Calixa Lavallée | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Calixa Lavallée

Callixte Lavallée, composer, pianist, conductor, teacher, administrator, soldier (born 28 December 1842 in Verchères, Canada East; died 21 January 1891 in Boston, Massachusetts). A pioneer in music both in Canada and the United States, Calixa Lavallée was considered one of the “national glories” of Quebec. He is best known for composing the music for “O Canada” and was twice president of the Académie de musique de Québec. Despite this vaunted stature, he spent much of his life outside Canada, served with the Union Army during the American Civil War and called for Canada to be annexed by the United States. The Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée, awarded by the St-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal for outstanding contributions to the music of Quebec, is named in his honour.

Calixa Lavallée
Calixa Lavallée, composer of the National Anthem "O Canada" and one of a generation of pioneers who nourished the growth of music in early Canada. (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-70448)

Background and Early Years

Calixa Lavallée was the first child of blacksmith, instrument maker and bandleader Augustin Lavallée and Charlotte-Caroline Valentine. He was born into the eighth Canadian generation of the family Pasquier (also spelled Pasquet or Pâquet) dit Lavallée. His ancestor on the paternal side was Isaac Pasquier dit Lavallée, a native of Poitou, France, and a soldier in the Carignan-Salières Regiment, who arrived in New France in the summer of 1665. His ancestor on the maternal side was Major James Fendor Valentine of Melrose, Scotland; he settled in Verchères and married a Quebec woman named Leclerc.

Calixa Lavallée was born on a concession called “de la Beauce.” In 1878, it became the parish of Ste-Théodosie; in 1946 the village Ste-Théodosie-Calixa-Lavallé; and in 1974 the Municipalité de Calixa-Lavallée. He was baptized on the day of his birth in the Roman Catholic faith in St-François-Xavier Church in Verchères.

Musical Education

While he was quite young, Calixa Lavallée displayed a remarkable aptitude for music. He took lessons from his father. As a child he played piano, violin, organ and cornet. At the same time, he attended school in Saint-Hyacinthe, where the family had settled around 1850. In 1853, he was asked to help out in an emergency by playing the organ for Montreal's Notre-Dame Church choir, which was passing through St-Hyacinthe. His talent made a vivid impression on Messire Barbarin, the curé of Notre-Dame.

In 1855, Lavallée went to Montreal to study piano with Paul Letondal and Charles Wugk Sabatier. A wealthy butcher, Léon Derome, became his adoptive father and sponsor. The young Lavallée often accompanied Derome to the Theatre Royal, and may have played the piano there.

Minstrel Shows and the American Civil War

Lavallée once wrote of Canada, “an artist is not meant to rot in an obscure place and especially in an even more obscure country.” In 1857, he left to seek his fortune in the United States. He joined a travelling minstrel show based out of Rhode Island and eventually became its musical director. He played multiple instruments in the troupe; he also sang and danced and performed in blackface.

Minstrel shows were a form of entertainment in which white people wore black makeup to imitate Black people in derogatory and insulting ways. Minstrel shows dehumanized Black people and were based on racist stereotypes. They originated in New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s. Hundreds of minstrel shows were performed in Canada between 1841 and the mid-20th century.

After winning first prize in an instrumental competition in New Orleans, Lavallée departed for a tour of South America, the Caribbean and Mexico with a Spanish violinist named Olivera. He was reported in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1860 and in Providence, Rhode Island in September 1861.

When the American Civil War broke out, he enlisted as a “musician, first class” in the Fourth Rhode Island Regiment of the Union Army. He soon became its principal cornet. He was apparently wounded in the leg at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, where more than 22,000 soldiers were killed in a single day.

Discharged in the fall of 1862, he briefly performed in minstrel shows again before returning to Verchères the following year. On 24 January 1864, he gave a concert in Montreal as a pianist, violinist and cornetist. For a while he taught and gave concerts. He struck up a friendship with the Belgian violinist-composer Frantz Jehin-Prume on the latter’s arrival in Montreal in 1865.


Detail of a stained glass window by Frédéric Back dating from 1967 inside the Place-des-Arts metro station in Montreal. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Life in the United States

Lavallée returned to the US from 1865 to 1866. He once again performed in minstrel shows,  spent some time in California, taught in Louisiana and then returned to New England. In 1867, he married an American woman, Josephine Gentilly (or Gently), in Lowell, Massachusetts; they are believed to have had four sons.

Lavallée settled in Boston and then moved to New York, where, around 1870, he was appointed music director and superintendent of the Grand Opera House, an opera and variety theatre. A production of his comic opera, Loulou, was announced early in 1872. However, it was cancelled when the owner of the establishment, James Fisk, was murdered.


Following this misfortune, Lavallée returned to Montreal. A public subscription organized by his patron, Derome, enabled him to spend 1873–75 in Paris, France. He studied piano with Antoine-François Marmontel, who at the time was also teaching a young Claude Debussy. Lavallée also studied harmony and composition with Bazin and Boieldieu fils.

Little is known of his stay in Paris, except that he composed a series of studies for piano, including one in E minor, Le Papillon, which was placed on the study list of the Paris Conservatory. This work subsequently went through numerous editions in Europe and America; it appeared in collections and anthologies, and was recorded several times, including by Myrtle Eover (Victor 21012, no date) and by Frank La Forge (Victor Red Seal 64083, 1908). According to Charles Labelle, Le Papillon was performed in Paris; writing in L'Écho musical, 1 January 1888, he states, “a Suite for orchestra was performed in July 1874 by an orchestra of 80 musicians under the direction of the celebrated conductor Maton.”

Return to Quebec

Lavallée returned to Quebec City on 25 July 1875. He carried with him a letter from Marmontel dated 5 July: “I bid you a cordial farewell and wish you all the success you deserve by your continuous and courageous work. I am certain that your friends... will find your talent transformed from two standpoints: style and controlled virtuosity.” Marmontel had already shown his esteem in 1874 by dedicating the 17th of his 50 Études de salon, published by Heugel that year, “to my dear pupil Monsieur Calix[a] Lavallée, a friendly souvenir.”

In Montreal, Lavallée opened a studio in conjunction with the violinist and composer Frantz Jéhin-Prume and his wife, the soprano Rosita del Vecchio. On 9 September 1875, Lavallée gave a free concert at the Reading Room on Notre-Dame Street for those who had helped him during his stay in Europe. He presented some of his works in Quebec City on 1 December and at the Mechanics’ Hall in Montreal eight days later. Guillaume Couture, writing in Montréal's La Minerve on 9 and 10 December 1875, called Lavallée “one of our national glories,” adding that he had learned how “to be by turns brilliant, elegant, fiery, tender and impassioned.”  

Lavallée served as choirmaster at St James Church from 1875 to 1879. In 1877, he conducted his choristers in 18 stage performances of Jeanne d'Arc, a drama by Jules Barbier with music by Gounod, at the Académie de musique de Québec (AMQ). In its 15 May 1877 publication, La Minerve described the premiere as a “resounding success,” adding that “nothing like it had ever been seen before in this city.” Lavallée was unsuccessful, however, in his efforts to obtain funds from the Quebec government to open a conservatory. He was elected president of the AMQ for two terms (1876–77 and 1879–80).

In April and May 1878, Lavallée conducted a production of Boieldieu’s La Dame blanche in Montreal and Quebec City. He then moved to Quebec City, where he hastily wrote a cantata to commemorate the visit of the Governor General of Canada, the Marquess of Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria. The work was performed on 11 June 1879 with considerable success. But the Québec government refused to reimburse Lavallée for his expenses and he found himself several hundred dollars in debt. After this, Lavallée gave lessons, earned a meagre living as choirmaster at St-Patrice Church and conducted a band. On 2 December 1879, he took part in a concert presented by Jehin-Prume at the Mechanics’ Hall in Montreal.


A cultural centre named after Calixa-Lavallée, at 3819 Avenue Calixa-Lavallée in Montreal. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“O Canada”

In 1880, Lavallée was named a member of the music planning committee for a national convention of French Canadians to be held that June 1880. For the occasion, he composed a national song with words by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song, “O Canada” was performed jointly by three bands on 24 June 1880 at a convention banquet at the Skaters’ Pavilion in Quebec City. It was received enthusiastically. Lavallée’s financial position remained precarious, and he began suffering the first attacks of the illness (diagnosed as tubercular laryngitis) that would eventually claim his life.

After giving some concerts with Jehin-Prume and del Vecchio, Lavallée went with them to Hartford, Connecticut, for an engagement on 3 December 1881. His comic opera, The Widow, was presented during this period in New Orleans and other cities. The exact chronology of subsequent events is somewhat unclear. He accompanied the Hungarian soprano Etelka Gerster on a US tour in the early 1880s but did not appear with her when she performed in Canada. He was also the pianist on a Colonial Line ferry between Boston and New York. In Boston, he opened a studio around 1882 and taught harmony, orchestration and composition at the Carlyle Petersilea Music Academy while serving as choirmaster at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross. In 1883, he published the “melodramatic musical satire” TIQ (The Indian Question Settled at Last).  

O Canada First Edition
Québec lieutenant-governor Théodore Robitaille appeared on the cover of the first edition of the words and music to "O Canada." (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Music Teachers' National Association

Lavallée’s reputation spread rapidly in American music circles. He publicly declared himself in favour of annexing Canada to its southern neighbour. As an active member of the Music Teachers' National Association, he organized and participated in a concert devoted entirely to American composers, held in Cleveland, Ohio on 3 July 1884. It was the first of its kind. A year later, a similar concert was presented at New York's Academy of Music, on which occasion an Offertoire by Lavallée was performed.

In 1886, he was president of a group of French Canadian emigrants, the League of Patriots of Fall River, Massachusetts. That same year, he was elected president of the Music Teachers' National Association. It sent him to a convention of the National Society of Professional Musicians in London in January 1888. There Lavallée gave a remarkable speech on the general outlook of American musicians and performed a Marche américaine he had composed.

He returned to Boston via Montreal and again embarked on an intensive round of activities: lessons, concerts, newspaper articles and composition. Though permanently settled in the US, he did not forget Canada: “My aim in all this,” he wrote Aristide Filiatreault on 14 March 1890, “is to try to wake up our dear population, and by occasional small doses we may be able to make them understand that you must learn to walk before you can run.”

In July 1890, Lavallée organized the Music Teachers' National Association convention in Detroit, Michigan, where his Suite (Concerto) for cello and piano in four movements was received enthusiastically in a performance by himself and the cellist Charles Heydler. To the teachers present who asked to see the score, he had to admit that only the cello part had been written down. Later, a noted publisher of band music, Cundy, suggested to him that he could make a lot of money writing music of that kind. Lavallée replied: “I would rather be remembered for a few artistic compositions than to grow rich in other lines of musical effort” (recounted by Henry F. Miller, a Boston piano manufacturer, in Freund's Music and Drama, 31 January 1891).


Undated sheet music for "O Canada," with English lyrics by Robert Stanley Weir. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Final Illness and Death

In the autumn of 1890, illness confined Lavallée to bed. He was forced to give up organizing the 1892 Chicago convention. The pain in his throat became more acute, and his general condition worsened. Early in January 1891, Léon Derome hastened to his bedside. On 21 January, around midnight, Lavallée passed away at his home at 4 Brookford Road in Boston’s Dorchester district; he was 48 years and 24 days old. A formal funeral service was held two days later in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the presence of Archbishop John Joseph Williams, and many American and Canadian colleagues. However, no sermon or eulogy was delivered. The violinist Alfred De Sève was among the pallbearers. Lavallée was buried in Mount Benedict Cemetery.

Through the initiative of a Montreal committee, including organist and administrator Eugène Lapierre, bass Ulysse Paquin and band conductor Joseph-Laurent Gariépy, Lavallée's body was returned ceremoniously to Montreal on 18 July 1933, 42 years after his death. It was interred in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery after a funeral service at Notre-Dame Church. On this occasion, an avenue adjoining Lafontaine Park was named after him, as was a cultural centre later located in the middle of the park. The name of Calixa Lavallée also was given to a secondary school in metropolitan Montreal, to streets in Granby, Joliette, Laval, Quebec City, Saint-Hyacinthe, Shawinigan and Trois-Rivières, and to a choir at the University of Ottawa.


Calixa Lavallée's tombstone, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery (B642), Montreal. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Contributions to Music in Canada

Lavallée is perhaps the most illustrious representative of music in 19th century Canada. (See also Music History.) Although he was exceptionally gifted, he received his training in Montreal and Paris along traditional lines; this accounts for the conventional nature of his works and their adherence to the fashions of the day. He was a fervent admirer of Charles Gounod and does not appear to have been sensitive to the innovations of Berlioz or Wagner, for example. Nevertheless, Lavallée’s works display great facility and an innate feeling for melody and rhythm. His harmonic vocabulary and his forms rarely depart from tradition.

Lavallée was travelling constantly, earning his living in circumstances that seldom afforded him time to contemplate and plan. He therefore found it difficult to write large-scale works or to cultivate a personal style. Composing as the need arose, he wrote technically dazzling piano pieces, fashionable ballads, light operettas and occasional cantatas in the style of Gounod, Offenbach or Sullivan. Certain works of greater ambition, though unfinished, indicate that he could have become a composer of substance.

He was a fine pianist. The brilliance and clarity of his playing impressed audiences, especially in his own bravura pieces. However, he could perform such works as Beethoven's Appassionata sensitively and perceptively. His natural brio and his facility for composition earned him the immediate recognition of at least a few of his more perceptive countrymen. They declared him a “national musician” long before he composed the song that became Canada's national anthem and ensured his place in history.

Lavallée’s devotion to the artistic advancement of his compatriots is undisputed. He contributed, at least partially, to the training of Alexis Contant, Bernadette Dufresne, the Count of Premio-Real, Philéas Roy, Joseph Vézina and many others. His initiatives in teaching and operatic production were many, but he had to fight continually against the ignorance, indifference and even hostility of his own people. His voluntary exile in the US suggests that it was only beyond the borders of his country that he was able to flourish freely.


Lavallée is considered one of the first musicians of professional calibre born in Canada. He was one of the musical pioneers of Canada and even of the US. It seems evident that he gave little thought to the fate of his works; he was concerned with producing for the moment and paid no heed to posterity. Thus, of the many works he composed, more than half have been lost or destroyed. Among these are Loulou, a comic opera (ca 1872); Salomon, an opera in two fragments (“Le Jugement” and “Marche du trône,” ca 1886); Rhapsodie sur des airs irlandais; two orchestral suites, including one performed in Paris 1874; and a symphony “dedicated to the city of Boston” for chorus and orchestra.

Lavallée’s influence is beyond doubt. For many, he is the embodiment of a talented, honest and persevering musician — a zealous craftsman devoted to his art. In the words of Eugène Lapierre: “For Lavallée, as for some other great artists, his masterpiece was his life.”

With the exception of “O Canada,” Lavallée’s work has remained largely unknown to the public. Nevertheless, because of the efforts of such musicians and researchers as Lapierre, Joseph Vézina, J.-J. Gagnier and Helmut Kallmann, certain works have been discovered and performed. CBC Radio and TV programs have helped bring Lavallée and his works wider attention. Excerpts from The Widow have been recorded; it was revived on stage in Hamilton, Ontario in 1976. The music of the ballet Pointes sur glace was assembled and orchestrated by Edmund Assaly from several Lavallée pieces. The work was premiered by the Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1967.

Lavallée's life and career are the subject of the play Le Traversier de Boston (1933) by Eugène Lapierre and the musical Le Vagabond de la gloire, for which Lapierre wrote the music and Aimé Plamondon the book. The Canadian Music Centre granted Lavallée associate status posthumously. A number of his compositions are available for reference and have been recorded on CD. The National Library of Canada holds a letter written by Lavallée to an unknown addressee dated “Boston, 30 Juy 1889.” The Fonds Calixa Lavallée are held at Library and Archives Canada and with the Clercs de Saint-Viateur in Joliette, Quebec.

See also: “O Canada”; Calixa Lavallée and the Origins of "O Canada"Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée; Charles Lavallée.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.


“Style and expression,” Music Teachers' National Association of America, annual report (1883).
“The Future of Music in America,” The Etude (November 1886).
Speech delivered in London, 3 January 1888, as delegate of the Music Teachers' National Association of America to the convention of the National Society of Professional Musicians of Great Britain. Original English text, Standard of London, 4 January 1888; French trans. in appendix of Eugène Lapierre's Calixa Lavallée, 3rd ed. (Montréal, 1966). “L'E muet,” Canada artistiquevol. 1 (February 1890). “L'art musical au Canada,” Canada artistique vol. 1 (April 1890).

Further Reading