Putting O Canada to the People

The experts weigh in:
O Canada a bit dated, but a
stirring and suitable anthem

With the Referanthem debate nearly over,
Tony Atherton asks two choral conductors to
rate Calixa LavallEe's composition.

This article by Tony Atherton originally appeared in the
Ottawa Citizen (June 29, 2007, page A4)

Photo: Laurence Ewashko and Joanna Estelle

It's down to the wire in in our Referanthem. Readers have until 4 p.m. today to sing out their choice for Canada's anthem. Do you want to renew O Canada's mandate, or pledge your allegiance to some other patriotic song, several of which we have spotlighted in recent days? Results will be revealed in the Canada Day edition of the paper.

To help last-minute voters make up their minds, we'sve solicited comments from people in the business of stirring hearts with song -- choral directors.

Among the many musical hats worn by Laurence Ewashko, one of Canada's most acclaimed choral conductors and teachers, is that of director of a University of Ottawa choir named after 19th century Quebec composer, Calixa LavallEe.

But ask him what he thinks of LavallEe's most famous composition, O Canada, and Mr. Ewashko doesn't exactly bubble over with enthusiasm, "It's very singable," he offers. With its narrow range, O Canada presents no challenges for untrained singers unlike, say, The Star-Spangled Banner, says Mr. Ewashko, chorus master for Opera Lyra and former musical director of the Cantata Singers.

O Canada's melody is "OK," he says, though certainly not as instantly galvanizing as something like the theme of the old Soviet anthem.

He doesn't like the English lyrics as much as the French, and suggests "there are options to uncover some new poetry which might be inclusive and inspirational as well." That being said, "it's a good national anthem," Mr. Ewashko says, "a dated piece, but it works." A couple of other patriotic songs strike his fancy, though, including Song for Canada, written by one-time Ottawa resident Paul Halley. It has become a standard since it was first performed in the 1980s. Laid-back and jazzy, it encourages Canadians to sing "of the land, our hopes and our dreams". "Mr. Ewashko is also very fond of Canada Forever Free, a newer work by composer Joanna Estelle. First heard on Canada Day in 2004, the song features lyrics inspired by the heartfelt poetry of the composer's Ukrainian-born grandfather." "Canada, your people/ Came here to be free/ Our precious Canada, you mean so much to me." Matthew Larkin, music director of both the Ottawa Choral Society and Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral, puts O Canada at the top of his list of Canadian patriotic songs. In fact, it might be the only song on his list.

There's a dearth of national patriotic music in Canada, he says.

"A lot of the folk music that we do have comes either from other places, or is so intensely regional, like The Red River Valley, that it is irrelevant to the rest of the country." Unlike some who regret changes to O Canada's English lyrics undertaken when it was officially named the national anthem in 1980, Mr. Larkin says the new lyrics, which eliminate one repetition of "We stand on guard for thee" and add an invocation to God, "very much improve the anthem." "It's not the strongest tune in the world, but it's stirring enough if you do it up properly," Mr. Larkin says.

"If you hear a really good performance of the anthem, it stands right up there with other national anthems, for sure."