Music French-American Colonial Music
Élisabeth Gallat-Morin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0187


French colonial possessions included an important part of North America (called New France in the 17th and 18th centuries) and several Caribbean islands. The territory of New France extended from Acadia in the east (the Maritime provinces of Canada), along the valley of the Saint Lawrence to the Great Lakes to the west, and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, which was founded in 1718. The territory was governed from the capital, now Quebec City, which was the seat of the governor and the bishop. The major portion of the population settled in the valley of the Saint Lawrence River, in the towns of Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal and in seigniories all along the Saint Lawrence. After the French defeat in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec, Canada and Acadia were finally ceded to the British by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and Louisiana was ceded to the Spanish. French Antilles (or French West Indies) in the colonial period included Saint-Domingue (the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which was ceded to the French in 1697, and which achieved independence in 1804 under the name of Haiti); Martinique and Guadeloupe, which came under French rule in 1635 (they later became French Départements d’Outre-Mer, or overseas territories). In all these regions, attempts were made to recreate the lifestyle of French society, including religious and secular musical life, according to the means available. French sacred music by well-known composers was performed in the churches, and ships would bring, along with the latest fashionable clothes, the music that was popular in France to be played in the salons. In the New World, music was as much a part of life in society as in France, albeit on a smaller scale; the repertory and musical instruments were similar.

New France

Quebec City, the capital of New France, possessed all the institutions of a French provincial capital. In an attempt to mirror old France, the newcomers tried to recreate the society they had known in the mother country, including musical activity, both religious and secular. It was long thought that the only music brought over from France were the very fine regional folksongs that were kept alive long after they had disappeared in France. Surviving musical manuscripts and prints as well as research into archival documents show that the bishop, the cathedral, the seminary, the Jesuit college in Quebec, the Sulpician priests in Montreal, and the teaching and hospital nuns all enhanced the solemnity of religious services with music, as they had in France. The Recollet, Jesuit, and Sulpician missionaries even translated parts of the liturgy and hymns into Indian languages. Concerts and balls took place at the governor’s residence and the palace of the finance and justice intendant, where excerpts of operas were presented; music books and instruments, the same as in France, are found in postmortem inventories of wealthy merchants.

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