Dear Sun Spots: I was wondering if you could please find the words for the Canadian national anthem. – M.J.S., Wilton.

You might be interested in noting that “O Canada” was proclaimed Canada’s national anthem on July 1, 1980, 100 years after it was first sung on June 24, 1880. The music was composed by Calixa Lavallée, a well-known composer; French lyrics to accompany the music were written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier. The song gained steadily in popularity. Many English versions have appeared over the years. The version on which the official English lyrics are based was written in 1908 by Mr. Justice Robert Stanley Weir. The official English version includes changes recommended in 1968 by a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons. The French lyrics remain unaltered.

Many people think of Lavallée as an obscure music teacher who dashed off a patriotic song in a moment of inspiration. The truth is quite different. Lavallée was, in fact, known as “Canada’s national musician” and that was the reason he was asked to compose the music for a poem written by Routhier.

The occasion was the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français in 1880, which was being held at the same time as the St. Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations.

There had been some thought of holding a competition for a national hymn to have its first performance on St. Jean-Baptiste Day, June 24, but by January the committee in charge decided there wasn’t enough time, so the lieutenant governor of Quebec, Théodore Robitaille, commissioned Routhier to write a hymn and Lavallée to compose the tune. Lavallée made a number of drafts before the tune we know was greeted with enthusiasm by his musical friends. It is said that in the excitement of success Lavallée rushed to show his music to the lieutenant governor without even stopping to sign the manuscript.

The first performance took place on June 24, 1880, at a banquet in the Pavillon des Patineurs in Quebec City as the climax of a “Mosaïque sur des airs populaires Canadiens,” arranged by Joseph Vézina, a prominent composer and bandmaster.

Although this first performance of “O Canada” with Routhier’s French words was well received, it doesn’t seem to have made a lasting impression at that time. Arthur Lavigne, a Quebec musician and music dealer, published it without copyright but there was no rush to reprint. Lavallée’s obituary in 1891 doesn’t mention it among his accomplishments, nor does a biography of Routhier published in 1898. French Canada is represented in the 1887 edition of the University of Toronto songbook by “Vive la canadienne,” “A la claire fontaine” and “Un canadien errant.”

English Canada probably first heard “O Canada” when schoolchildren sang it when the duke and duchess of Cornwall (later King George V and Queen Mary) toured Canada in 1901. Five years later, Whaley and Royce in Toronto published the music with the French text and a translation into English by Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, a Toronto doctor. The Mendelssohn Choir used the Richardson lyrics in a performance at about this time, and Routhier and the French press complimented the author.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

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