The people behind the anthem

The music for our national anthem, “O Canada”, was composed by Calixa Lavallée in 1880. The French lyrics to accompany the music were written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier. As the song increased in popularity, many English versions appeared over the years. Ultimately, the official English lyrics were based on a version written by Robert Stanley Weir.

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Calixa Lavallée

Calixa Lavallée was a prolific musician and composer. He was already well known before composing the music to what would become Canada’s National Anthem.

Born into a large family of musicians on December 28, 1842, in Verchères, Quebec, Lavallée showed a natural musical ability at an early age. His talents were fostered, and he was provided with a musical education.

Music became his life and career. He travelled extensively in Europe and the United States both to study and to work professionally as a musician, performer, composer, and teacher.

Lavallée’s career was equally versatile and successful in the periods he spent back home in Quebec. It is during one of these periods, in 1880, that he was commissioned to compose the music for “O Canada.”

Lavallée was known as a great supporter of the arts at a time when Canada was first forming its cultural communities. He died on January 21, 1891, at the age of 49, leaving a legacy of some 60 works composed both in Canada and abroad. Buried near Boston, USA, his remains were repatriated to Canada in 1933 and now rest in Montréal’s Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery.

Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier

Adolphe-Basile Routhier was born on May 8, 1839, in Saint-Placide, Quebec. He studied at the Université Laval and practiced law in Kamouraska, Quebec. He was appointed to the Quebec Supreme Court in 1873, and later became Chief Justice, from 1904 until his retirement in 1906.

Routhier was also an accomplished poet. Having gained the admiration of the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, he would be asked, in 1880, to write the poem “Ô Canada”, that would be put to music by Calixa Lavallée and would become our National Anthem a century later. The words of Routhier’s French poem have remained unchanged since their composition in 1880.

Robert Stanley Weir

Robert Stanley Weir was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1856. After pursuing higher education in Montréal, he embarked on a career in law and rapidly rose in the profession.

Like Adolphe-Basile Routhier, he became a judge, and was later appointed to the Court of the Exchequer, now the Federal Court of Canada. Also like Routhier, he was renowned for his skills as a poet and writer, which earned him a position as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Weir wrote an English version of Routhier’s French poem in 1908. Among the many English versions of this increasingly popular song and poem, Weir’s stood the test of time and would be adopted, with only minor changes from its original composition, to form the English lyrics of our National Anthem.

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