O Canada composer wrote music for unsettling operetta on 'The Indian Question'
Calixa Lavallée contributed to work full of stereotypes that's been read as pro-Indigenous, Rob Simms writes
Few Canadians know the name of the composer of our national anthem, let alone that he also composed the music for an operetta entitled TIQ: Settled at Last. A Melodramatic Musical Satire in Two Acts. TIQ stands for "The Indian Question."
Calixa Lavallée was not exactly a Canadian patriot. Born in Quebec in 1842, he lived much of his life in the U.S., travelled extensively and died in Boston in 1891. He served in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War and was apparently in favour of a merger of the U.S. and Canada.
As with O Canada, with TIQ, Lavallée was commissioned to write music for a given text, in this case a libretto written by the American playwright William F. Sage.
Published in Boston in 1883, TIQ was light entertainment, something like a 19th-century SNL — topical and wacky. There is no evidence of a public performance.
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The operetta's story centres on a showdown between Chief Sitting Bull and the U.S. army.
The narrative is outlined in a one-page "Argument" of convoluted prose that precedes the musical score. This was supposed to be read before a performance, as there are gaps in the continuity of the plot as it unfolds in the 26 songs that follow.
In the send-up, Sitting Bull is committed to "Peace, charity and love" and cannot be persuaded to accept guns from the army, who are itching for combat, singing: "Powder, shot and shrieking shell, Mingling with the red man's yell; Pillage, rapine, war." Alcohol is offered to Sitting Bull's men as an alternate means of control.
Various romantic pairings emerge between the protagonists, including Sitting Bull's daughter and an army private (a good portion of TIQ's lyrics are syrupy love songs).
The inept army officers and soldiers are held as prisoners in their own fort by Sitting Bull's men. Sitting Bull issues an ultimatum: join his tribe or be "driven out of his domain." The colonel and most of the troops join Sitting Bull; the rest return east.
Sitting Bull's daughter marries the private, while a frontier scout marries a white convert to the tribe.
"The noble old monarch, Sitting Bull, blesses the happy couples while he rejoices that THE INDIAN QUESTION IS SETTLED AT LAST," the Argument at the beginning of the operetta says (with the capital letters).
By the time TIQ was published 1883, this resistance was thoroughly crushed in the U.S., the army having massively upped its campaign following Custer's last stand in 1876, which likely inspired the operetta.
Tatanka-Iyotanka — Chief Sitting Bull — emerged as the notorious poster boy of intolerable resistance following that stunning defeat.
A marked man, Sitting Bull fled with a large group of his people to Saskatchewan, only to face increasing hunger, exhaustion and political pressure.
The "noble old monarch" of TIQ returned, famished and defeated, to the U.S. in 1881, which offered food rations and amnesty if he surrendered.
While TIQ is set in the U.S., similar struggles were unfolding on the Canadian plains, with Louis Riel's years of exile in the U.S. overlapping with Sitting Bull's in Canada. As James Daschuk documents in his book Clearing the Plains, hunger was ruthlessly exploited as good strategic policy by the Canadian government.
Various Indigenous stereotypes and cynical statements unsurprisingly appear in TIQ.
Army soldiers and "braves" sing together "Now do try, lay down and die, You/we wouldn't mind a little thing like that." Sitting Bull sings to his people, "Let not the world know of the tale of your degenerate mental weakness," while his braves sing "We never tell a lie, for if we did, 'twould make us cry." A missionary sings, "Rise, heathen, rise from out thy sinful ways; Though these plains be thy heritage, few are thy days. You want the whole earth, but that is for all."
But TIQ is not simple redneck baiting. It is a complex narrative with the unexpected, almost postmodern acknowledgment of multiple perspectives, role reversals, and cultural boundary crossings at melodramatic play throughout.
In a recently published article in Opera Quarterly, music scholar Emily Gale of the University of California reads the satire as being subversively pro-Indigenous.
The improbable ending of TIQ was perhaps hilarious at the time but points to pressing unfinished business of the present.
The treaties signed on the Canadian plains at the time of TIQ are symbolically a marriage of two peoples, two cultures for the purpose of mutual benefit. This essential condition has not been met for the Indigenous partners, and so the marriage remains dysfunctional. The question is not settled.
One of the most remarkable things about TIQ is how little information exists on it.
Here is a major work — 190 pages of music — written by our adopted "national composer," but it passes with extremely sparse comment or documentation in the standard musicological sources, until Gale's article appeared two months ago.
When I first searched for a copy of TIQ nine years ago, I could only locate two in all of Canada.
Makes you wonder, why?
Forgotten, denied, and swept under the carpet. How very Canadian.
Something to think about next time you sing or hear O Canada during our 150th-anniversary celebrations.