The Man Behind the Music
Canadian choral conductor, Augustus Stephen Volt: "I became acquainted with Lavallée in the eighties of the last century, when I was in Boston as a student of music, and he impressed me as a man of extraordinary ability - not merely as a clever executant of the piano, and not merely as an adroit deviser of pretty melodies and sensuous harmonies, but as a genuinely creative artist, a pure musical genius".
Lavallée was born three days after Christmas in 1842 in Verchères, Canada East. His father, Augustin, a woodcutter and blacksmith, would later become a musical instrument repairman and then go on to become bandleader and music teacher of the community. After moving to St-Hyacinthe, Augustin worked for Joseph Casavant who was to a master organ-builder in his own right.
While Augustin continued teaching music and leading the town band, his son shared his father's interest in music and, by the age of 11, was playing the organ in the local cathedral. Two years later, Calixa gave a piano recital at the Théâtre Royal in Montreal.
While in Montreal, Calixa met Léon Derome, a butcher who had a deep love and appreciation of music. The two became life-long friends with Léon coming to Calixa's aid many times when he fell on hard times. His friend couldn't keep him from tiring of his lessons, though, and Calixa left Canada to find a new life in the United States. He won a competition in New Orleans which, in turn, won him a position as accompanist to Olivera, a world-famous Spanish violinist of the time. They toured Brazil and the West Indies before returning to the United States where Lavallée then joined the Northern army to fight in the American Civil War. By the time the war was over, he had attained the rank of lieutenant.
Following the war, Lavallée returned to Montreal where he gave piano lessons and performed in a theatre orchestra for a short time, but the 'travel bug' bit him again and by 1865 he was back in the United States where he continued giving lessons and doing a series of concert tours. He was married there and began to work with Arnold de Thiers with whom Lavallée composed a comic opera called 'Loulou'. Unfortunately, on the eve of the premier performance, the owner of the opera house was shot and the New York Grand Opera House closed. Lavallée, who had been the orchestra conductor and artistic director of the theatre, suddenly found himself unemployed.
Once again, Lavallé returned to Montreal in 1872 where he joined with Jehin Prume and Rositadel Vecchio (two well-known and popular musicians) to set up a music studio. The endeavour was a great success and finally allowed Lavallée to realize a dream to study music in Paris, France. With the help of his good friend, Derome, who made him a monthly allowance, Lavallée studied with some of the best music teachers the world had to offer. A symphony he had composed was performed by a Paris orchestra in 1874, and all his teachers agreed that there was a great future in store for this talented young man.
Another of Lavallée's dreams was to establish a conservatory in Canada. On his return to Montreal, he staged an all-Canadian production of a Gounod drama featuring the talents of 80 cast members. The production received high praise from the public, but when Lavallée approached the government about his ideas for a conservatory, he was given nothing more than vague promises. He was, however, commissioned to compose 'O Canada' for the 'Congrès National des Canadiens-Français' to be performed during the St. Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations in 1880.
Disheartened by a routine future of teaching and playing, Lavallée set off yet again for the United States. He was appointed as organist and choirmaster and toured with Etelka Gerster, a world-famous Hungarian soprano. Meanwhile, he composed.
Many of his works were performed, including 'Tiq', a musical satire, and 'The Widow', a comic opera. He became a member of the Music Teachers' National Association and organized many very successful concerts. In 1887, Lavallée was elected president. Lavallée represented the professional musicians of America in London in 1888. Many American compositions were introduced to the British and the Lord Mayor gave a special dinner in his honour.
Poor health had plagued Lavallée for many years. After his return to Boston, his health became decidedly worse and, by autumn 1890, he was confined to his bed. With no income, his finances slowly dwindled. He died a few months later on January 21, 1891, at the age of 49. Of more than 60 known compositions, only about half of them have ever been found.
Calixa Lavallée was buried in Boston, but, in 1933, his body was brought back to Canada where he was finally laid to rest in the Montréal Cemetery Côte-des-Neiges.