The English version of Canada's national anthem, "O Canada." From You Tube.
The need for a rallying song was placed on the agenda of the French-Canadian national festival, which was to be held 23-5 Jun 1880 in Quebec City during the Saint-Jean-Baptiste festivities, bringing together delegates from Canada and the USA. A music committee, appointed 15 Mar 1880, consisted of 23 members, including Calixa Lavallée, Arthur Lavigne, Gustave Gagnon, Alfred Paré, Louis-Nazaire LeVasseur, and Joseph Vézina. Ernest Gagnon was president, and Clodomir Delisle was secretary.
In a chapter of the 'official report,' Fête nationale des Canadiens français by Honoré-Julien-Jean-Baptiste Chouinard (Quebec City 1881), Amédée Robitaille stated: 'The music committee was not satisfied with ensuring that the musical side of the festivities was successful, and wished to be remembered for something more enduring than the enthusiasm and applause of the moment. One subject that has been debated often, in the press and in our public assemblies as well as our popular societies, is the adoption of a national anthem or song acceptable to all French Canadians. Among the many projects suggested to our committees from all sides, the selection of such a song was the one that attracted the attention of the 24 June organizers. It was a letter dated 24 Jan 1880 from the Reverend Napoléon Caron, priest of the diocese of Trois-Rivières, that proposed a competition as a means of choosing a national anthem or song for 24 June. The inevitable difficulties surrounding competitions and the little time remaining before 24 June kept the music committee, to which the matter had been referred, from carrying out the project in its entirety. But Calixa Lavallée, the distinguished artist whose works are highly esteemed by connoisseurs, was invited to compose a national anthem for 24 June. He went to work enthusiastically and, after several attempts, presented the committee with the national anthem which perpetuates his name and increases daily in popularity.'
The circumstances surrounding the composition and first performance of 'O Canada' vary depending on the writer. In La Musique of June 1920 Blanche Gagnon declared that her father, Ernest, has been 'secretary of the organizing committee' and asserted that he 'invited Calixa Lavallée to compose some music for the national anthem. The artist set to work and shortly after invited the principal musicians of the town to his home in order to submit three manuscripts for their consideration. The day or the hour not being convenient for everyone, Ernest and Gustave Gagnon were the only ones to appear. Their choice coincided with the composer's own preference for one of the three sketches, which was, in fact, much superior to the other two. Mr [Ernest] Gagnon asked the honourable Judge A.-B. Routhier, president of the Congress, to write words to this music; and in order to suggest the rhythm to him, he used as an example: O Canada, terre de nos aïeux... thinking that M Routhier would keep only the beat and little suspecting that he himself had just sung the first line of our national song.'
Six months later, in December 1920, under the heading 'The genesis of the national anthem ''O Canada!'',' Nazaire LeVasseur, who claimed to be 'secretary of the music committee,' published an article in La Presse refuting Blanche Gagnon's version: 'One day, Judge A.-B. Routhier took up his pen and wrote O Canada, which immediately won everyone's approval. At this time, the lieutenant-governor, M. Théodore Robitaille, an intimate friend of all men of letters, was in the habit of inviting them frequently to his residence, Spencer Wood; among his visitors was Calixa Lavallée, an excellent conversationalist and artist. One evening Dr Robitaille, holding M Routhier's poem in his hand, begged him to write some music for it. Caught off guard, M Lavallée consented. The next day he went to Arthur Lavigne's music shop on St-Jean St, showed him the poem, and told him of his promise to the lieutenant-governor. The famous violinist Jehin-Prume was present. The three agreed to meet that evening at the home of M Lavallée. The composer showed them a rough outline which they all rejected at once. The scene was repeated on eight to tenor consecutive evenings. I witnessed one or two of them. Some of the composer's efforts were set aside for later scrutiny, which vexed him considerably while amusing his friends, who purposely exaggerated their criticisms. Finally, however, M Lavallée one evening casually handed them a manuscript in pencil, went to the piano, and played it from memory. He was made to repeat it; he had created the tune of the national anthem.'
LeVasseur's version was long held to be authentic. It was reproduced by Louis LeJeune in his Dictionnaire général du Canada (Ottawa 1931) and by Eugène Lapierre in the biography Calixa Lavallée (Montreal 1936). LeVasseur had concluded brusquely: 'Such is the real genesis of the national anthem. Such were the various phases of its creation, gestation, and birth. On stage and surrounding the event there were no other players than those I have designated. There is nothing to add, nothing to be removed. Thus let it be told, today and tomorrow.' Lapierre rejected 'the other accounts,' which 'too obviously aspire to capture a little glory on behalf of a particular family. We discard them.' He added in a footnote: 'We even refrain from quoting them out of respect for the filial sentiments that dictated them.'
A letter from Routhier to Thomas Bedford Richardson, however, dated 12 Feb 1907 and presented to the National Library of Canada by the latter's daughter Mrs Florence Hagerman, appears to contradict LeVasseur's thesis and to support Blanche Gagnon's. In this letter, written in English and brought to light around 1975, Routhier declares: 'M. Ernest Gagnon... was a great friend of mine and of M. Lavallée and taking with me a great part in the preparation of the festivities. At his suggestion, Lavallée and I agreed to compose a national song. Lavallée insisted to compose the music first and so he did - and then I made the verses, or the stanzas, with the metrical and the rhyme that were suitable to the music.' Another letter to Richardson, from the lawyer and politician Armand Lavergne and dated 8 Jan 1907, contains Ernest Gagnon's own testimony, which agrees with the account later upheld by his daughter. Gagnon in fact declares that he brought Lavallée's music to Judge Routhier and at the same time suggested the first line of the anthem.
Routhier's version of the birth of 'O Canada' is expanded in comments which he supplied to his grandson Adolphe Routhier in May 1920, shortly before his death. The substance of Judge Routhier's story was unveiled in June 1980 in a statement in Parliament by Senator Arthur Tremblay. Details had been submitted to, but ignored by, Eugène Lapierre when he was revising the 1966 edition of his biography of Lavallée. They were published in full in Le Droit (Ottawa, 22 Jul 1980). They reveal that Routhier heard Lavallée perform the 'grand air' or 'marche héroïque' at the latter's residence on Couillard St and that all four verses were written during the following night. The grandson's notes add that, instead of being commissioned by the music committee (as Amédée Robitaille had stated), Lavallée, Ernest Gagnon, and Routhier took the initiative on their own, because time was short. In order not to antagonize the other members of the committee, the three set about persuading the lieutenant-governor, Théodore Robitaille, to commission Lavallée and Routhier 'officially' to write the song.
But to return to the sequence of events as related by LeVasseur: Lavallée himself went to Lavigne's store with a copy of his composition written in ink, 'only he had forgotten to put his signature to it, an omission rectified by Lavigne himself. Arthur Lavigne thereupon sent Lavallée's manuscript posthaste by messenger to the lieutenant-governor. The latter, for his part, did not delay in returning it to Arthur Lavigne through his aide-de-camp, asking Lavigne to become its publisher, a request to which he immediately acceded.'
Another interesting testimony is that of Judge Joseph Kearney Foran (1857-1931), who was at that time a law student at Laval University. In a lecture in French, 'Souvenirs des temps jadis,' given in Montreal in February 1918 and published in A Garland (Montreal 1931), he reported: 'One evening there were six or seven of us in the room; it was around 9 o'clock when we saw Father Pierre Rouselle, secretary of the university, come in, together with Maurice Baillargé and Trudel - the great tenor - and a small man, very nervous and agitated. He was almost bald, with a halo of black hair falling in ringlets behind his ears. He was very excited and kept tapping his hands and saying ''I've got it! I've finally found it, I've succeeded; come; listen.'' They went to the dais and the small man sat down at the piano. For a brief instant his fingers seemed to send an electric current through the keyboard; then, throwing back his head he played us, for the first time, the masterpiece of his genius - it was Calixa Lavallé [sic]; he played O Canada. A few minutes later Trudel sang for us Routhier's words accompanied by the composer of the excellent Canadian anthem himself. In my imagination I was transported to the town of Strasbourg to the night when Rouget deLisle [sic] played and sang La Marseillaise for the first time in the midst of a small group of privileged friends.'
Notwithstanding the contradictory accounts of the composition of the anthem and the imprecise chronology of events, it is certain that 'O Canada' was completed in the first weeks of April 1880, since the Journal de Québec wrote in the edition of April 17: 'At last, we have a truly French Canadian National Song!' adding that Ernest Gagnon, president of the music committee, had approved the song by Lavallée and Routhier. He furthermore declared that there would be 'a run of 6,000 copies of the National Song, of which 5,000 will be distributed to the public' and that the concert and brass bands invited to the French-Canadian National Festival 'will also receive a complete score.'
The house in which Lavallée is believed to have composed the anthem still stood in 1990 at 22 Couillard St. The original manuscript has not been found. The first edition has a portrait of Lieutenant-Governor Théodore Robitaille on the title-page and is decorated with maple leaves. Only two copies of it are known to be extant; one is deposited in the archives of the Séminaire de Québec, and the other at the Faculty of Music of the University of Montreal (Villeneuve Collection). The original version, in G, is for four voices and piano.
Lavallée's work was to be premiered during a high mass held on the Plains of Abraham on the morning of Thursday, 24 June. According to Chouinard this performance, attended by some 40,000 people, did indeed take place. 'The parts of the mass that were sung were: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei; the choirs sang a Tantum ergo on a Russian air at the elevation of the Host; after the mass, God Save the Queen; and after the peroration by Mgr Racine, the national anthem of Calixa Lavallée.' Le Canada musical, however, stated the opposite on 1 Jul 1880: 'Through a regrettable misunderstanding, the national song of M Lavallée could not be performed after the mass as had been agreed; yet we would much have preferred this song to the Tantum ergo, whose beauty we were not yet able to appreciate sufficiently to approve the choice made in this instance.' Nor did the Quebec City newspapers report a performance of Lavallée's work during the mass.
It is certain that 'O Canada' was performed on the evening of 24 June at a banquet at the skaters' pavilion attended by more than 500 distinguished people, including the Marquess of Lorne, governor general of Canada. The account given by Robitaille (Chouinard) is explicit: 'The bands of Beauport, the 9th Battalion [Quebec Rifles], and Fall River, Mass, performed our national airs as well as this stirring song composed by Lavallée, with words by the honorable Judge A.-B. Routhier.' It appears that Lavallée's work, played and not sung, served as a finale to a Mosaïque d'airs canadiens written for the occasion by Joseph Vézina, who also conducted.
'O Canada,' under the title 'National Song,' was repeated the following day at a large reception for 6000 in the gardens of Spencer Wood. Five or six concert bands were present, and the combined force played the song twice. Two subsequent renditions were reported in Le Canadien of 30 Jun 1880: 'Yesterday morning, at the mass held in St-Roch Church, the Société Ste-Cécile graciously presented the national anthem composed by M C. Lavallée for our national holiday. This anthem has a masterful character and when sung by a great number of voices creates a most impressive effect. Our Canadian artist has been patriotically and religiously inspired by such a great festive occasion as that of 24 June. Unless we are much mistaken, this national anthem will compel recognition of its own accord and inevitably will join our other national anthems which in all life's circumstances burst instinctively from the hearts of French Canadians at home and abroad. The congregation of the church in the St-Jean suburb, accompanied by a large orchestra, sang it to great effect at Mass last Sunday, after the Agnus Dei.'
Concerning this performance of 27 June at St-Jean Church, Le Canada musical commented: 'The magnificent national song was given most effectively after the Dona nobis. This work, in which we can recognize the composer of the Cantata to Princess Louise, is a broad, patriotic song which at the same time has a religious aspect; it seems to embody all the beauty we look for in the national song of a people, and once it spreads to our towns in Canada it undoubtedly will become the chosen song of French Canadians.'
The popularity of 'O Canada' grew rapidly in Quebec, but the anthem was not heard in English Canada until 20 years later. It apparently was played in Toronto in 1901 for the visit of the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future George V. The English translation of two of the four verses of Routhier's poem, provided by T.B. Richardson and published by Whaley Royce in 1906, was sung in Massey Hall in 1907 by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. This literal translation was not well received, and the magazine Collier's Weekly (Canadian edition) organized a competition to find a translation acceptable in English Canada. The winner, announced 7 Aug 1909, was Mrs Mercy E. Powell McCulloch, one of some 350 competitors. The English version most widely used, however, is the one by Robert Stanley Weir, published by Delmar in November 1908 with an arrangement of the music by Alfred Grant-Schafer. The copyright to Weir's text passed to Leo Feist Ltd in 1929 and to Gordon V. Thompson Ltd in 1932. Thompson and Weir's heirs surrendered their rights to the Canadian government in 1970 for the symbolic sum of one dollar.
'O Canada' is a 28-bar song written as a formal march in 4/4 time and marked 'maestoso è risoluto.' The original key of G is particularly suitable for instrumental performances. A lower key, F, E, or E flat, is preferable when it is sung. The original French publication by Arthur Lavigne was followed by several others, notably by A.J. Boucher and Edmond Hardy. The song has appeared in many versions, arrangements and transcriptions: by Richardson (Whaley Royce 1906), Jean-Baptiste Denys (Air varié sur Ô Canada for piano, Boucher 1909), Amédée Tremblay (McKechnie 1909), Edward Broome (Anglo-Canadian 1910), C.O. Sénécal (Le Passe-Temps, no. 482, 1913), Ernest MacMillan (Dent 1928, Whaley Royce 1930), Willan (Harris 1940), Godfrey Ridout (Thompson 1965), Kenneth Bray (Gage 1969), Rex LeLacheur (Harris 1979), and Stephen Chatman (for voice and piano, Frederick Harris 2007), among others. English translations have been written by Augustus Bridle, Ewing Buchan, and his brother Lawrence, and Wilfred Campbell, among others. A scrap book containing some 25 translations is found in the Metropolitan Toronto Library. In 1975 the US composer Harry A. Overholtzer wrote a String Quartet in E Flat 'The Canadian,' based on the theme of the anthem, recorded by the Dakota String Quartet on Zoe label (Z-005). 'O Canada' is also introduced into the latter part of Walter Buczynski's Piano Sonata No. 3 'Textures' (1991).
In his biography of Calixa Lavallée Lapierre devotes a chapter to an aesthetic analysis of 'O Canada' and refutes charges of plagiarism regarding the first bars of the anthem. A considerable number of recordings of the anthem have been made, the first 78s early in the century by Joseph Saucier, Paul Dufault, Edward Johnson, Édouard LeBel, and Percival Price. To mark the anthem's centenary in 1980, the Canadian government issued two postage stamps (18 June) and CBC released an album of four LPs, The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, devoted to works by Lavallée and by his contemporaries Ernest Lavigne, Alexis Contant, Guillaume Couture, and Joseph Vézina (RCI 513); the album also contains 12 choral and instrumental versions of 'O Canada'.
In 1981-2, an important research project on 'O Canada' was carried out by Helmut Kallmann and Patricia Wardrop at the NL of C, for an experimental video disc. The accumulated documents include a chronology, a selective bibliography, and a classified list of some 160 publications and arrangements, 21 CBC radio documents, and 3 films. Ten years later, at the initiative of the broadcaster Ross Carlin of Orangeville, Ont, an O Canada Foundation was set up to create, record, and distribute three contemporary musical arrangements of the anthem: one in French, one in English, and a symphonic version by Eric Robertson. More than 240 performers reflecting the musical diversity of Canada participated in the project. The foundation issued the anthem on CD, cassette, and video, and presented copies in 1992 to over 14,000 schools across the country.
Source: Canadian Heritage website
O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea;
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!
O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies
May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,
To keep thee steadfast through the years,
From East to Western Sea.
Our own beloved native land,
Our True North, strong and free!
Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion within Thy loving care.
Help us to find, O God, in Thee,
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day
We ever stand on guard.
Sources: Canadian Heritage website; and
Calixa Lavalle: Musicien national du Canada, by Eugne Lapierre
(Fides, Montreal, 1966)
O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux!
Car ton bras sait porter l'épée,
Il sait porter la croix!
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur, de foi trempe,
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protègera nos foyers et nos droits.
Sous l'oeil de Dieu, près du fleuve géant,
Le Canadien grandit en espérant.
Il est d'une race fière,
Béni fut son berceau.
Le ciel a marqué sa carrure
Dans ce monde nouveau.
Toujours guidé par sa lumière,
Il gardera l'honneur de son drapeau,
Il gardera l'honneur de son drapeau.
De son patron, précurseur du vrai Dieu,
Il porte au front l'auréole de feu.
Ennemi de la tyrannie Mais plein de loyauté.
Il veut garder dans l'harmonie,
Sa fière liberté;
Et par l'effort de son génie,
Sur notre sol asseoir la vérité.
Sur notre sol asseoir la vérité.
Amour sacré du trône et de l'autel,
Remplis nos cœurs de ton souffle immortel!
Parmi les races étrangères,
Notre guide est la loi;
Sachons être un peuple de frères,
Sous le joug de la foi.
Et répétons, comme nos pères
Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi,
Le cri vainqueur: Pour le Christ et le roi.
See also The Canadian Encyclopedia article: O Canada.
Author Gilles Potvin, Helmut Kallmann
'Chant national,' Journal de Québec, 17 Apr 1880
Chouinard, H.-J.-J.-B. Fête nationale des canadiens-français célébrée à Québec en 1880, chapters 1-3 in part 2 deal with 'O Canada' written by Amédée Robitaille (Quebec City 1881)
Frimaire [Blanche Gagnon], 'Notre chant national,' Quebec Le Soleil, 29 Jun 1907
Charlesworth, Hector. 'Seeking a national hymn,' Collier's, vol 43, 7 Aug 1909
Letondal, Arthur. 'Calixa Lavallée et l'hymne national,' Montreal Le Devoir, 6 Nov 1915
Gagnon, Blanche. 'Notre chant national,' La Musique, Jun 1920
LeVasseur, Louis-Nazaire. 'La genèse de l'hymne national ''O Canada!'',' Montreal La Presse, 11 Dec 1920
Richardson, P.B. (sic). 'O Canada,' A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians, ed A. Eaglefield-Hull (London, Toronto 1924)
Sullivan, Alan. 'O Canada,' Maclean's, 1 Jul 1924
Magnan, Hormisdas. 'O Canada terre de nos aïeux, chant national des Canadiens français,' BRH, vol 33, Feb 1927
- Cinquantenaire de notre Hymne national 'O Canada, terre de nos aïeux' (Quebec City 1929)
Pelletier, Frédéric. 'Le rajeunissement de notre hymne national,' R de l'Un d'Ottawa, Jan-Mar 1933
'Hommage à l'auteur de l'Hymne National du Canada,' P-T, 864, Aug 1933, souvenir issue
Lapierre, Eugène. Calixa Lavallée (Montreal 1936, 1950, 1966)
Ridout, Godfrey. 'O Canada,' Rotarian, Jun 1942
Buchan, H.P. 'O Canada.' The Story of the Buchan Version (Vancouver 1947)
MacMillan, Sir Ernest. 'A case for O Canada,' Globe Magazine, 16 Mar 1963
Dufresne, Bernard. 'The Story of O Canada, anthem with 21 versions,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 21 May 1964
Ouellet, Jo. 'The stormy life of O Canada and the moody man who wrote it,' Canadian Weekly, 27 Jun 1964
Kallmann, Helmut. 'The acceptance of O Canada,' CanComp, 8, Apr 1966
Canada. Parliament. Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on the National and Royal Anthems . Minutes of Proceedings, Nos. 1, 2 (1967), No. 3 (1968)
Walker, Alan. 'How you rewrote O Canada 1,200 times,' The Canadian, 19 May 1973
Lortie, Jeanne d'Arc. 'O Canada,' Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec vol 1, ed Maurice Lemire (Montreal 1978)
Fraser, John. 'O Canada given official status,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 28 Jun 1980
Potvin, Gilles. 'Comment fut composé l'Ô Canada en 1880,' Montreal Le Devoir, 30 Jun 1980
Kallmann, Helmut. 'The mysteries of "O Canada",' Mcan, 43, Summer 1980
Routhier, Adolphe. 'Quelques notes historiques sur l'O Canada,' Ottawa Le Droit, 22 Jul 1980
'The revitalization of O Canada,' supplement to Maclean's, 2 Mar 1992
NL of C, Music Division, vertical file 'O Canada'
Links to Other Sites
Symbols of Canada
An illustrated guide to national and provincial symbols of Canada, our national anthem, national and provincial holidays, and more. Click on "Historical Flags of Canada" and then "Posters of Historical Flags of Canada" for additional images. From the Canadian Heritage website.
Les Voltigeurs de Québec
Watch the Heritage Minute about Canada's national anthem from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Sheet music from Canada's past
A very extensive collection of digitalized copies of sheet music published before Confederation and during the First World War. Includes patriotic and parlour songs, piano pieces, sacred music, novelty numbers, and more. Also, check out the sheet music covers that appear in the Gallery section. From Library and Archives Canada.
Information on Canada’s history and geography, famous Canadians, the evolution of the Canadian government, what to do when visiting or touring Canada and much more. From the Government of Canada.
A biography of Adolphe-Basile Routhier lawyer, author, judge, and professor. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Study finds kids don’t know the words to ‘O Canada’
An article about Canadian's lack of awareness of the lyrics and melody to our national anthem “O Canada.” From thestar.com.
A biography of Calixa Lavallée, pianist, composer, and music teacher. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.