‘Find the Soul of the human race’

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Introducing Claude Vivier (Pt.1): a three-part series on the life and works of Claude Vivier by Against the Grain’s Media Attaché, Michael Zarathus-Cook

Had you been even the most occasional patron to Montreal’s experimental compositional music scene in the 80’s, then no such introduction is needed. You might have heard his name in association with production houses like Les Événements du neuf (an avant-garde concert society) and titans of modern composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen (with whom Vivier studied composition). On this side of the Québec border, however, his name might ring a bell to those who keep watchful a eye on foreign theatres interested in producing Canadian content. Perhaps the telling fact of the belated recognition of Vivier’s talents within Canada is that news of his death did not make it to any significant English music journal until 1986—his body had been discovered by Parisian police officers on March 12th 1983. Against the Grain Theatre’s production of his internationally prolific opera Kopernikus begins on April 4th and concludes on the 13th, a day before what would have been Vivier’s 71st birthday.

He was born in Montreal to unknown parents and was adopted at the age of three by a poor French-Canadian family that tried (unsuccessfully) to return him. Adolescent freedom came in the form of enrolment into a noviciate in preparation for priesthood. He never attempted to hide his homosexuality, a fact not entirely separate from that of his ejection from the Brotherhood at the age of 18 on grounds of his ‘immaturity’. Having benefited from a prolonged exposure to sacred music and now free of the stringencies of religious training, he left for Europe in 1971 to pursue the expression his natural talent: music. All throughout the myriad and eccentric colours through which that talent was expressed, two main elements were ever-present: a secular and yet sacred spirituality, and his fixation upon the loneliness of his childhood (he described his Lonely Child, for soprano and orchestra, as a ‘long song of solitude’).

Canadian Music Center Programme for the Concert Commémoratif Claude Vivier When Vivier’s body was discovered beneath an upturned mattress five days after his murder, between 20 and 45 knife wounds were accounted. Officers of the police nationale also discovered composition notes for an unfinished work by the name Crois-tu en l’immortalité de l’âme—wherein the main character in murdered by a young man on a Parisian subway: “And without further ado, he drew a dagger out of his black jacket (probably bought in Paris), and stabbed me right in the heart.”

Aside from the contemplative solemnity with which he approached the subject of death and transcendence, there is perhaps no single defining characteristic underlining Vivier’s tumultuous lifespan from Montreal to Paris. His was a creative mind for whom plurality and ambiguity were the necessary features of his operatic experience. The ten or so characters that are projected by Agni, the central character of his Kopernikus, exemplify the plurality and intensities of experience that his short life afforded. Despite the ambiguities that accompanied such creative excursions—like the use of invented language—he was often clairvoyant in the description of what he felt to be the mission of his life’s work, and its galactic proportions:

“Find the soul of the human race and place it there in front of the human race, make individuals face up to themselves again, individually and infinitely, confronting the total mystery that is the Universe, contemplating it, so as eventually to be able to find a way in it.”

A struggle between the individual and the infinite—the little boy from Montreal struggling for his place in the world, despite a childhood of sexual abuse and neglect; an openly gay man embracing the manifold colours of Parisian liberal life—that is one of the many brilliant contradictions available in the biography of a man whose life is accurately described as hard and fast.

Article by Michael Zarathus-Cook, Against the Grain’s Media Attaché
Sketch by Jeremy Lewis
Photo of Claude Vivier from the Canadian Music Centre

To purchase tickets to Against the Grain’s Kopernikus (April 4 – 13) click here.