Gilmore’s biography of Claude Vivier

The following text was published by Cambridge Press in 2015.

Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore
University of Rochester Press, 2014. £19.99

A Composer’s Life is the last book by the recently departed musicologist, and Editor of this journal, Bob Gilmore. It gives us a thorough account of the life and times of the Canadian composer, Claude Vivier, while also utilising his presence in Canada and Europe to discuss many issues relevant to contemporary music in the second half of the twentieth century. The book is written in Gilmore’s characteristic prose, direct and to the point, but enriched with wonderfully descriptive passages, seamlessly paraphrasing, quoting and analysing a wealth of sources. It is an accessible and virtuosic work, bringing Vivier’s life, personality and, of course, his music, clearly onto the page. Into this comprehensive account are woven many colourful anecdotes, sure to be devoured by any Vivier enthusiast; for those curious to discover more about this composer, or even for others wishing to reminisce about contemporary music from this period of aesthetic upheaval, A Composer’s Life is a must-read.

The biography is prefaced by Gilmore’s introduction and acknowledgements in which he states that Vivier’s thirty-four-year existence was book-ended by mystery: starting in 1948 with his orphan birth, and ending in 1983 with his senseless murder by a hate-filled homophobe. However, the book dwells on neither the composer’s beginnings nor his tragic death, concentrating instead on the environment surrounding compositions he wrote between 1968 and 1983. An informative appendix of Vivier’s work is also is an ideal resource for any reader wanting a detailed overview of the composer’s music.

Gilmore spends sufficient time framing his biographical study, starting with the backdrop of Quebec in the conservative 1950s and Vivier’s relationship with his adopted family. The orphan child appears to have been welcomed, but not overly loved, and Gilmore carefully explains a verifiable claim of sexual abuse inflicted on the composer at the age of eight (by one of his uncles). Vivier later claimed this incident saved him as it helped him acquire a very good education within Quebec’s system of Catholic boarding schools. Gilmore aptly connects this education with Vivier’s flowering in adulthood, showing how it fostered in him a propensity for poetry, languages, music, as well as a strong belief in Catholicism (indeed confounded somewhat by his homosexual leanings). Vivier is depicted as an intelligent but rather inexplicable young man, compensating for his sensitive and idiosyncratic nature with outward exhibitions of clownishness, while finding deep solace in artistic work that focused his creativity. This period is concluded by Gilmore describing Vivier’s interest in composing as being akin to a devotional calling, one that overtook any notions he had of formally remaining within the Catholic brotherhood. Vivier’s decision to leave this environment became official in 1967 when he enrolled in the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal (CMQM), to study composition.

Thus begins the examination of the adult Vivier, which makes up the bulk of the book, and is divided into periods based upon where the composer lived. For instance, his life in Montreal, and cultural participation within Canada, is seen in two distinct periods: his early student days and then, later, his return from Europe as a more established composer. Gilmore portrays Vivier’s time studying at the CMQM, with Gilles Tremblay, as a formative period during which the young composer was introduced to works by Edgard Varèse, Stockhausen, Berg and many others. Anecdotes about Vivier are also well integrated into this chapter, with observations from colleagues and friends (Thérèse Desjardins), as well as from notable composers from Vivier’s generation such as Michel Gonneville, Walter Boudreau, John Rea and José Evangelista. One such anecdote reports that ‘Boudreau had heard of the young Vivier before encountering him in Tremblay’s class. A pop-singer friend … had been taking music lessons from someone who, she told Boudreau, looked like a ‘strange young priest’: it was Vivier.’ (p. 32)

With the support of the Canadian Council for the Arts, Vivier moved to Europe in 1971. Gilmore describes this as a rite of passage and although Vivier was originally bound for France, where he hoped to broaden his career perspectives, he discovered more aesthetic affinity within the Netherlands and Germany. This led him to leave France not long after arriving there, first to begin studies in electronic music at the Institute of Sonology in the Netherlands and then to move to Cologne to become a (dedicated, if not obsessive) student of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Vivier’s period at the Hochschule für Musik Köln is recalled by fellow composers (Clarence Barlow, Kevin Volans and Wolfgang Rihm), all of whom candidly portray the lively personality of the young composer as well as the conviviality of the times. This section is full of fascinating material; however, the presence of Stockhausen looms large, detracting occasionally from Vivier himself, probably an inevitable affect due to Vivier’s own admiration for this composer who remained an ongoing influence throughout his career.

Continuing through the 1970s, Gilmore leaves no stone unturned, unearthing various letters and postcards Vivier wrote to friends that expose his fluid and up-front sense of sexuality: ‘The Dutch penis seems to be similar to the Quebec one. Here the boys are wonderfully handsome and the gays make a lot of noise by unifying their sexual revolution with a political one’ (p. 63). Gilmore’s character sketch of Vivier suggests his frank and open nature would only chuckle at us blushing over his observations of this kind.

The chronological account of Vivier’s life also takes ample pause for Gilmore’s musical analyses of the composer’s works. Fans will be pleased to see that Gilmore discusses many of the more recognised pieces in the composer’s catalogue but also examines the significance of early, but less successful, pieces such as Quatuor à cordes no.1 (1968) and Ojikawa (1968). The celebrated pieces such as Chants (1973), Lettura di Dante (1974), Pulau Dewata (1977), Paramirabo (1978), Kopernikus (1979) and Lonely Child (1980) are all analysed by Gilmore in his characteristically accessible yet elegant prose. In the tradition of composer biographies, for one reason or another virtually no complementary score material is provided: anyone, therefore, seeking greater musical analysis of Vivier’s music should only use this biography as a readable and engaging starting point.

In 1974, Vivier returned to Montreal: this period will be interesting for anyone wanting to have greater insight into the inner workings of Québécois and Canadian musical culture as well as the politics of the day. It was during this period (in 1976) that Vivier made his first orientalist excursion, to discover the music of Asia. Details surrounding this excursion also demonstrate how little composers generally knew then about music from other parts of the world (such as Thailand, Iran, Indonesia and even Japan). Vivier spent several months of his six-month trip in Bali; Gilmore pays close attention to the influence of Balinese music on Vivier’s own work, identifying the legacy of this Asian sojourn in several subsequent and well-known works, such as Pulau Dewata.

The biography then chronicles the development of Vivier’s later and more mature pieces, and does so in vivid detail, covering the motivations, inspirations and context surrounding the composition of his opera Kopernikus and larger concert pieces, such as Lonely Child, Zipangu (1980) and Wo bist du Licht! (1981). Gilmore’s analysis is at times critical, especially in his description of the more conservative orchestral work, Orion (1979), which represented a certain lull in the composer’s productivity. But overall, Gilmore’s commentary and analyses lead us to wonder how Vivier’s style would have developed had he lived longer.

A Composer’s Life is a well-paced biography and, even though the composer’s impending death looms large, to his credit, Gilmore never rushes through any period of Vivier’s life. The last chapter discusses Vivier’s final return to Europe in 1982. Here we see an increasingly unbalanced person, one who was certainly too cavalier and naïve about inviting strangers back to his home. Nevertheless, Gilmore puts the mystery surrounding Vivier’s death to rest in this powerfully direct conclusion: ‘…if the question one poses is ‘why was Vivier murdered?’ the simple answer—as simple as it is horrible and unacceptable—is, in my opinion, because he was a homosexual’ (p. 230).

Vivier, according to his own writing, had a predisposition to seek love in all its forms, striving to find it in as many ways as he could. This pursuit became a dangerous preoccupation in his personal life; on the other hand, as an artist, he worked at lengths to imbue his music with the same joie de vivre and transcendental richness he deemed all good music — and every good life — ought to have. Gilmore would surely claim that such a tragic end is secondary to Vivier’s oeuvre, the legacy of which warrants a biographical inquiry. Whether one agrees is personal, and a matter of taste, but certain is the fact that through this wonderful biography Bob’s mourned departure remains coupled with Vivier’s ghost. In light of this, A Composer’s Life presents a rare opportunity to examine, question and appreciate the musical gifts of Claude Vivier along with the well-crafted prose of a writer able to add compelling credence to the fragile reputation of a life once lived.

Graham Flett