President's Report 2006 | Research

Seal oil and string quartets

Dr. Tom Gordon

It is a story that continues to capture the imagination of the director of Memorial’s School of Music 30 years after he first heard it. “It may very well be our best kept cultural secret,” said Dr. Tom Gordon. “Very few people know that the Inuit of Labrador were performing – in Inuktitut – the music of Mozart, Haydn and Bach, as well as many other European composers of the 18th century, before there were even choirs or orchestras in Montreal or Toronto.”

Dr. Gordon first came by this “remarkable curiosity” in a conversation with a university colleague in Toronto in the 1970s. At the time, Allison MacKay performed with the Toronto Consort, playing early music on period instruments. The group had travelled to Nain to hear the Inuit choir and orchestra play.

“Allison came back after a week and she was just overwhelmed. ‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ she said, ‘they are playing on historic instruments and performing authentically in an 18th century style.’” Dr. Gordon added, “Since Nain Labrador seemed like it was on another planet, all I could do was file this remarkable story away. But 25 years later, I found myself here at Memorial and wondered how the story had progressed since I first heard it.”

The anomaly of Mozart in Inuktitut is a musical outcome of the efforts of European-born missionaries from the Moravian Church who settled in northern Labrador in 1771 to Christianize the Inuit. Dr. Gordon’s fascination with this musical history led him to two authorities on the subject. Religious Studies professor Dr. Hans Rollman has extensive knowledge of the Moravian documents and has completed an archival photograph album from the Labrador missions in 2002. Tim Borlase, director of the Labrador Institute facilitated Gordon’s first visit into the Labrador community.

What Dr. Gordon found on his subsequent research visits to Nain, Makkovik and Hopedale was more than 10,000 pages of music manuscript, some 165 works of music for choir and orchestra, all handwritten with text in Inuktitut. While Dr. Gordon dates the earliest at 1802, the music in the manuscript is older still.

“It is a very unique body of music,” said Dr. Gordon. “Some of the oldest music in Canada and some of the oldest music performing traditions in Canada are found in these three villages on the Northern coast of Labrador. “It’s not just the age of the manuscripts that make them unique. It is the same music from the same composers that was performed in Moravian congregations elsewhere, but the Inuktitut versions were never printed.” According to Dr. Gordon, the music was probably translated at the Moravian mission’s center in Herrnhut, Germany, by a former member of a mission to Greenland who could speak Inuktitut and then sent to Labrador.

What’s more, the 200 year-old repertoire is still being used today. Although the church choirs have more or less disbanded in Hopedale and Makkovik, the continued on page 6 manuscripts are used every week by the choir and string ensemble in Nain. “On a Sunday morning you can walk into the church and witness choristers singing from sheets of music that are 200 years old. And when you get close to it, even the paper the music is written on reveals a bit of its story.” Dr. Gordon went on to explain, “The choir members all held the music between their index finger and their thumb and their hands were often coated with seal oil. When the choir members held the music, the seal oil coming off their fingers left a colouration. Thus the manuscripts with the darkest thumbprints are the most used – the most popular.”

Regardless of how strong the musical legacy might still be, the 200 year-old paper is not. The sheets of music are physically deteriorating. “It is all literally crumbling in their hands,” said Dr. Gordon, a fact that has prompted efforts to preserve the collection.

Dr. Gordon has spent parts of the last two summers in Labrador taking digital photos of all the sheets of music in an effort to document and catalogue the collection. Working from the digital photos, Sean Rice, Dr. Gordon’s student assistant in St. John’s, transcribes the handwritten music to electronic format using music notation software. The computer program produces a musical score of each of the works, suitable for study or for performance. The new scores are then sent back to Labrador for editing of the Inuktitut texts. These will eventually replace the original fragile copies, which can then be transferred to community archives and museums for preservation.

With the help of an Inuit research assistant, Lena Onalik, Dr. Gordon also started a dialogue with community elders about better preserving the manuscripts that are no longer in use in Hopedale and Makkovik. A Moravian church elder in Makkovik agreed with his suggestion that the sheet music, which was kept in an open cupboard on the porch of the church, be moved to the local museum. “She said a couple of years ago they had thought about throwing out the music because no one was using it anymore,” he said. While he was delighted the music was kept, “it drove home how short the memory is for what an important cultural legacy might be and how important it is to secure it.” Securing this piece of Inuit history and culture for younger generations may prove to be a challenge. The sense of the importance of preserving the Moravian music comes from the few elders, now in their 70s and 80s, for whom the church was the cornerstone of their civic and religious life. “The understanding of the value of this cultural legacy within younger generations of Inuit is not the same. This is partly due to the effects of “southernization.” But there is also a sense among younger Inuit that this is music that was imposed from the outside: that it came from Europeans and, even though the Inuit became very adept at it, the Moravian music superseded their own musical traditions. Inuit songs and dancing were actively discouraged by the missionaries and gradually seeped out of collective memory,” explained Dr. Gordon.

Other native traditions were lost with the historical intersection of European and Inuit culture. Their nomadic way of life in family groups was discouraged and the Inuit shifted toward a mission-centered existence. This close proximity with Europeans exposed the Inuit people to European diseases to which they had no immunity, most notably the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic which arrived with a Moravian supply ship and killed one third of the Labrador Inuit population.

An examination of the Moravian music in Labrador may well show how the Inuit influenced and changed European music over time. According to Dr. Gordon, throughout the 19th century, the Moravian missionaries frequently commented on the extraordinary aptitude the Inuit had for music and on how quickly they picked up instruments, learning to play the cello, the violin or the French horn very expertly. Yet over generations, the performance of music that started out as very European became something other than European. Successive “generations” of copies of the same composition are actually different pieces of music. Inuit musicians were effectively rewriting the music, adapting it to their particular performing abilities and to their own conception of what is beautiful.

Examining the influence Inuit culture had on outside forces may prove timely at the start of another critical turning point in their history. The year 2004 marked the beginning of a new era of Inuit self-government over education, health and cultural affairs, pending the full ratification of the LIA settlement, expected in June 2005. “As the Inuit of Labrador assume responsibility for their governance, health care, education and cultural identity,” said Dr. Gordon, “any evidence we can bring to light regarding the impact they have already had on something as seemingly abstract as European music may offer some valuable lessons for the future.”

What started out for Dr. Gordon as a “list-making, museum project,” has quickly transformed into research with many possible outcomes. As an exercise in musical archaeology, it may well uncover insightful clues on how two cultures adapted to one another. At the heart, however, is a tale about the power of music-making that inspires Dr. Gordon to share it with others. “There is a fascinating and compelling story to be told – a totally improbable collision of cultures that took place in a corner of the world so obscure that few outside it ever noticed that it had happened. And yet, it remains, until this day, a part of the people’s lives in those communities. I think it’s an extraordinary story.”