Wednesday, June 24, 2015

O Canada! You Have an Earworm Anthem

An early printed version of O Canada in the original French.  Note the French Tri-Color, Quebec Provincial flag center, and Royal Union Flag  as well as the maple leaf wreath.

O Canada, the nation to the north’s catchy and highly singable national anthem was first publicly performed on June 24, 1880 at a Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony in Quebec.  It had been commissioned expressly for the occasion from composer Calixa Lavallée with lyrics by poet and jurist Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier by the province’s Lt. Governor Théodore Robitaille.  Naturally, it was sung in French.
Typically a piece of music commissioned for a single performance at a religious festival—the Feast of St. John always associated with the summer solstice—would be expected to quickly fade into oblivion.  But the tune, which musicologists note borrowed from Mozart’s March of the Priests from the opera The Magic Flute, was memorable and the words stirring with just a hint Francophile and Catholic pride capable of tweaking the nose of old John Bull and the Empire loyalists who held sway over the rest of the vast country.  It was introduced to schools and began to be sung at patriotic events in Quebec.
In Anglophone Canada God Save the Queen/King was the revered anthem and played at all state occasions and military parades even in sometimes resentful Quebec.  The popular song The Maple Leaf Forever vied for attention from those who wanted a song to embrace a distinct Canadian national identity.  In 1901 O Canada entered the awareness of the other provinces when school children sang it for the tour of Canada by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall—later King George V and Queen Mary.
In 1906 there was a first translation of the lyrics into English, a rather literal version of the French.  But two years later Robert Stanley Weir wrote a looser translation, one that eliminated the French reference to the Cross and being steeped in faith.  With Weir’s words, the song began to spread to the English speaking provinces, one of a basket full of popular patriotic songs.  Weir’s words would go on to have two minor revisions before settling into the now familiar form while Lavallée’s lyrics have remained unchanged.
The first verse of the original version was:

 Ô 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 trempée,
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.
 Sous l’œil de Dieu, près du fleuve géant.

Which translated as:

O Canada!
Land of our forefathers,
Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
As is thy arm ready to wield the sword,
So also is it ready to carry the cross.
Thy history is an epic
Of the most brilliant exploits.
Thy valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights.
Will protect our homes and our rights.

The 1906 Weir version went:

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thou dost in us 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.
In 1914 when Canada joined the rest of  the British Empire in sending troops to fight in the World War I trenches in France, Weir amended his third line to read “True patriot love in all thy sons command”  in honor of the home-grown heroes.
Among those troops O Canada gained special favor as a stirring marching song that could also be belted out in the pubs and bistros as a boastful challenge to the Limeys, Palois, and eventually the Yanks.  Like their preference for the Canadian Red Ensign over either the Union Jack or Royal Union flags reflected growing nationalist feelings that the boys brought home with them at war’s end.
Just like their neighbor to the south, the post war period was marked by industrial upheaval, class war, and general strikes inspired by the successful Russian Revolution.  Canada had its own great Red Scare and period of ruthless suppression of the labor movement, left socialists, and Communists spearheaded by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  Denouncing Godless Communism became a byword for Tories.  The complete absence of any religious content in Weir’s English version of the song became a scandal.  In 1924 a new final verse was added to the English version with enough religion to satisfy even the most pious. 

    Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,
    Hold our Dominion in 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.

King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth at the dedication of the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 1939.  Earlier he had stood at attention during the playing of O Canada, which was seen as validating the song as an Anthem.
Although the most stubbornly Anglophone provinces and those like British Columbia firmly in the grips of the most traditionalist Empire Loyalists, clung to God Save the King, O Canada gained traction as a semi-official anthem when King Edward VIII remained at attention when it was played at the dedication of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France in 1936.  His brother and successor King George VI did the same three years later when he dedicated the National War Memorial in Ottawa as war clouds gathered over Europe.  It was hard for Empire loyalists to argue against the song as an anthem when seemingly endorsed by two Kings.  None-the-less they pointed out that both Monarchs also stood for their personal salute, God Save the King.
Once again O Canada was a favorite with Canadian troops, sailors, and airmen serving around the world.
By the ‘60’s the very continued existence of Canada as a unified nation seemed to be threatened by a rising tide of Quebecquoi nationalist separatism.  The adoption of the red and white Maple Leaf flag as the official national banner in 1965 was seen as a symbol of unity. At the same time the flag was wending its way to official adoption Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson moved to adopt a single official National Anthem.  The candidates were, God Save the Queen, which everyone knew was unacceptable to the Quebecquoi, and O Canada.  He did what savvy politicians always do with a hot potato—he turned the issue over to joint committee to review the status of the two songs in 1964.  That resulted in a compromise that Pearson brought to Parliament  in 1965 that “the government be authorized to take such steps as may be necessary to provide that O Canada shall be the National Anthem of Canada while God Save the Queen shall be the Royal Anthem of Canada.”  That meant the Anglophone favorite would be reserved for state visits of the monarch and her family.  That was approved in 1967
A new Joint Committee recommended that one verse of each song be sung in both languages at official occasions.  The Committee also settled on a final version of the English lyrics, tinkering with it here and there while leaving the French version as originally written.  
In 1970 Queen Elizabeth II officially purchased the copyright of the melody and Weir’s English lyrics from publisher Gordon V. Thompson Music of Toronto so that they would “belong to the people.”
And it was not until the adoption of the National Anthem Act in 1980 that O Canada finally became totally official.
Like the Maple Leaf flag, the Canadian people have warmed to the song, even most of the most recalcitrant Empire loyalists and Quebec separatists.  The two symbols together have done much to smooth over old tensions and heighten a sense of national identity.

The high point of the Vancouver Olympic Games for hockey mad Canada was when Team Canada stood at attention for the raising of the Maple Leaf flag and the playing of O Canada.

Perhaps because of its exposure to the American fetish with their anthem that the Canadians adopted the custom of singing O Canada at virtually all sports events and many other communal occasions, not common in most of the world unless international competitions are involved.  The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 gave energy to a wave of national enthusiasm for both the flag and the anthem. 
Following the lead of the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and bi-national inter-collegiate athletic competitions always feature the national anthems of both countries before the beginning of the games with the visiting teams song sung first.  Thus many Americans have learned the Canadian Anthem which is so much more catchy and easy to sing than the challenging Star Spangled Banner.  More than one Yank fan has left a stadium with the Canadian song still stuck in his or her head.
Recently there has been renewed controversy over the English lyrics and calls for revision by the Toronto City Council and others.  Critics want Weir’s original “all thou dost in us command” restored instead of “all thy sons command” which is seen as exclusionary of women and sexist.  Similarly they want “our home and native land” be changed to “our home and cherished land” to be inclusive of the many immigrants in the country and acknowledging that First Nations people are the true natives.  Although both of these changes were put forward by the government via the annual Throne Speech delivered by Governor General Michaëlle Jean on March 3, 2010 but an overwhelmingly negative public reaction caused the government to withdraw the legislation in just three days.
Meanwhile secularists and advocates of religious liberty are raising objections to the religious content of the English version.  They do not seem to be gaining much traction as many Canadians now think of O Canada as a cherished, immutable, and ancient tradition. 
And the damn song has been stuck in my head the entire time I have been writing this…..


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