Transcription of Lavallée's “The Bridal Rose” for accordion. From YouTube.
Background and Early Years
The first child of 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, who arrived in New France in the summer of 1665, a soldier in the Carignan-Salières Regiment. His ancestor on the maternal side was Major James Fendor Valentine of Melrose, Scotland, who settled in Verchères and married a Quebec woman named Leclerc.
Calixa was born on a concession called 'de la Beauce' (which in 1878 became the parish of Ste-Théodosie, in 1946 the village Ste-Théodosie-Calixa-Lavallée, and in 1974 the Municipalité de Calixa-Lavallée), and on the day of his birth he was baptized in the Roman Catholic faith in St-François-Xavier Church in Verchères.
While he was quite young he displayed a remarkable aptitude for music and had lessons from his father; he soon played piano, violin, organ, and cornet. At the same time he attended college in St-Hyacinthe, where the family had settled ca 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. Two years later 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 he may have played the piano there.
In 1857 Lavallée left Canada to seek his fortune in the USA. He won first prize in an instrumental competition in New Orleans and then departed for a tour of South America, the West Indies, and Mexico with a Spanish violinist named Olivera. Nothing more is known about this period of his life. He was reported in Baltimore in 1860 and in Providence in September 1861, when he enlisted as a 'musician, first class' in the Fourth Rhode Island Regiment, soon becoming its principal cornet. He fought in the US Civil War and is supposed to have said later that he was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. Discharged in the fall of 1862, he returned to Verchères the following year. On 24 Jan 1864 he gave a concert in Montreal as a pianist, violinist, and cornetist, and 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.
Life in the USA
Back in the USA 1865-6, Lavallée spent some time in California, taught in Louisiana, and then returned to New England; he married a US woman, Josephine Gentilly or Gently, in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1867. He settled in Boston, then moved to New York, where ca 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 but was cancelled when the owner of the establishment, James Fisk, was murdered.
After this misfortune Lavallée returned to Montreal. A public subscription organized by Derome enabled him to spend 1873-5 in Paris, where he studied piano with Antoine-François Marmontel and 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 the 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, continued to appear in collections and anthologies, and was recorded several times, eg by Myrtle Eover (Victor 21012, no date) and by Frank La Forge (Victor Red Seal 64083, 1908). In Paris, according to Charles Labelle (Montreal L'Écho musical, 1 Jan 1888), '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 Québec
Lavallée returned to Quebec City 25 Jul 1875. In his pocket was 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 Jehin-Prume and the latter's wife, the soprano Rosita del Vecchio. On 9 Sep 1875 he gave a free concert at the Reading Room on Notre-Dame St for those who had helped him during his stay in Europe. He presented some of his works in Quebec City on 1 December and in Montreal at the Mechanics' Hall eight days later. Guillaume Couture, writing in Montreal's La Minerve 9 and 10 Dec 1875, acclaimed Lavallée as 'one of our national glories,' adding that he had learned how 'to be by turns brilliant, elegant, fiery, tender and impassioned.'
Lavallée served 1875-9 as choirmaster at St James Church and 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 (1877). La Minerve on 15 May 1877 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 (1876-7, 1879-80).
In April and May 1878 Lavallée conducted in Montreal and Quebec City a production of Boieldieu's La Dame blanche and 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 11 Jun 1879 with considerable success, but the Quebec government refused to reimburse Lavallée for his expenses and the composer found himself several hundred dollars in debt. After this, Lavallée lived for some time in obscurity, giving lessons and earning a meagre living as choirmaster at St-Patrice Church and conductor of a band. On 2 Dec 1879, however, he took part in a concert presented by Jehin-Prume at the Mechanics' Hall in Montreal.
On the occasion of a national convention of French Canadians to be held in June 1880, Lavallée, who had been named a member of the music planning committee, composed a national song with words by Judge Adolphe-Basile Routhier. 'O Canada' was performed jointly by three bands 24 Jun 1880 at a convention banquet at the Skaters' Pavilion in Quebec City and was received enthusiastically. But 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, he went with them to Hartford, Connecticut, for an engagement on 3 Dec 1881. His comic opera The Widow was presented during this period in New Orleans and other cities. The chronology of subsequent events is somewhat confused. 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. Next he was 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 a 'melodramatic musical satire' TIQ (The Indian Question Settled at Last).
Music Teachers' National Association
Lavallée's reputation spread rapidly in US 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 US composers, the first of its kind, held in Cleveland 3 Jul 1884. 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, and was elected president of the Music Teachers' National Association, which 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 US 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 USA, he did not forget Canada: 'My aim in all this,' he wrote Aristide Filiatreault 14 Mar 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, 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 Jan 1891).
Final Illness and Death
In the autumn of 1890 illness confined Lavallée to bed and forced him to give up his responsibility for 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 breathed his last at his home at 4 Brookford Road in the 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 US 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 Eugène Lapierre, the bass Ulysse Paquin, and the band conductor Joseph-Laurent Gariépy, Lavallée's body was returned ceremoniously to Montreal on 18 Jul 1933, 42 years after his death; it was interred in the Côte-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, St-Hyacinthe, Shawinigan, Trois-Rivières, and to a choir at the University of Ottawa.
Contribution to Music in Canada
Lavallée is perhaps the most illustrious representative of that generation of pioneers who nourished the growth of music in Canada after the long period of stagnation and false starts which summarized musical life in North America from the years of French and English colonization to the mid-19th century. Although he was exceptionally gifted, Lavallée received his training in Montreal and Paris along traditional lines, and this accounts for the conventional nature of his works and their adherence to the fashions of his day. He was a fervent admirer of 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.
Because he was travelling constantly and was obliged to earn his living in circumstances which seldom afforded him time to contemplate and plan, he found it difficult to write large-scale works or to cultivate a personal style. Composing as the need arose, he was inclined to write technically dazzling piano pieces, fashionable ballads, light operettas, and occasional cantatas in the style of Gounod, Offenbach, or Sullivan. Certain more ambitious works, though unfinished, indicate that he could have become a composer of substance. He was a fine pianist, and the brilliance and clarity of his playing impressed his audiences, especially in his own bravura pieces. However, he evidently 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, who declared him a 'national musician' long before he composed the song that became Canada's national anthem and ensured his place in history.
In human terms, 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 USA suggests that it was only beyond the borders of his country that he was able to find an atmosphere in which his activities could flourish freely.
A Musical Pioneer
Lavallée must be considered one of the first musicians of completely professional calibre born in Canada and one of the musical pioneers of his own country and even of the USA. 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, opera - 2 fragments: 'Le Jugement,' 'Marche du trône.' Ca 1886; Rhapsodie sur des airs irlandais; 2 orchestral suites, including one performed in Paris 1874; Symphony 'dedicated to the city of Boston' For chorus and orchestra.
Their discovery undoubtedly would call for a revaluation of his entire output. Although it is difficult to determine its precise extent, Lavallée's influence is beyond doubt. For his contemporaries, for succeeding generations, and even today, Calixa Lavallée remains the embodiment of a talented, honest, and persevering musician, a zealous craftsman devoted to his art. In the words of 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 the musician and his works wider attention. Excerpts from The Widow have been recorded, and the work was revived on stage in Hamilton 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 owns a holograph letter written by Lavallée to an unknown addressee dated 'Boston, 30 Jul 1889.' The Fonds Calixa Lavallée are found at LAC and with the Clercs de Saint- Viateur in Joliette, Que.
Writings by Lavallée include:
'Style and expression,' Music Teachers' National Association of America, annual report, 1883
'The future of music in America,' The Etude, Nov 1886
Speech delivered in London 3 Jan 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 in the Standard of London (4 Jan 1888); French translation in appendix of Eugène Lapierre's Calixa Lavallée (3rd edition only, Montreal 1966);'L'E muet,' Canada artistique, vol 1, Feb 1890
'L'art musical au Canada,' ibid, Apr 1890.
Prix Calixa- Lavallée
In 1959 the St-Jean Baptiste Society of Montreal established the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée awarded annually to a Quebec musician. Among the recipients have been Louis Quilico (1965); Félix Leclerc (1975); Maryvonne Kendergi (1985); Angèle Dubeau (1996); and Alain Levèvre (2012).
Author Gilles Potvin, Susan Spier
[Jehin-Prume, Jules]. Une Vie d'artiste ( 1900); Hipsher, Edward Ellsworth. American Opera and Its Composer ( 1927); Lapierre, Eugène. Calixa Lavallée, musicien national du Canada (1936, 1950, 1966); Blanchet, L.-J.-N. Une vie illustrée de Calixa Lavallée (1951); Lapierre, Eugène. 'La belle vie de Calixa Lavallée,' L'Écrin (1952?); Thompson, Brian C., Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891): A Critical Biography (2001); "Lavallée portraits: Images of the 'musicien national'," ICM Newsletter, Jan 2006.
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Music Centre
Search the extensive CMC website for Canadian composer biographies and interviews, music scores, online newsletters, audio clips, podcasts, and more. Check out "CentreStreams" to listen to online archived recordings featuring outstanding Canadian composers.
Les Voltigeurs de Québec
Watch the Heritage Minute about Canada's national anthem from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
A biography of renowned Canadian musician Calixa Lavallée. From the Department of Canadian Heritage.
A biography of Calixa Lavallée, pianist, composer, and music teacher. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.