Claude Vivier

Many consider Claude Vivier the greatest composer Canada has yet produced. At the age of 34, he was the victim of a shocking murder, leaving behind some 49 compositions in a wide range of genres, including opera, orchestral works, and chamber pieces. György Ligeti once called Vivier “the finest French composer of his generation.”

Sketches for Lonely Child

Born in Montréal of unknown parents, Vivier was adopted at the age of three. After being expelled from a seminary at sixteen for “immature behavior”—from an early age, Vivier was open about his homosexuality—he studied at the Conservatoire de Musique in Montréal, where his teachers included Gilles Tremblay (composition) and Irving Heller (piano). In 1971, Vivier left Canada for Europe, studying electroacoustic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig in Utrecht, and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. Although Vivier was influenced by the latter, he nonetheless developed a highly personal language. Chants, composed during this period, represented for him “the first moment of my existence as a composer.”

In the fall of 1976, Vivier took a long trip through Asia. A visit to Bali caused him to reevaluate his ideas concerning the role of the artist in society, initiating a new period in his stylistic evolution. In the wake of this journey he wrote Shiraz (1977) for piano, Orion (1979) for orchestra, and his opera Kopernikus (1978–79). Above all, it was in his cycle of pieces for voice and instrumental ensemble, particularly Lonely Child (1980) and Prologue pour un Marco Polo (1981) that Vivier’s unique style crystallized.

In a New York Times profile, Paul Griffiths observed, “The harmonic auras are suddenly more complex, and the fantastic orchestration is unlike anything in Vivier's earlier music, or anyone else’s. Perhaps he found it by listening intently to bells and gongs, for the huge chords that march along—around—the voice commonly have deep fundamentals with a fizz of interfering higher tones, rather like metallic resonances.” During this period, Vivier began to create texts in an invented language, mirroring the singularity of his musical idiom.

Vivier spent the last months of his life in Paris. On March 12, 1983, Vivier was found stabbed to death in his apartment. His murderer, a 19-year-old man who may have been a prospective lover, was later caught and sentenced.

Vivier advocates include Mauricio Kagel, Kent Nagano, Reinbert de Leeuw, David Robertson, and Dawn Upshaw. Vivier’s music featured prominently in Holland Festival 2005, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra opened its 2005/06 season with Lonely Child, with David Robertson conducting and Dawn Upshaw as the soprano soloist. In 2005, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the Claude Vivier National Prize for the best work by a Canadian composer.

Text: Boosey & Hawkes, New York.

Lonely Child
is a long song of solitude.

Composer’s Notes

For the musical construction I wanted to have total power for expression, for musical development on the piece I was composing without using chords, harmony or counterpoint. I wanted to work up to very homophonic music that would be transformed into one single melody, which would be “intervalized.” I had already composed a first melody heard at the beginning of the piece for dancers. I subsequently developed this melody in five “intervalized” melodic fragments that is by adding one note below each note, which creates intervals—thirds, fifths, minor seconds, major seconds etc. If the frequencies of each interval are added, a timbre is created. Thus, there are no longer any chords, and the entire orchestra is then transformed into a timbre. The roughness and the intensity of this timbre depends on the base interval. Musically speaking, there was only one thing I needed to control, which automatically, somehow, would create the rest of the music, that is great beams of color!”

— Claude Vivier

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