Otonabee Ward: Music Festivals, Present and Past

With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it’s nice to be considering the idea of ​​listening to live music again. There’s plenty to look forward to this spring and summer with Musicfest concerts in Del Crary Park throughout the summer, the Lakefield Jazz Festival on July 9, the Peterborough Folk Festival August 19-21, and more.

This got me wondering about early music festivals and while researching I discovered that the Toronto Music Festival in 1886 was the first to take place not only in Toronto but in Ontario, and it took place over three days on June 15, 16 and 17.

With three evenings and a matinee, it was the largest gathering of singers and musicians to date.

The festival was organized by conductor Frederick Torrington, who had emigrated from England in 1856 and, according to “A History of Music in Canada 1534 — 1914”, had acquired a reputation for doing things on a grand scale.

The event took place at the Caledonia Curling Club ice rink on Mutual Street in downtown Toronto, the only building large enough to accommodate this number of performers. Torrington brought together a 1,000-voice adult choir, a 1,200-voice children’s choir and a 100-piece orchestra to perform Gounod’s ‘Aors et Vita’ trilogy and Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ oratorio , among other directories.

The guest singers were Lilli Lehmann, a German operatic soprano and Max Heinrich, a German-born American baritone. The honorary chair and sponsor of the event was Toronto businessman and philanthropist George Gooderham.

Of the 100 members of the orchestra, one was my great-grandfather, Henry Teck Culley, who played the piccolo and the flute. There were about 12 musicians from Toronto in the band, with the rest from Rochester and Buffalo, New York.

Teck Culley was an independent musician at this time. He taught at the Toronto College of Music (which later became the Royal Conservatory of Music), was a founding member and president of the Toronto Musicians’ Association (the union at the time), and performed in pit orchestras throughout the city, including the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street (which in 1903 was purchased by the infamous theater owner Ambrose Small who also owned the Grand Opera House on George Street in Peterborough).

Teck toured the United States with the band John Phillip Sousa. Sousa was well known at this time as the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and the inventor of the unusual tuba-like instrument known as the “Sousaphone”. During the warmer months, Teck played band gigs on the Toronto Islands and in city parks, including the Horticultural Pavilion in what is now Allan Gardens.

According to reports at the time, the Toronto Music Festival attracted visitors from across Canada and helped put Toronto on the map musically.

The festival had a lasting impact in that it was the start of the May Music Festivals in the Toronto District School Board, a tradition where a large children’s choir came together each year to perform at the same venue, a wonderful event that I remember having participated in when I was in 6th grade. I’ll never forget my spine tingling as I was just one voice among hundreds as we all sang Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘On Wings of Song’.

Another lasting effect of this original festival in 1886 was that such momentum was built around the music that there was a resolution to build a more permanent performance hall in Toronto.

With a $100,000 gift from philanthropist and manufacturer Hart Massey, Massey Music Hall opened in 1894, with Teck Culley as part of the Grand Festival Orchestra playing the three-day opening festival from June 14, performing, among other pieces, Handel’s Messiah.

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