Calixa Lavallée Loved Music And Hated The British
On December 28, 1842, Calixa Lavallée was born in the newly created Province of Canada, in the heart of French Canada and just outside of Montreal. He would go on to be considered one of the preeminent musicians in Québécois history, most notable for his composition of "O Canada," which was eventually adopted as Canada's national anthem. However, he also developed what could only be described as a complicated relationship with his native land.
Born into a musical family, the young Lavallée mastered multiple instruments - but a disdain for the British Empire was also a major theme of this youth. Lavallée was inspired by the actions of Louis-Joseph Papineau, a famed French-Canadian activist who led a failed rebellion against colonial rule a few years before Lavallée's birth. The connections between Lavallée and Papineau went beyond their political beliefs. The latter also helped shape the Institut canadien de Montréal, an organization aimed at strengthening Québécois culture that would go on to recruit the young Lavallée and move him to Montreal for a musical education.
Both men believed in the ability of the arts to effect political change.
Lavallée would soon get his chance to face the British Empire head-on - or, at the very least, the British-allied Confederates. After spending a few years traveling across both the United States and South America as an instrumentalist working in minstrel shows, Lavallée enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 as a "Musician, first class" at the outbreak of the American Civil War.
In 1862, he fought in the Battle of Antietam - the bloodiest one-day battle in American history - and sustained wounds that ended his time in the military and sent him back home to the Province of Canada.
Like many French-Canadian nationalists, Lavallée saw Abraham Lincoln's victory over the Confederates as something that made it all the more possible for Canada to shake off its colonial yoke. He joined a group known as "Les Rouges" along with several other prominent young nationalists - including future Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. Lavallée played a prominent role in the activities of Les Rouges, which mostly centered around lobbying the men who eventually became Canada's Fathers of Confederation to choose a course other than becoming a unified British colony. Specifically, Lavallée wanted Canada to either demand full independence from the British Empire or voluntarily annex itself to the United States of America.
Unfortunately for Lavallée and Les Rouges, Canadian Confederation went forward and was made official in 1867, marking the birth of Canada as a nation, but not the end of Lavallée's American dream.
Lavallée Campaigned For Canada To Be Annexed By The USA - But He Was Still Hired To Write The National Anthem
Calixa Lavallée continued to fight for both Canada's annexation by the United States and its independence from Britain - and he became convinced that his natural talents could help him accomplish his goals. Lavallée sought to create a national identity by supporting the burgeoning Canadian music scene, thus reinforcing Canada's unique culture apart from the British Empire.
As he developed his own musical skills and produced several notable compositions, Lavallée tried desperately to build support for a national Canadian Conservatory. However, he became increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as a general lack of interest in music "among the governed and the governors," especially when compared to the support received by other fine arts.
During this period of his life, Lavallée attempted to increase his political cachet and stopped being so openly in favor of radical change - though his lyrics remained infamously subversive. In June 1880, however, Lavallée received an opportunity to influence the Canadian zeitgeist in a very different way when the Congrès Catholique Canadien Français hired him to write a national anthem that all of Canada's people could relate to. "God Save the Queen" just wasn't cutting it for the Québécois.
It was an interesting assignment for a man so vocally opposed to the colony as it existed. The result was the anthem that came to be known as "O Canada" - though Lavallée still managed to pepper the composition with his own sentiments.
His Growing Dislike For Canada Was Apparent In 'O Canada'
For the original French lyrics to "O Canada," Calixa Lavallée took inspiration from a text by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a staunch Québécois conservative whose strong Catholic influence is heavily present in the lyrics. The composition's melody, on the other hand, is clearly influenced by Mozart's "The March of the Priests."
In other words, Lavallée wrote "O Canada" more as a Catholic anthem than a Canadian one - and that's indicative of the increasing detachment he was feeling toward his place of birth. Frustrated by his inability to either effect true political change or start a national school of music, Lavallée decided to turn his back on Canada for good less than a year after penning its national anthem. He took work in the United States in 1881 and vowed not to return until the situation in his home country changed.
At the time, Lavallée summed up his thoughts in a letter to a friend, stating, "When one returns here, one realizes the insignificance of the ideas of our poor country... I have complete confidence in this trip as well as in others, and besides, an artist is not meant to rot in an obscure place and especially in an even more obscure country.”
Eventually, Lavallée Gave Up On Canada - And Now He’s Known As The 'Lafayette Of American Music'
After one last attempt to convince the Canadian government to create a national conservatory, Calixa Lavallée gave up on any plans of returning to Quebec, and instead decided to dedicate his energy to the creation of an American school of music. Through his work with the Music Teachers National Association, Lavallée was instrumental to the creation of both the American College of Musicians in 1884 and the American Conservatory in 1885. He was key in organizing the first-ever concert consisting entirely of American compositions.
He's known in some circles as the "Lafayette of American Music" for his efforts. He continued to compose new works while building up the national music scene. In short, Lavallée achieved in the United States everything he had dreamed of accomplishing in Canada. His writing at the time shows he had stopped thinking of himself as Canadian altogether, with statements like:
American music has come to stay and the sooner the American public realizes the fact the better for the cause and all parties concerned. Of course, we are working through a transition, which is the fate of every new country, and it may take some years yet before we acquire a national color to our music: but who knows how soon a genius may come to us to crown our labors.
Calixa Lavallée would not get to live in his adopted new home for more than a decade. He passed in 1891 as the result of a lengthy illness, never having returned to Canada - where "O Canada" was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1980 and remains controversial to this day.
Despite his self-imposed exile, Lavallée never fully gave up on his homeland. Having made great contributions to American culture, Lavallée grew even more adamant that Canada should allow itself to be annexed by the United States - abandoning the British Empire for its rapidly maturing neighbor to the south.
It was an opinion Lavallée continued to share with anyone who would listen until his end - ironic, given that his most famous composition continues to proudly "stand on guard" for Canadian independence.