- The Conservatoire — A Quiet Revolution
- A center of influence for Music and Theatre
- A Vital Institution
It is 1942, wartime. Québec is experiencing a period of openness at the political level, and the new premier, Adélard Godbout, a forerunner of the Quiet Revolution, adopts several progressive measures, including one that consists of accepting the proposal by renowned pianist and conductor Wilfrid Pelletier to create a conservatory here, like the ones in Paris, Brussels, and Bologna.
This artist of humble origins had earned an exceptional reputation in the United States as one of the most illustrious artists of his time. He was a natural teacher and a passionate proponent of the talented musicians of his native Québec. Perceiving a lack of experienced musicians, he decided to use his influence to promote the creation of a conservatory, supported in his efforts by colleagues who were similarly convinced of the need. Thanks to their insistent efforts, and to the willingless of Adélard Godbout and his team, the Act respecting the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec was passed. One year later, in March 1943, the establishment opened its doors. It was the very first state school in North America devoted to the professional teaching of music.
And yet, over 60 years previously, seasoned musicians had already asked in vain that such a national institution be created. Calixa Lavallée himself, the illustrious composer of Oh Canada, had eagerly desired an institution of this type... but to no avail. It was therefore due to a fortuitous set of circumstances that the Conservatorie saw the light of day in 1942, endowing Québec with a specialized, secular, and free establishment on an English-speaking continent, and in an era in which the clergy exerted power in almost every sphere of public life. The new institution was a prelude to a new era.
Indeed, the Conservatoire would take over from the music schools found in convents and colleges, and serve as a mechanism to broaden the reach of Québec art and artists both within the province and beyond its borders. It would soon contribute to the burgeoning of a creative and peaceful community that enjoyed rallying around its culture and inviting the people of the world to take part. In keeping with the tradition of the great European conservatories, and inspired by the dynamism of the young Québec society, the type of teaching that prevailed in this institution would be characterized by certain traits that, over the years, would come to be considered basic values.
Among these traits, it should be noted, are the availability of continuous professional music training and of university-level theatre training. In both cases, great value is placed on teacher-student relationships and personalized guidance. It should also be noted that the Conservatoire reserves the right to select candidates it feels are the most promising, that advancement from one grade to another is based on excellence, and that training was completely free until 1996. The Conservatoire even lends instruments to students who do not have any. In January 1944, less than a year after the opening of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, the Conservatoire de Québec opened, also with Wilfrid Pelletier — who now split his time with between Montréal, Québec, and New York, where he continued his brilliant career — as its director.
It was ten years before the institution’s theatre section would be established. Here again, there were a few struggles before the idea was able to take shape and, once again, Wilfrid Pelletier would use his influence and renown to advance the cause of arts in Québec. He appealed to Maurice Duplessis, who was premier once again, and on December 13, 1954, the Conservatoire d’art dramatique de Montréal welcomed its first class, 12 boys and girls who would learn the craft under the able leadership of Jan Doat. Warm, generous and daring, Doat was the first in a series of masterly directors who were among the artisans of some of the key moments of the history of the Conservatoire de Montréal. Jean Valcourt succeeded Jan Doat in 1957. Through his efforts, a Conservatoire d’art dramatique was also established in Québec City in 1958.
Following the example of the music section, the theatre section favoured the student, guidance, and teaching. “The subject matter is the teacher, the program is the student,” Jean Valcourt would say. In this institution today, one can learn everything from set design and stage direction to costume design, dubbing, or acting for film and television. Like the music graduates, those in theatre are renowned for their creativity, their diligence, their knowledge of the classics, and their ability to adapt to all situations and repertoires. They have been referred to as true “emotional athletes !”
In the 1960s, the Quiet Revolution was in full swing and found an outlet in the art schools. The Conservatoire itself went through a phase of great turmoil. Young artists in search of new means of expression occupied centre stage and imparted an extraordinary dynamism to our dramatic art. The Conservatoire, a venerable institution drawing inspiration from European traditions, was shaken by this wave of change, but adapted, and adopted an innovative approach while continuing to instil in young people the integrity and persistence that would help them become accomplished artists.
The music students, for their part, often used their classical training as a springboard for a career in jazz, pop, or film music. Oscar Peterson and François Dompierre were among these artists. It was also at this time that the directors of the Conservatoire decided to expand its presence throughout Québec in order to meet the aspirations of talented young people, and provide alle of Québec with a strong structure. In 1964, the Trois-Rivières and Val-d’Or institutions opened their doors, under the direction of musician-teachers who left a profound mark on the regions. Edgar Davignon in Val-d’Or and Czeslaw Kaczynski in Trois-Rivières are remembered as exceptional figures, entirely devoted to their art and their teaching. In 1967, the year of the Montréal World Fair, Gatineau would obtain its own conservatory. This institution would meet with great success from the outset ; that very same year, it was followed by the Conservatoire de musiquie de Saguenay, which innovated by forging profitable links with other educational institutions in the region.
Finally, it was in 1973 that the youngest of our music conservatories opened its doors in Rimouski. This “newcomer” enthusiastically took up the challenge of ensuring higher learning in the immense eastern maritime region of Québec.
In becoming a government corporation, on March 31, 2007, the Conservatoire entered a major modernization period. It acquired administrative better suited to its mission, while preserving its basic values : intensive and individualized training in the performing arts, and the continuum of music education, from the pre-collegial to master’s level. The Conservatoire remains a national institution serving a large part of Québec.