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The Brief Story of Music in Madawaska

There has existed in our region an ever-growing love of singing, dancing and instrumental music. In the nineteenth century between 1858 and 1873, girls attending Madawaska Academy, which was run by the Sisters of Charity, had the opportunity to learn the piano. The Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph continued the work started by their predecessors and organized many gatherings featuring music, singing and skits.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Mr. Martin, a violinist, gave music lessons in the schools in the region. Dr. P.-H. Laporte, and his sons [sic], Dr. Paul Carmel and the photographer Sydney, also contributed their musical talent to the region by leading bands and a choir. The interest in music had a big boom in the 1930s thanks to Mr. Léo Poulin. Hired by the city of Edmundston to direct the brass bands, he became a seasoned director, leading bands for adults and youth, both boys and girls.

The girls' band, in particular, made Léo Poulin a real innovator, because at the time the population was not accustomed to seeing women blow into a wind instrument. This band prepared many for participation in the women’s army orchestras (the Canadian Women’s Army Corp CWAC) during the Second World War.

Mr. Léo Poulin and his musicians took part in numerous concerts in Chicoutimi, Rimouski, Rivière-du-Loup and Woodstock (NB) where in 1932 the group won the honours in an international competition. Mr. Poulin also organized “Minstrel Shows”, a sort of musical vaudeville show, popular at the time. As well, he was a music teacher in city schools where he introduced music as a subject with year-end exams. Thus, music got its place and recognition as a school subject. In addition, Léo Poulin began Harmony Edmundston with Louis-Joseph Lachance and the best musicians in the region. The musical activities at that time gave Edmundston a designation as “the most musical” city in Canada. For many years this fact was used in leaflets and tourist promotional materials to promote our corner of the world.

Louis-Joseph Lachance assured Mr. Poulin’s succession. In addition to giving private singing and piano lessons at his residence and at College St. Louis, he held the position of choirmaster at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Edmundston. For a time he taught music in city schools. With the assistance of members of the choir of the Immaculate Conception parish and other parish singers, Mr. Lachance produced several successful operettas. These operettas were performed in the former Collège Saint Louis Hall, the “Drill Hall”, which were military barracks used by the College. It was the only major concert hall available in the late 1940s. Included among these operettas were “Royal dindon” (Royal Turkey) and “Les cloches de Comeville” (The Bells of Comeville) which had three performances.

For several years, Mr. Lachance promoted another domain, which created a taste for classical music, called the Community Concerts. These concerts sponsored by Columbia Records brought us great international artists.

Choir singing was also popular, thanks to the initiative of schools run by religious communities, both men and women. Their concerts often highlighted the most beautiful aspects of this musical art: Gregorian chant, Negro spirituals, French-Canadian folklore and classical singing. In the early 1980’s, Mr. Hercules Pelletier, organist, founded a choir called "Les Balladins du dimanche” (The Sunday Balladeers) whose concerts were and still are known for their excellence.

There was even an interest in ballet in our area. Sister Larose at College Maillet founded a ballet school managed by a French woman, Miss Landon. In Edmundston, Miss Janice LeCouffe ran a private ballet school where she taught in the early 1960s.

A traditional dance school was founded in 1955 at College Maillet by Sister Henriette Raymond, director of the famous and dynamic “Troupe folklorique du Madawaska.” It was followed by the group “Danseurs de la Vallée” (Dancers of the Valley) directed by Richard Therrien, a former student of Sister Raymond. Both groups are recognized as ambassadors of the Republic, in America and Europe.

There is also an attraction in Madawaska for popular dances: jazz, rock, western, mixed with traditional folklore. The latter types are very popular in Golden Age Clubs in the various parishes of the northwest.

It is worth mentioning that a few years ago, radio station C.J.E.M., had a weekly radio program highlighting local talent. The program “Au pays du Madawaska” (In the Land of Madawaska) had guest artists like Jeanne Landry - pianist and singer, Carmelle Gaudreau – mezzo-soprano; Omer Cormier - violinist; Alice Picard - trumpeter and many others.

Directed by the first Superior of College Saint-Louis, Father Simon Larouche, Eudist priest, the Edmundston Harmony was a great success. Later, Georges Guerrette, manager of radio station CJEM, and by Father Camille Albert, Eudist priest led the orchestra.

Music festivals, initiated by Audrey Coté-Saint-Onge, also had a significant impact on youth training. Our elders will remember the first festival that took place in 1948 in the barracks of College Saint Louis. After several successful years, the festival was discontinued, but was revived in the early 1960s thanks to John Vallilée. The festivals focused on piano, singing and dancing. In 1975, Roger Ouellette, an accountant, founded the Richelieu School of Music, where young people could learn other musical instruments: wood and brass.

Finally yet importantly, two violin schools were founded by Rev. Lionel Daigle, pastor in Clair but now retired. He gave free courses, first to “Les jeunes violonistes de Clair” (The Young Violinists of Clair) and then to “Les P'tits Violins de Saint-Basile” (The Little Violins of Saint Basile). In his residence at the convent in Saint Basile, Father Daigle welcomes kindergarten students as well as adults. For his generous contribution to the world of music in the region, Father Daigle received the Governor General of Canada Medal from Madame Jeanne Sauvé.

People in the Upper Saint John River Valley love music, singing and dancing and they have expressed it with zest every year, especially since 1979 during the annual Foire Brayonne. Richard Therrien described the festival as follows:

La “Brayonnerie” is the reel, the quadrille and the jig; it is a swing to the left and a swing to the right; it’s violin, song, music; it’s a great annual festival, the Foire Brayonne which bursts open the soul of the people, the joy of our cultural heritage. Our folklore, we eat it, transmit it, sing it, and dance it. Make room for celebrating ... For a few days, the city of “Little Falls”, capital of the Republic of Madawaska, is transformed into a vast playground, into a huge dance floor. Les Danseurs de la Vallée, our poets of movement, come to tell us of the soul of our homeland. They offer us a dazzling show, rich in color. “Brayonnerie” is also Mr Typique our mascot, the VIP of the festival. He lights up smiles and shares his joy and happiness with the crowd.

Claude Picard
Université de Moncton campus d'Edmundston Société Historique du Madawaska Ville d'Edmundston Patrimoine Canadien