This Week in History


O Canada!

For the week of Monday December 23, 2002

On December 28, 1842, Calixa Lavallée was born in Verchères, Lower Canada (now Quebec). Showing musical talent from an early age, Lavallée played piano, cornet, violin and organ. He was taught by his father until a wealthy butcher, Léon Derome, discovered his talents. Derome sent the 13-year-old to Montréal to study under Letondal and Sabatier.

Calixa Lavallée

Calixa Lavallée
© Library and Archives Canada / C-070448

At 15, Lavallée ran away to the United States, seeking opportunities not available in Canada. There he won contests, toured with famous musicians and was even a cornettist in the Union Army during the American Civil War. In 1870, Lavallée became director of the Grand Opera House of New York where, two years later, he was offered the chance to open his own opera, Loulou. However, this chance was lost when the theatre owner was murdered and the theatre closed.

Lavallée returned home to have one of his dreams fulfilled when Derome sent him to Paris to study under the masters Marmontal, Bazin and Boieldieu. Returning to Montréal in 1875, he yearned to establish a national conservatory of music. To obtain government support, Lavallée and his friends, the Jehin-Prumes, set up a music studio and an opera school. Lavallée also showcased Canadian talent by directing the opera Jeanne d'Arc with an all-Canadian cast. Despite these efforts, the government refused assistance.

Nonetheless, Lavallée was ever-willing to contribute to public causes. His Cantata, composed in 1879 for the Governor-General and Princess Louise's arrival in Québec, earned him the appellation of Canada's "greatest musician." Thus, when in 1880, the Quebec government desired a new national hymn to celebrate the Fête nationale des Canadiens français and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, they asked none other than Lavallée to compose the music to which Judge Adolphe B. Routhier would write the words. The result was O Canada! While an immediate success in Quebec and later across Canada after being translated into English, the composition put Lavallée no closer to establishing a conservatory.

Disillusioned, he returned to the U.S. where he enjoyed far more success. Elected president of the Music Teachers National Association in 1887, Lavallée did much to develop American music. He died in Boston at 48 of tuberculosis.

In 1933, Canadian interest revived in Lavallée, and his remains were returned to Montréal. The greatest recognition of Lavallée's work came in 1980 as O Canada! became the national anthem. Calixa Lavallée is a person of national historic significance with a plaque in Québec, Quebec.

To learn more about our national anthem and listen to the music, please visit National Anthem: O Canada.

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