A review of Anthems and Minstrel Shows: The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842–1891, by Brian Christopher Thompson
During my first-year music theory course at Queen’s University, Professor John Burge demonstrated a particular harmonic sequence using the opening chords of “O Canada” as an example. The first three chords are basic enough, a riff off Pachelbel’s Canon, but in “O Canada” their resolution is relaxed, making the familiar strong chords tentative—which is a curious construction for what is supposed to be a patriotic march. Anthems typically boast at the onset, pursuing unflinching triumph rather than coy lyricism. Burge pointed out that this particular harmonic design dovetails with the unassuming Canadian identity. He suggested that this coincidence was possibly due to intuition on the part of the composer or, perhaps, that this inaugural delicate pathos appealed to later generations when they adopted “O Canada” as our national anthem.
Burge timed the lesson to fall on an election day and interrupted the class to answer a fake phone call from Prime Minister Paul Martin—the purpose of which was to inspire the class, predominantly 18-year-olds, to vote for the first time. After hanging up the phone, Burge launched into a full-fledged performance of “O Canada” on the grand piano. The music majors sang with their practised voices a compelling and impromptu rendition of the national anthem. Burge’s performance was a lesson on the relationship between music and nationalism.
In Anthems and Minstrel Shows: The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842–1891, Brian Christopher Thompson contemplates this necessary rapport between politics and music in revisiting the story of Calixa Lavallée, the French Canadian composer of “O Canada.” Thompson exhumes the figure of Lavallée and strips him of the nationalist mythologies sewn into his legacy, revealing a more complex and cosmopolitan life than earlier thought. The author steers clear of inaccurate encyclopedia entries touting Lavallée as a humble patriot and, instead, focuses on his letters, music and criticism to unearth the scattered trail the composer left behind. In order to give a sense of the scope of Lavallée’s broad range, the book includes a complete catalogue of Lavallée’s compositions and scores of selected pieces. What emerges is a portrait of an international musician, well versed in high- and low-brow music alike, navigating social and political forces of the 19th century in Canada and abroad.
Thompson prods at previously unexamined two-dimensional portrayals of Lavallée to show that the itinerant musician led a deeply varied life, working as a multi-instrumentalist, conductor, composer, administrator and teacher in the United States and Canada. While typical accounts of Lavallée foreground his Canadian identity, Thompson complicates this notion by rooting the biography in actual facts rather than lore, revealing that “during his thirty-year career, Lavallée spent roughly two years in Europe, seven in Canada, and twenty-one in the United States.”
Anthems and Minstrel Shows maps the intricacies of Lavallée’s musical career alongside the political and social currents of his day, and provides a glimpse into the turbulence that accompanied Canada’s naissance. Beyond Canada, Lavallée worked extensively in the United States and also trained in Paris—terrains that, as Thompson argues, honed his chops but also imparted important lessons about how music responds to and shapes political climates.
Lavallée’s early political and musical education took place during wartime in America where he learned about the urgency and relevance of music at first hand. While still a child, he moved away from his family’s rural parish in order to pursue a career in Montreal, but his coming of age did not transpire there. Instead, the young man set his sights on the United States, where he joined various travelling New England minstrel troupes during the lead-up to and outbreak of the American Civil War.
The minstrel show, a precursor to vaudeville, was the national art of 19th-century America, featuring white players in blackface performing satirical versions of high-brow material. The minstrel show’s rigorous schedule exposed Lavallée to America’s many states; its repertoire of parody and political commentary had the young musician arranging music at a rapid pace to comment on American culture, adapting material for timeliness and regional audiences. When the travelling show became untenable because of the war, the 19-year-old Lavallée enrolled in the band of the 4th Rhode Island Regiment, serving in the Union Army during some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
Further exploring Lavallée’s political involvement, the book highlights his participation in discussions about Confederation upon his return to Lower Canada in 1864. Lavallée associated with prominent lawyers and journalists and wrote music criticism for La Presse and L’Union nationale, independent francophone and anti-Confederation newspapers. In this unquiet environment, his music and criticism were explicitly linked to the debate. Like his peers Médéric Lanctôt, Laurent-Olivier David and Wilfrid Laurier, Lavallée was firmly against Lower Canada joining Confederation.
That he fought for the Union Army in America but opposed Canadian Confederation is the compelling paradox of Lavallée. He worked toward creating national music culture and community in the emerging city of Montreal, and later Quebec City, all while part of a group that questioned how Lower Canada would fit in with the newly constructed and predominantly anglophone nation. Thompson, in his commitment to parsing out the events of Lavallée’s political life, depicts an individual who perfectly embodied how fraught and divisive the forging and the idea of the Canadian nation was.
Lavallée’s legacy in Canada is as the composer of the national anthem, a piece initially commissioned by the lieutenant governor of Quebec for St. Jean Baptiste ceremonies in 1880. But in Thompson’s thorough account, Lavallée’s cultural impact was felt in the United States too, as he ushered in an era of performances of American concert music. During the final years of his career in Boston, Lavallée conducted the first concert that featured solely American compositions in 1884, paving the way for audiences to accept a national repertoire. Thompson shows how Lavallée adapted to geography and genre and how his music operated with attention to local, national and international political frequencies.
Although Anthems and Minstrel Shows strives to avoid conjecture, it is fascinating when Thompson dares to go out on a limb. In a rare moment of speculation, he suggests that the similarity of the opening chords of “O Canada” to Mozart’s “Masonic Singspiel” implies a mocking gesture on the part of the minstrel-turned-composer. “By the spring of 1880, he was growing disillusioned about Canada, and just may have intended to satirize the event and the community leaders who had little interest in the arts,” Thompson writes.
Thompson does a good job providing nuance to Lavallée’s tangled history. One such example is his treatment of the artist’s failed attempt at establishing a national music conservatory. He does not regard Lavallée’s defeat as a metaphor for an artist misunderstood in his time, but offers context by showing how economics and attitudes were the real obstacles. Privileging details over idealization, Anthems and Minstrel Shows resounds like a complex contrapuntal harmony instead of a repetitive single-note melody.
Illuminating Lavallée’s international influences, ambivalent relationship to Canada and dedication to Anglo-American culture, Thompson refutes neat nationalist narratives about the famous “O Canada” composer. More than a revisited biography, the book asks larger questions about how and for what purpose nations claim artists.