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Le Chorale Orion

[The following is an article translated from the French, which appeared in Le Journal de Lowell, June 1979, p.5.]

The Champagne family

“Love is like a bowl of lettuce” may sound like words written by Lewis Carroll for his elusive white rabbit that Alice pursued to Wonderland. But this expression translated into French now takes on a new meaning for thousands of Franco-Americans throughout New England as well as for the people of Québec. Its real translation is “L’amour c’est comme la salade…”, the popular folk song composed in 1916 by Philias Champagne, member of the renowned musical Champagne family, of which Eusebe is the most famous. Today, in 1979, this music comes back to life and once more becomes popular. Yes, the first songs written and composed by the brothers Champagne have been rediscovered, performed and recorded.

When the first Canadians immigrated to the United States, particularly to New England, they brought with them a rich treasure of songs and ballads, a treasure that enriched our own national heritage. With time, this original music inspired our urban communities such as Lowell and Fall River in Massachusetts; Manchester, NH; Woonsocket, RI; Lewiston, ME; Winooski, VT; and Putnam, CN, creating a truly rich repertoire for our Canadian ancestors living in an Anglophone environment. These folk songs have preserved their eternal and precious themes.

Octave Champagne was born in 1859 in Saint-Etienne de Bolton in the county of Brome, Québec. His father immigrated to Lebanon, NH and that’s where Eusebe was born in 1871. Around 1890, the three Champagne brothers, Philias, Octave and Eusebe settled in Lowell, MA and with time, their music was so well appreciated throughout New England they began publishing and selling it, and the celebrated Eusebe, violin in hand, became the Strauss of New-England.

In 1977 Richard Santerre, PhD. of Lowell, historian of Franco-Americana, and well known for his appearances on PBS television received some of this music from a friend who had come across it in attics and cellars in the area. Richard became fascinated with this music, most of which had been published in Lowell it seems at the beginning of the 20th century. Having gathered as much as he could, he discovered that these compositions and songs had been written and composed by the Champagne brothers, mostly by Eusebe whose photo, with violin and curly hair appeared on many covers.

After much research and much thought, it was decided that this music could still be performed and appreciated. Albert Santerre, Richard’s brother, had the ingenious idea of achieving this and did so with great success. Being a lover of music and interested in promoting the Franco-American cause, Albert brought these musical treasures to the attention of Normand Ayotte, an accomplished singer with much knowledge of French folk music. Normand was captivated by this find and as a result, La Chorale Orion was founded. The name was taken from the publishing house of the Champagne brothers, The Orion Music Company.

The first concert presented by La Chorale Orion was performed on May 3, 1978 at the Little Theatre, Mahoney Hall on the South Campus of the University of Lowell. Shortly thereafter La Chorale Orion put out a stereo record containing the following songs: Salut; O Canada; L’Amour c’est comme la salade; Amour brisé; Le Distrait; S’aimer toujours; Le départ du Soldat; Les Nouveaux mariés; Le Retameur; Soir; and Restons toujours braves, Canadiens-Francais.

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In a press release prepared in July 1991, we read:

While committed to its original purpose of preserving and promoting Franco-American culture through the performance of its ethnic music, La Choral Orion displays a versatile repertoire in a wide range of styles and in several languages. The Chorale has earned a reputation for presenting exciting, professional entertainment in over a decade of appearances which include such contrasting programs as opera, sacred music, ethnic festivals, liturgies, patriotic, classical and pop.

The 15-year history of La Chorale Orion has been marked by regular Christmas and Lenten concerts as well as invitations to the Lowell Choral Festival, television performances and the city’s annual Franco-American Week celebrations. Their career has been highlighted by special invitation appearances at the Park Plaza Hotel for the 175th anniversary observance of the Archdiocese of Boston and the John F. Kennedy Library; the chorus participated in operatic productions of “Faust”, “Carmen”, “L’Enfant Prodigue” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with the Lowell Opera Company and Merrimack Lyric Opera Company where they earned critical acclaim as “…impressive in their professionalism.”

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Sadly, LA CHORALE ORION was disbanded in the spring of 1996.

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of La Chorale Orion, former members gathered for a concert during Lowell’s 2003 Franco-American Week. The event took place at 7:30 P.M. on June 24th, the feast day of St-Jean-Baptiste, in St-Louis-de-France Church, West Sixth Street in Lowell, MA.

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