The Ode to Newfoundland, just not as you ever heard it
Does your heart soar when you hear the opening phrase "When sunrays crown thy pine-clad hills"?
The Ode to Newfoundland has stoked pride in generations of Newfoundlanders — but you might be surprised by the theatrical way it was introduced to the public more than 120 years ago.
When the audience took their seats at the Casino Theatre in St. John's on Jan. 21, 1902, they had not the faintest inkling that they were about to witness a milestone in Newfoundland history.
It was a wintry Tuesday evening, and the audience had come to see a comedy called Mamzelle, performed by the travelling W.S. Harkins Theatre Company. By all reports, the show's first act was a hit, but it was a second-act surprise that would live on in the memory of every person in attendance and come to shape the identity of an increasingly independent British colony.
During scene changes, members of the visiting troupe sang to cover the noise of set pieces being moved around the stage, accompanied by a local orchestra under the direction of St. John's musician E.R. Krippner. It was for one of these interludes in the second half of the show that an actress named Frances Daisy Foster sang a new poem by then governor of Newfoundland Sir Cavendish Boyle that Krippner had set to music.
But this wasn't the Ode to Newfoundland as we know it. Krippner's melody was lively, lilting, and dramatic.
Called simply Newfoundland, Boyle's ode blended vivid images of the island's landscape with themes of ancestral legacy, religious faith, and pride of place. The poem spoke straight to the heart of a spirit of nationalism that had been growing steadily in Newfoundland for the previous few decades.
The words alone were a perfect storm of patriotic sentiment, but the performance amplified their message with a distinctly dramatic flair.
On the last verse, two soldiers emerged from opposite sides of the stage. One wore the traditional British red coat and held the Royal Standard, the colony's official flag. The other wore a khaki service uniform and held the Pink, White, and Green, Newfoundland's unofficial flag. They strode to centre stage and crossed their flagstaffs in front of the vocalist.
Audience response was electric
As Foster crooned the song's final notes, she gathered the two flags in her hands, wound them around each other and pressed them tenderly to her breast. The audience response was electric. The crowd spontaneously joined in on the chorus, and the next day a St. John's reporter cannily predicted that Boyle had "given us a poem which may be chosen as the colony's own anthem."
But this wasn't the Ode to Newfoundland as we know it. Unlike Hubert Parry's often sedate, formal tune that we're accustomed to hearing, Krippner's melody was lively, lilting and dramatic.
(If you're not familiar with Krippner's music, you are not alone. It has seldom been performed. While the sheet music has survived, I could not find a recording of it. It was recorded for a CBC Radio series in the 1980s, but it is not currently accessible.)
The song resonated so strongly with Newfoundlanders and so perfectly answered a yearning for patriotic symbols that by July 1902 Newfoundland's committee of council had resolved to make it the colonial anthem. There was only one hold up: the decree needed the signature of the governor, who also happened to be the song's lyricist.
Given the conflict of interest, Sir Cavendish Boyle declined to sign. He might have had another, less principled, reason for demurring. Boyle reportedly wasn't fond of Krippner's music. He felt it was too lighthearted for the dignified words of his ode.
So, in 1904, Boyle asked composer Hubert Parry, a childhood friend, for help finding a British songwriter. Parry had a high profile in the U.K., and to this day is best known as the composer of the hymn Jerusalem, in which he set a William Blake poem to music.
A song from a friend
To Boyle's surprise and delight, in April 1904 he received two arrangements of the ode composed by Parry himself. The second proved to be the Boyle family's favourite and — after being popularized by schools, Rotary clubs and other local organizations — was eventually recognized as Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial anthem on Aug. 17, 1979.
Although the ode evokes a sense of connection to the generations of Newfoundlanders that have come before, none of the people involved in the song's creation were Newfoundlanders by birth.
Cavendish Boyle was a British civil servant born in Barbados. He lived in Newfoundland for only three years, from the time he was appointed governor of the colony in 1901 until he was reassigned to the governorship of Mauritius in 1904.
E.R. Krippner, composer of the ode's original score, was German. He had come to St. John's in 1899 to serve as bandmaster for the local Catholic cadet corps and, as a passionate stamp collector, had the quirk of accepting Newfoundland stamps in exchange for violin lessons. Krippner left the island in 1904, relocating to Winnipeg.
Parry, who wrote the arrangement of the ode we know today, was an Englishman who never set foot in Newfoundland. Even Frances Foster, who first performed the ode, was a Halifax-based actress on tour to the island.
Nonetheless, Newfoundland's ruggedly beautiful landscape and steadfast people made such an impression that they created a song whose strains continue to reverberate across our island more than a century later.