Women and Music in Edmonton: A Music Geek’s Experience in the Archives

As a summer full of different archival work draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the fantastic musical works that I encountered as the Archives Summer Student at the City of Edmonton Archives. Just coming out of my first year of my Master of Archival Studies (MAS) at the University of British Columbia after completing a Bachelor of Music from the University of Alberta, it was a pleasure to come back to my musical roots and uncover some amazing pieces and some amazing women that shaped the city I call home.

Examples of sheet music from the 1920s. MS-138 Mrs. C.  Charters fonds. Photograph taken by writer.

Examples of sheet music from the 1920s. MS-138 Mrs. C. Charters fonds. Photograph taken by writer, 2016

Private collections are my favourite kinds of archives because I can learn about people I admire in my community and find connections between what they valued in their own records and what I also value in mine.

Several prominent Edmontonian women were music collectors, like I am, and I jumped at the chance to arrange and describe their musical records. Notably were the collections made by Violet Sciepo Field and E. L. Burrill, and Mary Hanratty.

The thing about sheet music is that it is not a conventional archival record. Typically, a record is considered something to be made or received by their creator and used in their regular course of business, like correspondence or medical records. Musical pieces, however, are already published works in themselves. Instead, it is the annotations, musical notations such as breath marks, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation, that are the important records. It would have allowed the creator to be able to recreate their performance time after time. Preserving these pieces of music, in essence, is preserving a performance within their pages.

While I was arranging and describing Mary Hanratty’s sheet music collection, I stumbled across something amazing: she had in her collection a published score from 1803. To be able to see a piece of music that old was unforgettable. It also piqued my interest to find out more about who this kindred musical spirit was. Hanratty, known as Edmonton’s “queen of caterers”, was considered to be one of Edmonton’s business pioneers. Her catering business was very successful, catering extravagant events around Edmonton in often the wealthiest of homes. In her personal life, she was a member of the Women’s Musical Club of Edmonton and the Edmonton Opera Association and her collection of sheet music consists of both secular and sacred music from predominantly the 1890s to the 1940s.

Me “geeking out” in the City of Edmonton Archives Manuscript fonds vault. I am taking a look at the score from 1803 – MS-280, Series 1, File 1 Video filmed by writer, 2016

One of our most prolific collections is the Mrs. E. L. Burrill and Mrs. T. H. Field collection. This collection alone is almost one linear metre of religious and popular songs, as well as transcriptions made by Burrill. It reminded me of my own music collection piling up in my apartment and drove me to find out more about these women.

Violet Sciepo Field, known primarily as the second female alderman of Edmonton, serving on City Council in 1952-1953. Until her election to city council in 1951, she was known as one of Edmonton’s leading club women and welfare workers. She was most well known as a pianist in the community, hence the music collection full of piano and vocal pieces. Mrs. E. L. Burrill was Field’s sister-in-law. She had acquired Violet Field’s sheet music collection and consolidated it with her own music and oration books.

As an aside, my favourite thing about her is that she literally signed her name in violet ink on official City documents! - RG 11, Series 7, Subseries 7.3, File 19. Photograph taken by writer, 2016.

As an aside, my favourite thing about her is that she literally signed her name in violet ink on official City documents! – RG 11, Series 7, Subseries 7.3, File 19. Photograph taken by writer, 2016.

One of my favourite pieces from their collection has one of the most amazing and baffling titles (pictured below). I almost passed over it believing it to be merely another loose page amidst their collection. How glad I am that I didn’t! Coming across something lighthearted and silly amidst “official” government files always brightens my day. Archives never cease to surprise me.

"How Can You Toot a Toot-Toot When You Have no Toot to Toot" by Seymour Furth, 1909 - MS-340, Series 1, File 43. Photograph taken by writer, 2016.

“How Can You Toot a Toot-Toot When You Have no Toot to Toot” by Seymour Furth, 1909 – MS-340, Series 1, File 43. Photograph taken by writer, 2016.

What kinds of records do you have in your personal collection that may bring a smile to your face? Please comment below to spread some smiles!

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