Book Review: Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

Cover of: Song Of A Nation: The Untold Story of Canada's National Anthem Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem by Robert Harris, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. ISBN: 9780771050923

While growing up in the 1970s I assumed that O Canada was our nation’s official anthem. Many others were similarly mistaken. Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem, by Robert Harris is a wonderfully written biography, history and tale that will resonate and tug at one’s heartstrings while revealing some gems of Canadian history, which all Canadians and lovers of music will probably appreciate.

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The biography is of a man who “left home at twelve, worked as a blackface minstrel travelling throughout the United States, fought in the American Civil War, was wounded at the battle of Antietam, produced the first opera in Quebec, wrote two of his own, became a leading figure in American music, journeyed to Paris to study for two years, tried and failed to create a Quebec national conservatory, and died in exile in the United States,” Harris writes. “And wrote our national anthem.” That man was the son of one Augustin Lavallée, who helped Joseph Casavant construct his organs. Baptized Calixte, Calixa Lavallée and his monumental composition O Canada are the subject of this great read by Harris, who is known for his work as a broadcaster and journalist.

Harris weaves a tale in just over 200 pages, which would make history courses in Canada’s secondary educational system a great deal more interesting. Song of a Nation should be in every public school and educational institution library in Canada. Harris brings the life of the young Lavallée into the context of the historical events of the time, be they the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837, the American Civil War, or the issues surrounding Confederation. Harris adds a touch of humanity to his writing of a man and an anthem of which until now little had been written in a single volume.

Lavallée was the eldest of a family of 13 children, most of whom had made music a part of their lives. Somehow, few have known about the world of Lavallée and the irony of how an anthem meant for French Canada became the anthem for a nation that is the home not only to the founding “Two Solitudesbut Indigenous people and those who come to Canada year after year, looking for a safe place to raise their children. Harris uncovers interesting musical and historical facts about the father of Canada’s national anthem, which few have known until this work.

Upon Lavallée’s return from the United States after the Civil War, he often portrayed his life there with a purposeful obscurity to others. He never mentioned his activities in blackface as part of the travelling New Orleans Minstrels (who were in fact based in Providence, Rhode Island) and was equal to telling fibs to hide his past.

Years in Paris

While we learn from Harris that Lavallée left home at the age of 12 under the patronage of Léon Derome, a butcher who was also “a supporter and connoisseur of the arts, a patron and a scout, a man immensely devoted to musical talent wherever he could find and support it.” It would be the same man who supported Lavallée’s two years of serious study in Paris. From his arrival in Paris in the autumn of 1873 until he departed early in the summer of 1875, Lavallée had a great opportunity to become a serious musician. “He let his minstrel past sink deep into the Seine – he would never dredge it up again.”

While in Paris, Lavallée studied piano under Antoine-François Marmontel, “the go-to guy for serious students of the instrument” who had taught Bizet in the 1850s and included Vincent d’Indy, Issac Albéniz and Claude Debussy among his younger students.

It was under the guidance of Marmontel that Lavallée was introduced to the music of Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. While honing his skills at the keyboard, Lavallée was also improving his craft in composition under the guidance of equally famous opera composers François Bazin and Adrien Louis Victor Boieldieu. Harris wonderfully creates an historical canvas into Lavallée fit as a piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. “Although less information exists about the nature of Lavallée’s studies with them [Bazin and Boieldieu],” Harris writes, “it can be no coincidence that he wrote two operas on his own within the next ten years, and mounted productions of two others in his home province.”

Calixa Lavallée, sketch from 1873

Ahead of His Time

Lavallée’s experience in Paris had given him a point of view of the role of music and a philosophical approach that greatly differed from the ultramontanism he faced in Quebec. Lavallée was no longer performing his traditional repertoire but works of “Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Weber that he had studied with Marmontel in Paris.” Joseph Marmette, a friend and critic, said of one Lavallée concert: “The music made me wonder if I was really in Canada. And not at a European salon. M. Lavallée played…in such a manner so as to prove that his talent has not been exaggerated and he is one of our national glories.”

Not everyone was ready for this new music, nor for the idea of having the Quebec government funding a national conservatory. Lavallée was clearly ahead of his time when it came to the philosophy of nurturing the arts through an institutional education platform. Not only were politicians closed-minded to his ideas, the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church in his home province was conservative and not friendly with Lavallée, who was much more secular in his views. “The Church and artistic creativity were forever at odds,” writes Harris.

In 1877, the diocese of Montreal made a decision, for whatever reason, to ban mixed choirs in the city’s churches. Lavallée struggled to find ways in which not to draw the ire of the Church. This was a challenge. How could the Church object to the staging of the play Jeanne d’Arc, “with incidental music by Charles Gounod which had caused such a sensation when it had debuted during Lavallée’s stay in Paris”? Lavallée’s attempts to get the attention of influencers and decision makers fell on deaf ears. The political twists of fate that followed finally allowed Lavallée to plan for the first performance of O Canada on June 24, 1880 as part of a huge open-air mass on the Plains of Abraham. For some inexplicable reason, that public presentation never took place, though later that day at a banquet, an instrumental version was played for the officials and decision makers in attendance.

Lavallée had a number of enemies, particularly those who were opposed to the formal adoption of music education. Other egos were involved. Governor General Lorne, for whom Lavallée had first performed O Canada, had his own designs. “He wanted Canada’s national anthem to be written by Sir Arthur Sullivan, then at the height of his fame along with his partner William S. Gilbert.” And Lord Lorne had Sullivan write the Dominion Hymn while visiting Rideau Hall in March of 1880, nearly 140 years ago. Have you ever heard of the Dominion Hymn? “Not one Canadian in a million knows that Arthur Sullivan wrote a national anthem for Canada,” states Harris.

Nor do many know about its origins as a French-Canadian patriotic song. “In 1980, on the centenary of its first performance, the late revered Peter Gzowski and I talked about the anthem on CBCs Morningside,” Harris writes in his introduction. “Peter, proud Canadian that he was, noted how ironic it was that O Canada was premiered on St. Jean Baptiste Day, the national holiday of Quebec, the single day of the year associated with Quebec nationalism.” Gzowski was right to underline the irony. Harris even reveals some of the political subterfuge which took place in order for the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society to accept O Canada.

An Anthem’s Father’s Journey

Harris’s Song of a Nation provides a compelling and wonderful national tale of Canada’s national anthem and provides an overview of a life of a great man whom very few know of. Calixa Lavallée not only was the composer of O Canada; he contributed to formal musical education in North America. The situation in Canada did not allow him to carry out the reforms he was truly devoted to. He returned to Boston just months after O Canada was premiered, never returning to Canada, although his body was reinterred at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal in 1933 on Bastille Day, the national holiday of France, where he had studied. However, before Lavallée died, a few weeks after his 48th birthday in 1891, he had set the wheels in motion regarding music education reforms in North America. Even though many Americans were not even aware of O Canada, nonetheless “Calixa Lavallée became one of the most important figures in the history of American music,” according to Harris.

While he never succeeded in forming a national conservatory in Quebec, the inroads he made in the United States changed the face of American music. Two years after Lavallée relocated to Boston from Canada he first attended a meeting of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). This meeting seemed to fit in with all of the aims Lavallée had in musical pedagogy since his return from Paris years earlier. The steps he took to reform music education and the face of American music, I could reveal here; though it would never do justice to Harris’s telling of a wonderful tale, notably of a concert at a 1884 meeting in Cleveland of the MTNA. Lavallée “was demonstrating that there were American composers of excellence whose work deserved the highest level of performance by seasoned professionals and more frequent presentation to domestic audiences.” Not only was Lavallée the composer of Canada’s national anthem and so much more, he contributed to Americans taking pride in their own musical talents.

Having long thought that O Canada was our national anthem, Harris set me straight in understanding that it was only with the Quebec referendum of May 20, 1980 and as a direct response to Gilles Vigneault’s Gens du pays that the federal government finally adopted O Canada as our national anthem. It played out in a very interesting political process as Harris describes it. “On June 27, 1980, just four days before Canada Day, a remarkable scene played out on Parliament Hill. A bill that had been debated for years, that had occasioned the fiercest opposition, passed second and third readings in both the House and the Senate and received royal ascent – all in a single day.”

A Little Piece of Magic

Harris explains the musicality, simplicity and power of O Canada in its original score. My musical education is limited to the appreciation of music I acquired from Iwan Edwards in high school, as well as living and working with composers in Ukraine and having lived beyond our borders. Hearing what Calixa Lavallée composed as something for French Canada, standing on podiums as an athlete, or in the courtyard of Canada’s Embassy in Ukraine on Canada Day, always gave me great pride as a Canadian.

We must try to remember that our anthem was first composed as a Chant National for French Canada, and a century had passed before it was officially Canada’s. While Lavallée, had composed the music, it was Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a judge, who penned the words the French words quite in the spirit of Lavallée’s musical construct, and it wasn’t until another judge and poet, Robert Stanley Weir, took the spirit of the music and wrote the first English language lyrics in 1908. They “were amended by him three times – in 1909, 1913, and in 1916 – and soon became the generally accepted English version of the anthem,” Harris writes.

Cover of the First Edition of "O Canada" Source: National Archives of Canada (AMICUS 5281119)

Cover of the First Edition of “O Canada”
Source: National Archives of Canada (AMICUS 5281119)

As lovers of music, readers of La Scena Musicale will find pearls in the words that Harris weaves into a wonderful tapestry of our nation’s history. I particularly enjoyed Harris’s deconstruction of O Canada about two thirds of the way through his work: “…The structure of the song is significant because it provides the emotional arc on which the music is built, and which our musical subconscious follows like a story in sound. More than anything else, that structure creates the potency of the anthem.”

Harris explains just how Lavallée works his magic in the composition of O Canada and how we never think about the three simple sections of the anthem “because usually a brass band is blaring it out inches from our eardrums.” The sections invoke something very visceral when they work together.

The first section, “O Canada! Our home and native land!” is a church-like invocation of the country itself. Then comes a crescendo leading to what is just over the hill. Lavallée employs “all sorts of rhythmic and melodic markers” throughout the piece. The work transitions to the second section, from a tone of supplication, “to a beat of a march and the increasing tension and conflict.” Further on, Harris explains: “The key to the music for the left hand of the piano accompaniment that Lavallée wrote for this section. It’s a series of repeated octaves on a single note – a low D – that pound out insistently and incessantly, over and over again, never varying – boom, boom, boom, boom – like a fevered dream…he wanted to plunge us from the sweet, almost divine nature of the first part into the confused and inspiring anxiety of the second. Lavallée uses the another rhythmic tool to “ramp up the emotions” in the third section: “the powerful opening rhythm keeps repeating, with no calming influences: first on ‘God keep our land,’ then on ‘glorious and free’ and finally on the triumphant ‘O Canada’ which is repeated as we reach the climax of the piece.”

As a librarian/information specialist and having contributed to collection development professionally, I would strongly recommend this book for any music or history library collection. Harris has researched and presented to us “a gem” of our Canadian musical history, within the concept of a greater historical representation of the nuances of the formation of a country, which has come to be known as Canada.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Vasyl Pawlowsky holds a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literartures from the University of Waterloo, an M.A. in the same, specializing in 20th century Ukrainian literature from the University of Ottawa, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University. He has worked in the aerospace, educational and legal sectors as an information specialist, in both Canada and Ukraine. He has also experience in both print and broadcast journalism, as a copy writer, editor, producer and program host. He has published in the Eastern Economist, The Kyiv Post, The Kyiv Weekly, The Ukrainian Weekly, FreePint and Maclean's Magazine.

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