LABELLE, CHARLES (baptized Charles William), lawyer, musician, teacher, author, and editor; b. 15 Aug. 1849 in Champlain, N.Y., son of Charles Labelle and Marie Dubois; m. 5 June 1872 Marie-Louise Derome in Montreal at Notre-Dame church, and they had seven children, two of whom, Adrienne and Gustave, became musicians; d. 21 May 1903 in Montreal.
Charles Labelle was born in the United States but spent his childhood in Montreal. Not much is known of his youth or of his musical studies, except that he received his earliest lessons from his father, a cabinet-maker by trade, and did his classical studies from 1861 to 1869 at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal. There, at age 12, it is believed, he was put in charge of the class in solfège and appointed organist of the Congrégation de la Sainte-Vierge. Despite his musical bent, Labelle chose a career in law. After articling in the office of Sir George-Étienne Cartier*, François-Pierre Pominville, and Louis Bétournay*, he was called to the bar in 1873. He is said to have practised law until about 1887, on his own at first, and then in partnership with François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel* and Louis-Olivier Taillon* in 1874–75, and with Benjamin-Antoine Testard de Montigny.
Despite his professional activities Labelle did not abandon music during these years. He studied singing and accompaniment with Mme Petipas, took part in amateur concerts as a singer, and held his first posts as choirmaster at Saint-Jacques from 1873 to 1875 and Saint-Henri from 1876 to 1879. In order to earn his salary at the latter church he also had to organize musical and dramatic performances. He did not go to Europe to continue his training until about 1880. That he studied under the famous singing teacher Romain Bussine cannot be verified. There is, in fact, reason to believe that at this time Labelle wanted to further his knowledge of teaching rather than of singing. He had undeniable stage talent in the minor repertory of operetta and love songs, but his voice, which according to Guillaume Couture* was “small and slightly husky,” did not permit him to envisage a career in opera.
On his return to Montreal Labelle was again engaged as choirmaster at Saint-Jacques from 1881 to 1884, and then at Notre-Dame from 1884 to 1891. Several months before his contract with Notre-Dame came to an end he was dismissed, as was the organist, so that musicians able to show the new organ to full advantage and ensure solemnity in the liturgy could be appointed. His dismissal and his replacement by Guillaume Couture provoked sharp reactions, to judge by letters and articles in the newspapers, the resignation of several choir members, and a citizens’ petition sent to Archbishop Édouard-Charles Fabre* of Montreal. A feeling that an injustice had been done Labelle, who “possesses musical artistry to a degree at least equal to Monsieur Couture’s” was unanimously expressed. Perhaps discouraged by the inflexibility of the religious authorities, but primarily spurred by the necessity of finding another source of income, Labelle went to Boston. There, according to L’Étendard of Montreal, “the post left vacant by the death of Monsieur Calixte Lavallée [Calixa Lavallée*] was offered him.” But he soon returned to Montreal, where the fabrique of the new parish of Saint-Louis-de-France engaged him as choirmaster. He retained this post for the rest of his life and broadened the scope of the choir he had founded to include activities beyond participation in religious services. He had done the same earlier with the choir of Notre-Dame, in addition to conducting the Chœur des Montagnards, in 1888 at least, and founding the Société Philharmonique Canadienne-Française in 1889. This mixed choral society would disappear after less than two years because, according to columnist Frédéric Pelletier, the singers lacked discipline and were unable “to comply with the wishes of an artist, energetic and gifted though he was.”
Labelle also devoted himself to teaching solfège and singing to his singers, in private lessons, and at a number of teaching establishments, including the Petit Séminaire de Montréal, the convent and academy of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in the Hochelaga ward of Montreal, and in the period 1891–1903 the Collège Sainte-Marie-de-Monnoir at Marieville. The publication in 1892 of a Petit traité de solfège, which was approved by the Council of Public Instruction of the province of Quebec and adopted by several large educational institutions, bears witness to his competence, as does his engagement in 1895 to teach solfège and take charge of the choir at the new conservatory of the Canadian Artistic Society. According to the newspaper Le Samedi, Labelle was at that time considered “one of the most popular teachers in Montreal, also one of the most highly regarded.”
It is more difficult to form an opinion of Labelle’s achievements as a columnist and music critic on the basis of two periodicals he edited and a few articles which appeared in L’Album musical (1882–84), L’Écho musical (1888), and elsewhere. Likewise, since apparently none of his musical works was published, it is impossible, solely on the basis of what people said, to draw any conclusions about his reputation as a composer of talent. It can be said, however, that through his main activity, his work in the fields of choir music and the teaching of music, Labelle had helped develop musical taste in Montreal. His contribution to the cause of music was even recognized abroad when he was made an honorary member of the Institut Populaire de France.
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