Explore the Intricacies of the Quebec Fiddle Tradition
Louis Boudreault had a big impact on the fiddle music of Quebec
Anyone who has heard the ensembles La Bottine Souriante, Genticorum, or Le Vent du Nord knows that fiddling is alive and well in Quebec. Indeed, Quebecois fiddlers have enlivened the daily life and festive occasions of their families and communities for almost 400 years. The violin was the dance music instrument during Quebec's French regime. In the 1700s, Quebecois fiddlers accompanied menuets, contredanses, and cotillons, dances that were all the rage in France, England, and their North American colonies. When the British took possession of Quebec in 1759, they continued to import fashionable dances from continental Europe, and added reels, jigs, and hornpipes from the British Isles to the musical mix.
Fiddling flourished throughout rural Quebec in the 1800s, resulting in a vast and regionally diverse dance music solo repertory passed down by ear along family lines, usually accompanied only by the fiddlers' percussive foot-tapping. Fashionable urban Quebec society kept pace with the latest European dance crazes, and some of this repertory filtered its way into outlying regions. For example, communities along the eastern St. Lawrence River Valley adopted the quadrille as their principal dance form, and fiddlers had to come up with suites of appropriate melodies. In rural areas just outside Quebec City, fiddlers still play some of the European operatic and musical-theater hit tunes that delighted well-heeled quadrille dancers in London and Paris during the mid-1800s. In the second half of the century, couple dances were all the rage in urban Quebec.
Although Quebecois fiddlers now play waltzes and the occasional polka, these once-scandalous dances were initially banned by the Catholic clergy, and rural fiddlers were slow to adopt them.
In the early 1900s, Franco-American mill workers returning to visit family in Quebec helped to popularize American called-off square dances and play parties, as well as some of the musical repertory associated with them. By the 1930s, however, the fiddle was quickly losing its place in popular dance in Quebec, though fiddle bands continued to be heard on radio and TV shows through the early 1960s. In addition, older, fiddle-driven community dances continued in many regions.
These days, the fiddle remains one of Quebec's most durable and important cultural icons. Quebecois fiddlers, for their part, have taken to the recording studio, the stage, and the concert hall, shaping the music to the needs of listening audiences at home and around the world.
Enter Louis Boudreault
One of Quebec's most beloved and influential fiddlers is Louis "Pitou" Boudreault (1905–1988), whose masterful interpretations of his family's music are much admired by the present generation of players. He brought to the stage a rich, unusual repertory and a lively, driving, masterful playing style characterized by the use of cross-tunings, cross-rhythms, drone strings, complex bowings, absolute steadiness of tempo, varying meter and form, and short, simple ornaments. He also revealed himself to be a remarkably skillful raconteur whose engaging stories of his musical childhood reconnected a young generation to a largely forgotten world.
He was born and raised in the working-class district of the mill town of Chicoutimi in the Saguenay region of the province where his father, fiddler Didace Boudreault (1880–1939), was a carpenter. Boudreault's extended family, on both sides, included some of the region's finest step dancers and fiddlers. His great uncle Thomas Vaillancourt played a remarkable repertory of tunes known in the family as les grandes danses (the great dances), an old cut of dance music and dance steps that demanded expert performance levels from fiddlers and dancers alike. As a child, Boudreault was surrounded by his extended family, whose frequent social calls often turned into impromptu house parties where virtuoso dancing and musicianship blended with games, songs, and storytelling.
Boudreault took up the fiddle around the age of nine and by 14 was seconding his father on fiddle at dances. By custom, he would have eventually taken over from his father, but "Pitou" was born at the end of the era of regional dance and music. Most of his peers wanted to dance the newfangled "American sets" (square dances), not the old-fashioned grandes danses. The elder Boudreault learned a few square dance tunes, but found them relatively uncompelling. By the 1930s, square dances and house parties were in turn being swept away by big-band music and dances held at public halls.
Over the following decades, many of Boudreault's musical contemporaries in Quebec either laid down their fiddles or abandoned regional repertory in favor of a more modern tune stock. Boudreault, however, had experienced an unusually rich, distinctive, and highly developed music and dance tradition within his family. His profound attachment to the world of his youth and his desire to affirm and perpetuate that connection made him impervious to the pressure of keeping step with musical trends. Instead, he became a largely solitary player, quietly honing and polishing the family repertory and playing the occasional tune for the listening pleasure of older relatives at family gatherings.
He also carried on his father's trade of house carpentry, eventually marrying and raising a family. Along the way, he picked up a number of fiddle tunes from such popular recording artists as Joseph Allard and Bernard Morin. He also created several wonderful compositions evoking the world of his youth.
The 1970s were an effervescent decade of political and cultural self-affirmation in Quebec. During that decade, a group of young urban Quebecois in search of authentic culture began producing folk festivals, visiting with older traditional musicians, and preserving their music on film and recordings. Then in his early 70s, Boudreault became a folk-music celebrity.
Boudreault performed at festivals in Quebec and the United States and made recordings in both countries. He died in 1988, leaving behind a music that continues to inspire fiddlers in Quebec and beyond.
The Playing Style
What is it that makes Quebecois fiddling so distinctive? For starters, it's first and foremost dance music: there are no slow airs and only a handful of tunes intended for listening alone. Most fiddle tunes are in duple meter in a major key, generally G, D, or A—the brooding angst of minor modality is noticeably absent. The predominant form is the reel—a Scottish/Irish dance tune with four quick notes for each pulse, organized into two eight-bar sections with AABB repetitions.
Another common form is the gigue, a solo step-dancing tune similar to the reel, but often consisting of four-bar sections and sometimes incorporating parts having three pulses per measure. Other duple-meter forms include the galop (a genre associated with the quadrille, which sometimes includes 16-bar parts with lyrical melodies and slower melodic rhythms), polkas, marches, and clogs. Tunes in 6/8 meter, called "six-huits," are most commonly played in regions of Quebec where the quadrille was adopted. These include British Isles jigs, 19th-century quadrille tunes, and brass-band repertory. Waltzes were uncommon to fiddlers of the early 20th century, but are now a standard part of the repertory.
Playing style varies greatly, but some characteristics are widespread. Traditionally, Quebecois fiddlers play their eighth notes fairly evenly, using a down-driven, energetic, short-bow style characterized by steady, fairly quick tempos. The sense of timing and structure derives from the beat rather than phrase, and while tune phrases are typically four or eight bars long, it is perfectly ordinary to play tunes that have more than two parts, parts longer or shorter than four or eight bars, parts repeated more than twice, mixed meters, and melodic expansions or compressions that lead to "extra" or "missing" beats.
Ornamentation varies considerably, from the straight-ahead playing of the late French-Canadian fiddler Isidore Soucy to the densely decorated interpretations of the celebrated Jules Verret. Typical ornaments include grace notes, triplets, drone strings, double-stops, trills, vibrato on long notes, and turns. Syncopation, when used, is derived not from backbeat or playing across the beat, but from dynamic accenting (varying the bow weight) to create playful combinations of on-beat, off-beat, and unaccented four-note groupings.
And, of course, there is the wide use of percussive foot-tapping to accompany duple-meter tunes.
This article, "Explore the Intricacies of the Quebec Fiddle Tradition," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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