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Calixa Lavallée

December 28, 1842 - January 21, 1891
composed during the Romantic period
Nineteenth-century Canadian composer Calixa Lavallée might not be especially well remembered outside the land of his birth, but one of his tunes certainly is, particularly by hockey fans, some of whom unknowingly listen to Lavallée on nearly a nightly basis: Calixa's song O Canada, composed in 1880 to French words by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier, was officially named the Canadian national anthem a century later.

Lavallée was born in Ste. Théodosie de Verchères (later renamed Calixa-Lavallée in his honor), Quebec, in 1842. As a teenager, having received a certain amount of formal musical instruction in Montreal, he worked as a wandering theater musician. His employment during these early years was colorful and varied. He moved to the U.S. for a time and served in a Union band during the Civil War; as an accompanist to a Spanish violinist of moderate fame, he toured North and South America; he was music director of a theater in New York City (the New York Grand Opera House, 1870 - 1872). In 1872, he gathered up enough funds to travel to Paris and enroll at the Conservatoire there, returning to Canada in the mid-1870s with enough credentials to make some waves in the none-too-developed music scene there; unable, however, to make a good living, he went to Boston in the mid-1880s. In America, he was better known as an administrator than as a composer; in particular, he was an active member, and eventually president, of the Music Teachers National Association. Lavallée died less than one month past his forty-eighth birthday; originally buried in Massachusetts, he was later re-buried in Montreal.

The shame of it all is that Lavallée's music is almost all lost. Only a few lighter items -- a comic opera, a Native American melodrama called Tiq, a few songs, and some salon music for piano -- have survived, and so a complete assessment of his merits as a composer is impossible. Had Lavallée's more substantial works, which included two full-scale symphonies, two orchestral suites, and serious choral works, been preserved, he might have been more than a minor figure in music history. Nevertheless, his place in Canadian music history is both significant and secure. ~ Blair Johnston, Rovi
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