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Claude Vivier: Biography

Claude Vivier
1948 - 1983
Region: Québec

Claude Vivier

The music of Claude Vivier (1948-1983) is a reflection of his personal life. Although a student of Stockhausen, Vivier ignored the avant-garde dictum against the expression of individuality through music. Both directly and indirectly, the themes of his compositions were inspired by his unknown family origins, his search for his mother, his religious vocation, his homosexuality and even his premature death. The forty-nine works composed during his brief career comprise the impressive legacy of an individual as passionate about life as he was about music.

Born in Montreal of unknown parents, Vivier was adopted at the age of three. He discovered music at the seminary which he entered at sixteen, and from which he was expelled two years later for "immature behaviour". For a period of four years he studied at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal; composition with Gilles Tremblay and piano with Irving Heller. Of the works from this period, Prolifération, written in an elaborated post-serialist language, has known the most success.

In 1971, as recipient of a Canada Arts Council award, Vivier left to study in Europe. The first year was spent at the Institute of Sonology (Utrecht, The Netherlands) where he took classes in electroacoustic composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig. Following that, in Cologne, he studied with Hans Ulrich Humpert and Karlheinz Stockhausen. With regards to compositional technique (quantification of parameters, permutative structures, ring modulations), Vivier was influenced considerably by the latter, although he nonetheless developed a highly personalized language. As such Chants, composed during this period, represents for him "the first moment of my existence as a composer".

Back in Canada, his reputation as a composer began to take hold. He taught at the University of Ottawa and was granted several commissions, among others by The Canadian Music Awards (seven short, idiomatic pieces), the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (Liebesgedichte) and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (Siddhartha). In the fall of 1976, Vivier undertook a long trip through Asia. It was during his stay on the island of Bali that his ideas concerning the role of the artist in society were solidified. This initiated a new period in the stylistic evolution of his music, a period characterized by affirmation and certainty. He said upon his return: "I realize that this journey was, above all, one of self-discovery". This was the period of his brilliant Shiraz, of Orion, of the opera Kopernikus. Most importantly, it was in the cycle of pieces for voice and instrumental ensemble, particularly Lonely Child and Prologue pour un Marco Polo, that the unique style of Vivier crystallized.

This style is characterized by the voice, by words sung in a language invented by the composer, by striking melodies. Harmonized by complex overtone series, these modal melodies pierce different textures, their points of departure and arrival most often homorhythmic. The tonal core, with leading note, differs from one phrase to another, rendering it panchromatic. This all occurs in time according to a complex arithmetical grid.

His outstanding development as a composer earned Vivier the title of "Composer of the Year" in 1981, awarded by the Canadian Music Council. Benefitting once again from a Canada Council grant, he settled in Paris, where he composed Trois Airs pour un opéra imaginaire, a piece that embodies the superb synthesis of his mature style. His last work is the unfinished Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele whose thematic development converges in a dramatic way with the violent death of the composer. The interweaving of his personal and professional life, of the real and the imaginary, reveal an outstanding global awareness and define a possible future for humankind, for whom Vivier was a messenger, an aerolite passing through our world.

Jaco Mijnheer, 1993, translated by Elisabeth Wood

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