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Grand tradition: Joseph Saucier 1869-1941.

I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND IT MORE THAN CURIous that throughout history, members of the same family have often played crucial roles in a country's musical development. This second part of the 20th century, for instance, has produced a wide variety of world-class Canadian operatic families. One has only to think of, among others, the Brauns, the Relyeas and the Quilicos to realize that music has always been, and continues to be, a family affair.

In Quebec, one of the leading musical families were the Sauciers. In the second half of the 19th century, Moise Saucier was one of the most highly regarded organists, pianists and teachers in the country, but it was his son, Joseph, who was to leave a lasting imprint on Canadian musical history.

What is particularly striking about Joseph Saucier is the range of his musical activities. A noted pianist and organist, he was primarily known as a choirmaster and especially as a baritone soloist. Born in 1869, he studied piano with his father before opting for singing. A pupil of Achille Fortier in his native Montreal, he pursued his vocal studies in Paris. On returning to Montreal, he embarked upon his two complementary careers: the first, an almost 40-year stint as a choirmaster and a second, equally impressive career as a baritone soloist.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Saucier's main sphere of influence was not opera. He was primarily identified with oratorio and the concert platform. He championed a genre that is, alas, almost forgotten today--the French oratorio. Gounod, Massenet and Berlioz figured prominently in his repertoire, especially the latter's La Damnation de Faust. According to the critic Marcel Valois, "he brought [to his interpretation] a sense of drama and authority not only to the text but to the music of this Berlioz masterpiece." He was also closely associated with the works of Theodore Dubois, specifically Les Sept Paroles du Christ and Le Paradis Perdu, in which he sang Satan most memorably at the 50th anniversary of Laval University. He created Alexis Constant's oratorio Les Deux Ames in 1913, and appeared frequently with various orchestras and local choral associations.

Saucier was as highly regarded as a recitalist. He was a famed interpreter of French melodie. Once again, he performed the works of Dubois and Massenet, but it was especially in the songs of Faure that, according to one critic, "he held his audience spell-bound."

His operatic appearances were rare, not for want of talent or temperament but rather for lack of opportunity. Operatic performances in Montreal and the province of Quebec just after World War I were rather rare. But Saucier certainly possessed a voice of operatic dimensions. In a famous obituary of the singer, the aforementioned Valois wrote that, had Saucier remained in France, he would undoubtedly have had an operatic career like that of his fellow countryman, Raoul Jobin. Nevertheless, he was a noted High Priest in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, that most oratorio-like of operas.

Saucier's life as a singer has particular historical significance because he is almost certainly the first Francophone Canadian to have recorded on cylinder or disc in 1904. The length of this career is equally interesting, for he was still recording solos some 20 years later. His exhaustive and rigorous musical education no doubt accounted for the musicianship and musicality of his performances, but Saucier's art displayed much more. In one of the earliest of his recordings (his 1908 rendition of Achille Fortier's "Isabeau s'y promene" is included on Analekta's first volume of Great Voices of Canada), we hear a appealing lyric baritone, unmistakably French in manner, that was used with an unerring sense of style and with an idiomatic diction and natural phrasing. He retained the same qualities throughout his career, as is borne out by his 1924 recordings, which include the stirring "Le regiment de Sambre et Meuse" by Robert Planquette, which is also part of the Analekta volume. With the passage of time, the voice had obviously lost some of its freshness and ease, especially in the upper reaches, and yet it had lost none of its authority or finely defined focus.

Saucier was from a generation of Francophone Canadians whose artistic values were drawn from France. It was from his spiritual home that he obtained "his refinement of spirit and his generous understanding of all of music's problems." He continued as a choirmaster in Montreal until, at the age of 67, ill health forced him to retire in 1936. He passed away five years later, leaving not only a rich recorded legacy but a noble family musical tradition.
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Author:Richard Turp
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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