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 and – 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.

Calixa Lavallée, composer

Calixa Lavallée was a “Canadian errant” – a man who left his country for greener fields – though he loved Canada and returned to it. He earned a reputation first in the United States and France, then went on to become “Canada’s national musician”.

In his time, Lavallée was a composer of operettas, at least one symphony and many pieces and songs for specific occasions. He was a pianist and renowned organist, as well as a teacher who wanted to found the first Canadian Conservatory.

Lavallée was born on December 28, 1842, in Verchères, Canada EastFootnote 1. He was the son of Augustin Lavallée, a woodcutter and blacksmith who became an instrument repairman, bandleader and music teacher. Later, when the family moved to St-Hyacinthe, his father worked for the famous organ‑builder Joseph Casavant and led the town band.

Lavallée showed talent early and played the organ in the cathedral at the age of eleven. Two years later, he gave a piano recital at the Théâtre Royal in Montréal. Lavallée also met Léon Derome in Montréal, a wealthy butcher who loved music. He became Lavallée's lifelong patron and friend, often helping him in bad times.

About this time, Lavallée tired of regular lessons and left Montréal to try his luck in the United States. In New Orleans, he won a competition which in turn landed him a job as accompanist to the famous Spanish violinist Olivera. After touring with Olivera in Brazil and the West Indies, Lavallée joined the Northern army during the American Civil War. Leaving the U.S. army as a lieutenant, Lavallée returned to Montréal where he gave piano lessons and played cornet in a theatre orchestra.

In 1865, he returned to the United States to teach and give a series of concert tours. He married and then began to work with Arnold de Thiers, with whom he composed a comic opera called “Loulou”. The night before its first performance, the owner of the opera house was shot and the theatre closed. Lavallée, who had been conductor and artistic director of the New York Grand Opera House, found himself out of a job.

He returned to Montréal in 1872 to a warm welcome and soon set up a studio with well-known musicians Jehin Prume and Rositadel Vecchio. Success in Montréal brought him the fulfillment of a lifelong dream – to continue his musical education in Paris. With the help of his good friend Léon Derome who made him a monthly allowance, he studied with Bazin, Boieldieu and Marmontel. A Lavallée symphony was performed by a Paris orchestra in 1874 and his teachers predicted a great future for him.

Lavallée decided to devote his life to the establishment of a conservatory in Canada. To prove that talent existed, he mounted a GounodFootnote 2 drama with an all-Canadian cast of 80. The venture was a great success and Lavallée had high hopes of interesting the government in his idea. But although the public responded warmly to his productions, officials gave nothing but vague promises.

It was during this Quebec period, in 1880, that Lavallée composed the music of “O Canada” for the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français (National Congress of French Canadian). But he could see nothing ahead but routine teaching and playing, so once again he took off for the United States.

Things took a turn for the better. He was appointed an organist and choirmaster, toured with the famous Hungarian soprano Etelka Gerster, and increased his composing. Many of his works were performed, including “Tiq”, a melodramatic musical satire on the Indian question, and his comic opera, “The Widow”.

In 1887, he was elected president of the Music Teachers’ National Association, which sent him to a convention of the National Society of Professional Musicians in London the following year.

Lavallée’s health had been poor for some years and after his return to Boston, it became much worse. By the autumn of 1890, he was bedridden and in financial trouble. He died on January 21, 1891, at the age of 49. He left some 60 works – only about half of which have been found.

Calixa Lavallée was buried near Boston but his body was brought back to Canada in 1933. It now rests in Montréal Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery.

Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, poet

Adolphe-Basile Routhier was born on May 8, 1839, in Saint-Placide, Lower CanadaFootnote 3. He studied at the Université Laval, and was a distinguished lawyer in Kamouraska. He was appointed Judge of the Quebec Superior Court in 1873, and later became Chief Justice, from 1904 until his retirement in 1906.

He was probably better known as a poet than as a judge, so it was natural that the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, the Honourable Théodore Robitaille, should ask him to write the words of an hymn to be performed in honour of the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français (National Congress of French Canadian), in 1880. His poem “Ô Canada!” was widely praised on its first presentation.

Routhier was made a knight of the The Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1911. He was a founding member of the Royal Society of Canada, and served as president in 1914-1915.

Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier died on June 27, 1920, at Saint-Irenée-les-Bains, Quebec.

The Honourable Robert Stanley Weir, poet

Robert Stanley Weir (1856-1926) was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in what was then Canada WestFootnote 4. After pursuing his higher education in Montréal, he was qualified for both teaching and law.

He chose law, then rose rapidly in the profession. Like Adolphe-Basile Routhier, he became a judge first as Recorder of the City of Montréal and later to the Exchequer Court of Canada (now the Federal Court of Canada). He wrote both learned legal works and poetry. His fame as a writer won him election as a Fellow of the Royal Society (which Routhier had helped found).

While Routhier’s French lyrics of our national anthem have remained unchanged since 1880, many English versions of “O Canada” were written. It is Robert Stanley Weir’s 1908 version that stood the test of time. His poem was proclaimed as Canada’s national anthem when Parliament passed the National Anthem Act, in 1980.

To see the different English version of the lyrics, read the full history of “O Canada”.

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