Elsie and Music

By Alexander Reford

The year 2022 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Elsie Reford. Les Amis des Jardins de Métis is celebrating this anniversary with a series of exhibitions, publications, concerts, lectures and special events.

Among the special events is the restoration of her 17th century violin – to bring Elsie Reford’s instrument back to life so that it can be played for the first time in a century. An unplayed violin loses its musicality. So restoring her violin is an act of preservation and of generosity. The wish of the gardens is to create a loan program so that a young musician from the region can use her violin for practice and performance.

A work of music is also being commissioned to honour her and her love of music – a legacy and gift to musicians and audiences who will find in its notes and rhythms moments of beauty. I wrote this short article to help the luthier and the composer understand the musical life and times of Elsie Reford.

Alexander Reford January, 2022

Elsie Reford’s parents gave her the gift of music from a young age. This was typical of her epoch, where Victorian parlours came to life with music, singing, piano-playing and impromptu concerts. Music was thought to be an important part of a young woman’s education. Along with handwriting, dancing, embroidery, watercolours, the art of conversation, elocution and comportment (standing properly, sitting with elegance and mastering the art of curtsying), music was key to a woman’s development. Mastering an instrument was important to her entrance into society. A musical education imposed method, rigour and practice. It also opened the door to the culture of music, the majesty of European courts, the dignity of waltzes and the brilliant composers of past centuries. Music also made women ‘entertaining’ and the centre of attention in a world then mostly dominated by men and their needs and pastimes.

Did the young Elsie attend concerts in Perth, the Eastern Ontario town of her birth? Or was it only on her arrival in Montreal that the world of music opened to her? Her archives are silent on the matter, but we know that Perth had a concert hall that regularly hosted performers and performances when she was born there in 1872. We can assume that her father Robert Meighen, partner with his brothers in Arthur Meighen and Bros., the village’s most successful dry goods store, took his seat at concerts on a regular basis.

Elsie’s Violin Case

Elsie Reford’s ornate violin case is one of the more remarkable objects from her long and busy life. Made of polished burled walnut, it is in extraordinary condition. Used for display rather than travel, it would have been placed next to her piano and music stand in her Montreal home – case and ornament all in one.

We are fortunate to have several photographs of Elsie playing her violin and posing with her case. From them we learn that she must also have had a hard case, the kind of case you see violinists use today to take their instrument from home to their performance venue.

This case carries the stamp “E. C. Withers” on its brass nameplate. Edward Withers Ltd. was a well-known London violin maker, its shop located on Wardour Street in Soho. Withers made and dealt in violins and carried a complete inventory of essential items for violinists (and other string musicians), like strings, cases and more.

Fitted with blue velvet compartments, Elsie’s case is home to a handful of historic objects. There are several pieces of fragile rosin, the conifer resin she used to stroke her bow to create friction to vibrate the strings. The metallic mute would have been used by her to shield her husband or sons from the repetitive scales and studies that were part of her practice routine.

E. Withers & Co.

Circa 1895

Burled walnut, brass, velvet

Embroidered Violin Cover

Elsie Stephen Meighen’s initials are inscribed on this silk cushion that protected her violin and identified her instrument and case as her own. The embroidery is probably her handiwork – as embroidery was a lifelong passion. It is one of the precious objects linking the violin and its case to its owner.

Elsie’s Violin

The silk cushion decorated with the initials “ESM” was embroidered by Elsie Stephen Meighen to protect one of her most treasured possessions – her violin.

The violin is the handiwork of the Klotz workshop, whose atelier was in the Bavarian alpine village of Mittenwald, Germany. Her instrument was likely made in the late 1600s. Now showing its age and usage over more than 350 years, it was used daily by Elsie Reford in the 1880s and 1890s.

Michael Klotz

Circa 1680

Maple, spruce and varnish

Bowing Out

When we think of violinists, we think first of their violin and the significance and value of their instrument. But it is the bow that brings an instrument to life and allows it to sing.

Elsie’s violin bow is the handiwork of one of the world’s premier bow makers. Recently sent to Paris for authentication, bow expert Jean-François Raffin confirmed that her bow was made by Parisian archetier, J. A. Vigneron, père, around 1885. Vigneron had a long career as a bow-maker, learning from his father-in-law, bowmaker Claude Nicholas Husson, in Mirecourt. Mirecourt is the village in Lorraine that is the centre of French violin and bow making and today home to the École Nationale de Lutherie.

Vigneron opened his own shop in Paris in 1888, where his son André Vigneron joined him. Vigneron’s bows are noteworthy for their fine musicality and limited decoration – and their great value – sometimes selling for more than $20,000 at auction. They are much sought after by professional musicians and collectors.

Elsie’s bow has an elegant swoop and is in near mint condition. It is decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and silver wire and carries the stamp “Collin-Mezin” of the Paris shop who sold it. The bow was donated by Michael Reford to Les Amis des Jardins de Métis in 1997. It has been on display in Estevan Lodge ever since.

Did Elsie buy this fine bow while a student in Paris? How often did she use it? When did she last put it down? The story of the violin, bow and case died with her – but remains an important reminder of her life in music.

J. A. Vigneron, père

Bow in wood, silver and mother of pearl, horsehair, circa 1885

Les Amis des Jardins de Métis Collection

By the time the Meighens moved to Montreal in 1880, the city had developed a vibrant musical culture, welcoming musicians on tour coming from the United States, England and France. Concerts by orchestras, large and small, were offered in one or other of the city’s musical venues. Pianos abounded in Montreal homes and their sale was promoted on the pages of the city’s daily newspapers. Music teachers provided private tuition in the homes of the wealthy. The convent schools and private schools that educated young women made musical education one of the keys to learning, offering musical instruction and practice pianos to their students.

The Académie de musique du Québec hosted annual diploma competitions to advance musicians and their musical training. The Académie was founded in 1868 to standardize the teaching of music and to provide professional music teachers with an institutional basis from which to promote their craft. Illustrating the growing interest in music, the Montreal women William Notman photographed in his studio are sometimes shown with their instruments – holding their harp, banjo or castanet – or, as in the case of an 1887 portrait of the 15-year-old Elsie Meighen, their violin.

Elsie Meighen’s parents believed in giving their children a musical education. Elsie and Margaret were given music lessons. Margaret played the violin. Their brother Frank played the piano. He was destined to become Montreal’s most energetic promoter of live music and financier of the city’s first opera company. Elsie mastered both the piano and the violin after years of instruction and practice.

Elsie’s uncle, George Stephen (later Lord Mount Stephen), older brother to her mother Elsie, was a lover of music. In 1884, he took delivery of a magnificent musical instrument that cost the incredible sum of $4,000 (more than the cost of a Montreal mansion at the time). Now owned by Heritage Montreal and on display at Le Mount Stephen hotel in Montreal (built around Stephen’s Montreal mansion in 2017), the piano was ordered from a leading New York City manufacturer. Its anticipated delivery was important enough to be featured in the Montreal Gazette on June 25th, 1884:

One year ago W. T. [William Tutin] Thomas, a Canadian architect, who planned the handsome house of George Stephen, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, at Montreal, also designed the furniture, including a pianoforte, all to be in renaissance [sic] style. The order for the piano was given, after much deliberation, to Decker Brothers, of this city, through their Montreal agent, DeZouche & Atwater, and plans and specifications were sent to them. The design of the architect was followed throughout, and the instrument was finished a few days ago. It will be on public exhibition at Decker Brothers’ warerooms to-morrow, but a Tribune reporter was favoured yesterday with a view of it at the factory in West Thirty-fifth street, and was permitted to run his fingers over the keys. In appearance the pianoforte would ornament any apartment. It is of the small grand pattern, and is built of the satinwood of South America, finished in different styles to produce contrasting effects. The case proper is made of nine pieces of satinwood, veneering glued together to form one continuous body which reaches from corner to corner. This is laid off in panels which are inlaid with rare and costly woods of South America, and bright metal.[1]

Stephen’s Drummond Street home became the regular venue for social events, where Montreal society mingled with distinguished visitors, financiers, railway magnates, politicians and members of the Royal Family. Music was also on the menu. In 1885, Stephen and his cousin, Donald A. Smith, sponsored an annual scholarship to pay the tuition for a talented Montreal musician to attend the Royal College of Music in London. The “Montreal Scholarship” (later the Strathcona Scholarship, the title Smith took when he was elevated to the House of Lords) supported a generation of musicians to attend the most prestigious musical college in the British Empire. The scholarship launched the musical careers of several performers from Montreal, notably sopranos Ella Walker and Beatrice Lapalme and contralto Ada Moylan.[2]

So little is known of the upbringing of both Robert Meighen and his wife Elsie Stephen that it is difficult to speculate what music they brought with them when they emigrated from Ireland and Scotland respectively. They were both from Presbyterian families, a Protestant denomination not known for its enthusiastic embrace of music. Singing and organ playing were mostly discarded by the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and Presbyterian churches limited such “Romish” practices associated with the Roman Catholic liturgy. The Stephen family however came from Dufftown, a small town in the Scottish Highlands that was the venue for a musical revival in the 19th century and where Presbyterian churches began to allow the return of organs in rural parishes and choral singing. Outside the confines of the Chapel, the popular culture of the Highlands was built around music, notably the bagpipes. The Clan Grant (of which the Stephen family was part) embraced this musical tradition. An 18th century portrait of the “Piper of the Laird of Grant” celebrates the hereditary piper of the Grant family, their castle on the River Spey in the background. Elsie Stephen’s father was a carpenter and a violin maker, so it can be assumed that music was part of her home life in Dufftown before she followed her brothers to a new life in Canada. We have in our collection a wooden fife that belonged to George Stephen, suggesting that he toyed with music. But unlike the other native-born Scots with whom he was often associated in business, Stephen showed no obvious enthusiasm for putting on the Scots; he was never photographed in Scottish regalia. He was an enthusiastic supporter of charities in and around his place of birth, but seemingly kept his Scottish heritage confined to his brogue and love of fishing for salmon. A portrait by Princess Louise shows him puffing on a cigar with a Scottish tam covering his snow-white hair. In later life, Stephen welcomed musicians to his country home, Brocket Hall, in England. Notable among them was the first Canadian musical superstar, Emma Lajeunesse (whose stage name was “Madame Albani”). Another visitor was the Australian diva, Nellie Melba.

Still Life of Elsie’s Music on its Stand

This still life image of Elsie’s music stand is another illustration of self-depiction. That it survived at all (Elsie deliberately destroyed much of her correspondence and actively edited her life story) is itself a mark of the significance of the image. While the photographer is unknown, by its size, backing and quality, it is clearly the work of a professional photographer – suggesting a photo shoot in her childhood home – where her sheet music, violin and music stand were quite deliberately captured for posterity.

Elsie mastered not just one, but two musical instruments. Her musical proficiency was such that as a 14-year-old she participated in the diploma competition of the Académie de musique du Québec in 1886. This annual event was created to push musicians to obtain diplomas to illustrate the progress of their musical formation. Elsie Meighen was awarded the Grade II diploma prize that year on the piano. She returned the following year, obtaining a Grade I diploma on the violin.[3]

Elsie was fortunate in having Montreal’s best as her piano and violon teacher – Paul Letondal. Letondal was the city’s first professional teacher of music. Although blind, he played organ and piano and was described as a virtuoso on the cello. He taught many of the city’s future professional musicians, including Calixa Lavallée, best-known today for his composition of “O Canada”. Described as a “cultured musician, coupled with a pedagogue of exceptional merit”, Paul Letondal was also admired for his humanity: “A keen observer; with a great deal of intuition, an original spirit, always alive, with incomparable verve, a happy and broad spirit. He spoke well in public, speechifying with ease and loved conversation. A cultivated man, he kept aware of the world’s affairs and took part in literary movements around the world.[4] Letondal’s son Arthur, destined to be organist at the Gesù church in Montreal and an equally renowned teacher, was in the same musical cohort as Elsie.

Portrait of Elsie Meighen and Her Violin

We are fortunate in having several photographs of Elsie as a musician. This portrait by William Notman is interesting in illustrating the subject’s clear choice to show herself as a budding musician for her first ever formal portrait. Caressing her instrument in the Notman studio, the image is an affirmation of the young Elsie’s image of herself – feminine, elegant, a clever woman with a purpose.

A surviving portrait of Elsie Meighen, taken in Dresden, Germany, shows her playing violin, illustrating that the instrument was her companion when she attended finishing school there. Dresden was one of Europe’s cultural capitals, known for its exceptional Baroque architecture. It was where wealthy Montreal parents sometimes sent their children to complete the education they could not receive at home. There Elsie was housed in a beautiful villa where she and her fellow residents were offered an education high in culture. Among the most expensive items on the statement of accounts she kept was for piano and violin lessons.

Her account book from her months in Paris the following year illustrates the degree to which music was at the centre of her universe. In April-June she went to 11 concerts, four of which were at the Grand Opéra and five at the Théâtre Français. She bought eleven books of piano music and an additional eleven of violin music. She even rented a piano for the duration of her school term. While her expenses on clothes were greater that what she spent on music lessons, her investment in her musical education was considerable.

On her return to Montreal, she performed in various ensembles. In May, 1893, she appeared as one of the performers of “piano and other instrumental quartettes” at an event held at the Montreal Academy of Music (a theatre and concert hall located on Victoria Street, near St. Catherine) before a “very fashionable, though somewhat small audience”.[5] On the occasion of her engagement to R. W. Reford in June, 1893, she performed at her own engagement party, playing the violin to her future father-in-law before cracking a bottle of champagne. Her musical talents were among the attributes that earned her the accolade of being “very clever” from her future mother-in-law, Kate Reford. Her last concert before her wedding was in March 1894: “Miss Meighen” is listed as being among the violins in the orchestra performing in the Good Friday performance of Handel’s Messiah in Emmanuel Church on St. Catherine Street.[6]

Little is known of Elsie’s later life in music. In the 1907 Musical Red Book of Montreal, she is listed (as is her mother) as one of the “concert goers of Montreal”. Her correspondence with Lord Grey indicates that she brazenly asked her wealthy uncle to make a donation to start a campaign to build the city’s first concert hall (he refused). But it was her brother, Frank Meighen, who became known as Montreal’s leading musical impresario. Meighen sponsored performances in Montreal parks, battling leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to introduce military and popular music to the city’s appreciative audiences (the clergy objected to the choice of music and occasional female performers). With tenor Albert Clerk-Jeannotte, he founded the Montreal Opera Company. He lavished much of his personal fortune covering the deficits incurred in its first three years of over 300 performances by 100 members (20 of whom were professionals, mostly imported from Europe). Musical historian Harold Kallman described Meighen’s opera company as “the most ambitious opera enterprise ever undertaken in Canada”.

Frank Meighen was lauded in the French-language newspapers for his indefatigable support of Montreal music and musicians. “Colonel Frank Meighen […] president of the Montreal Musical Society is very well known in Paris and London, in the main artistic circles. We know his very refined artistic taste and his devotion to all the causes of art. Colonel Meighen, fluent in several languages, is the son of Mr. Robert Meighen, the President of the Lake of the Woods Company and one of our leading millionaires. He has a considerable personal fortune which he is not afraid to use for art.” Shortly before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Meighen launched the project of building the city’s first dedicated concert hall. The outbreak of war in August that year brought an end to his dream. He spent the war years as a general in the Canadian Army, leading the Royal Montreal Regiment to France. On his return from the war, he turned his attention to the running of the Lake of the Woods Milling Company. The idea of a dedicated concert hall died until revived by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard; the Maison symphonique was finally completed nearly a century later, in 2011.

Frank Meighen, musical impresario

Frank Meighen was the older brother of Elsie. An accomplished rider, he dedicated most of his youth to military matters as a member of several Montreal reserve regiments. Frank Meighen was raised to the rank of Brigadier in World War 1 and led the recruitment of Montrealers for the war effort. He was also a man about town. When Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) first visited Montreal in 1919, Meighen was his host. This caricature shows two of Frank Meighen’s passions, soldiering and the Lake of the Woods Milling Company, sarcastically hinting that the maker of Five Roses flour was becoming bloated with the riches of supplying the Canadian army during the war. http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/imagedownload.php?accessNumber=M20111.11&Lang=1&imageID=232451&format=large

In the memoir to honour his mother, Eric Reford wrote that Elsie Reford played music daily until the First War, when her volunteer service in Montreal and London intervened. Whether she ever returned to her instruments is unknown. Her piano was an elegant piece of furniture in her Drummond Street home. Elsie’s violin was likely kept in a place of honour. When the case was opened in 1995, the strings of her violin were gone and the bridge broken, suggesting it had not been played for decades.

What of Elsie’s music appreciation? Music remained part of her life. Her presence at concerts is often mentioned in newspapers, documenting that she took an active part of the city’s musical life. After the end of the First World War, Elsie Reford committed much of her volunteer time to political causes and charities. A letter from 1920 offers her critique of a performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, also called Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony in Italian), which she found not up to par. When my father, Michael, lived with her on and off in 1950 and 1951, he gave her the gift of a record player, allowing her to hear LPs and some of her favourite pieces of music –  bringing sound to the Montreal home had been silent until then.

Elsie Reford’s life was sufficiently long to allow for the ebb and flow of enthusiasm and passions. Music and horseback riding gave way to fishing and then gardening. Politics was a passion, but it too ceded its place to charity work and re-shaping society behind the scenes. Her musical training gave her the discipline that shaped her world. Even into her nineties, she committed a passage from a book or a poem to memory every day. At her life’s end, summering at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta in 1965, she hired a tutor to teach her Latin and Greek. I think that music gave her that discipline, imposed a method and fostered in her a lifelong appreciation that only with practice can one become perfect.

[1] The Gazette, 25 juin 1884.

[2]  Musical Red Book of Montreal, 1907, p. 85, p. 92, p. 115.

[3]  Le Courrier du Canada, Monday July 5th, 1886.

[4]  Dictionnaire biographique des Musiciens canadiens, Lachine, 1935, p. 181.

[5] The Gazette, May 16, 1893.

[6] The Gazette, March 19, 1894.

[7] Le Passe-Temps, February 18, 1911.