlt site is intended to help artists and presenters find the information they need to work together.

As in many parts of the world, organ concerts may be found principally in areas of greatest population: in Canada this is the south, along our border with the United States of America. I have never heard of an organ concert in the Yukon, North-West and Nunavut territories, and the northern-most major centre is the city of Edmonton, capital city of the province of Alberta. In the past ten years the major Canadian organ performance and education centres have been Montréal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton, with perhaps Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton, London, Kitchener/Waterloo, Québec City and Halifax being at a second tier, but with some level of activity also occurring in most other cities with a population of over 60,000, and notable cases in still smaller towns, especially in Ontario and Québec. The OrgAlt newsletter has for many years attempted to list all organ concert activity in Canada, and my best estimate from this experience would be that there are perhaps 200 each year, with a significant majority being free-admission lunch-hour and pre-church service events.

Canada’s national public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has a limited and occasional presence for the organ, but no regular programming. Most other classical-music format stations can be described in the same terms. Among Canadian record labels, the Montreal based Analekta is perhaps the largest maintaining organ record production and distribution, although larger labels such as CBC Records have been known to issue organ recordings too, and there are innumerable small, independant and self-produced labels that amount to a respectable 20 or so releases per year, mostly with small distribution. Organ music publication is at a similarly low level, with small houses like JayMar of London and LucArel of Montréal having perhaps the greatest recent output.

For OrgAlt’s collection of organ-specific information about Canada, visit our Listings and Links page

Official City Sites lists not just the web sites of major Canadian cities, but many small cities and towns. It’s a long list, though, so you’d best know the name of the place you’re looking for.

One of the best ways to browse miscellaneous and difficult-to-find online resources about Canada is Canada Information by Subject, a search offered by the National Library of Canada.

For more in-depth general information, try a search for Canada at there are detailed articles about our contry’s history, geography, people and economy.

Tourism Canada offers information on many attractions and activities, trip planning tools, a free tourism guide you can order, the free Spirit of Canada magazine, travellers’ questions and answers, and so on.

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