The origins of the province’s musical tradition lie in military and police bands, church choirs, immigrant teachers, enthusiastic residents, and the example of the many travelling groups of instrumentalists and singers who came by rail across the continent from the earliest days of settlement. Within the first fifteen years, the NWMP Barracks and the Town Hall in Regina had rung to dozens of musical performances while Saskatoon, with a population of but a few hundred, had three music halls, a choral society and a small orchestra by 1903. A Philharmonic Society, formed in Regina in 1904, performed Haydn’s Creation (1906) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1908), and had already toured opera to Saskatoon (1905). In the late 1880s Ontario piano and organ businesses were advertising vigorously, and keyboards were an essential accompaniment for almost any social gathering in town and country. Church, school and community choirs were at the core of the Saskatchewan music festivals from 1909. Many church choirs exceeded fifty members, and in the 1950s the Bishop’s School for Choristers in the Diocese of Qu’Appelle had over 100 boys annually each summer. Choirs travelled several hundred miles to attend the provincial festivals.
Between 1907 and 1920, musical education had been placed on a sound footing by the development of the Conservatory of Music, first as a private school in 1907 and then at Regina College, and by such organizations as the Bell Conservatoire, the Palmer School of Music and Lyell Gustin’s Studio in Saskatoon. The teachers were active choir and orchestral conductors, instrumentalists and recitalists. Gustin sent his best pupils to teach in communities adjacent to the city. He also inspired music appreciation for thousands of schoolchildren in twenty concerts annually presented in Saskatoon by over fifty local artists in the 1930s. This was the decade when music entered the school curriculum at all levels. While the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and the McGill and Toronto Conservatories conducted province-wide examinations, the Western Board of Music, organized by the three prairie universities and the Departments of Education, sprang to life in 1936 as a result of the vision of Arthur Collingwood, whose Chair of Music owed its existence to University of Saskatchewan President Murray and the generosity of the Carnegie Corporation. The practical and financial support both men gave to the music festival movement through the university over many years was especially crucial during the Depression. From this period too came the Music Teachers’ Association, whose national arm was established in 1936 by the western provinces.
Claims that Saskatchewan was isolated from the mainstream are hard to sustain. Many of its most distinguished practitioners were trained in Scotland, England, the United States or Australia, and were well known there. Some travelled annually to Europe, most to American cultural centres. Until the 1960s, the Music Festival Association brought excellent musicians from England to adjudicate. From the 1920s, radio broadcasts allowed residents in most larger places in the province to hear at least five leading orchestras weekly, and from 1931 the Metropolitan Opera as well as a wealth of professional chamber concerts, live and on record. Outstanding international stars—Emma Albani, Nellie Melba, John McCormack, Jan Kubelik, Fritz Kreisler, Marcel Dupré, Percy Grainger (honorary vice-president of Gustin’s Musical Art Club), Gracie Fields and Artur Rubinstein among them—came across the prairie. The Women’s Musical Clubs from the earliest days, and later the Celebrity Concert Series, the Young Artist Series and many other groups, often sponsored by service clubs, added to the range of visiting artists and gave valuable experience to local artists preparing for professional careers.
During the last half-century, a majority of young people have entered the festivals formerly dominated by adults, the range of instrumentalists competing has widened, and the number of local festivals has grown from one in 1926 to thirteen in 1939 to fifty-one in 2004. Adult and school choirs have become rarer; but youth choirs of a high standard have appeared in several places, and some have won national prizes. Several competitions have been created for solo performance and for composition. The emphasis on composition can probably be traced to Murray Adaskin’s enthusiastic endorsement of the art for his students in the 1950s. The province now has at work several nationally recognized composers. The symphony orchestras in Saskatoon and Regina have employed at least a dozen full-time professional musicians each for the last thirty years, and these people have expanded the opportunity for live chamber music. Both provincial universities grant undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, first begun in Saskatoon in the 1930s, abandoned in 1947 and revived again in the 1960s. All these developments are sustaining the standards which have been aimed at since the earliest pioneering days of the late 19th century.