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Biography & Autobiography Composers & Musicians

Song of a Nation

The Untold Story of Canada's National Anthem

by (author) Robert Harris

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jun 2019
Composers & Musicians, Classical, Post-Confederation (1867-)
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2019
    List Price

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The greatest story never told, this formidable and gorgeously written biography documents the amazing and controversial short life of Calixa Lavallée--the composer of "O Canada"--and the tumult of 19th-century North America.

He was a composer, a performer, an entrepreneur, and an educator; played pop and classical music; and appeared in his quasi-colonial society, tragically, just ahead of his time. Calixa Lavallee, the French Canadian composer of "O Canada," has a compelling, almost unbelievable personal story. He left home at 12 and worked as a blackface minstrel, travelling throughout the United States for more than a decade; he fought and was injured in the American Civil War in perhaps the most important battle of that war, at Antietam Creek; performed for President Lincoln several times; produced the first opera in Quebec and wrote two of his own; became a leading figure in American music education, representing American music in London; journeyed to Paris to study for two years; tried and failed to create a Quebec national conservatory. And he wrote our national anthem.
But Lavallée also represents all the contradictions and confusions of Canadian identity as our country came together in the last half of the nineteenth century. To understand "O Canada," and to understand the man who wrote it, is to return to the Canada of the mid-nineteenth century, a Canada just forming as a nation, bringing together ancient racial hatreds and novel political possibilities, as culture faced culture, religion faced religion, economy faced economy. Calixa Lavallée is the most famous Canadian you have never heard of, living a life and ultimately composing a song that stands the test of time.

About the author

Contributor Notes

ROBERT HARRIS is a long-time music journalist, writer, teacher, and broadcaster. From 2000-2008, he was the host and producer of I Hear Music, a weekly show presented on CBC Radio 2. He is the author of two books, What to Listen for in Mozart, and What to Listen for in Beethoven. He is the classical music critic for The Globe and Mail.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Song of a Nation:
Shortlisted for the 2019 Vine Award for History
“[Song of a Nation] is a well-written, well-researched account of the successes and travails of Lavallée’s life and of the genesis and evolution of O Canada.” —Winnipeg Free Press

Song of a Nation is a bravura performance with all the dramatic elements of Grand Opera—war, patriotism, loyalty, ambition, family, politics, and enchantment. Robert Harris explains how we became our national song. It makes you want to stand up and sing.” —Michael Enright, host of CBC’s The Sunday Edition

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