Issue 11: Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life

By Matthew Mendez

Some of the most rewarding passages in Bob Gilmore's long-anticipated biography of Claude Vivier (University of Rochester Press), the Québécois composer whose reputation has soared to exalted heights in the years since his grisly 1983 murder at the hands of a vagrant Parisian serial killer, concern Vivier's sojourn in early 1970s-Cologne, where he spent a formative stint as an awestruck Stockhausen pupil. The guru-like Stockhausen had long attracted the crème de la crème of students, but Vivier, recently graduated from the Montréal Conservatoire, was especially fortunate to set up shop in the city at the same time as a whole host of up-and-comers dissatisfied with the post-serial landscape of the day. Many of Vivier's Cologne friends subsequently found themselves associated with the so-called neue Einfachheit ("new simplicity") movement—names like Clarence Barlow, Peter Eötvös, Wolfgang Rihm, and Kevin Volans, all of whom, in their wildly different ways, would go on to effect a cautious rapprochement with the long-derided expressive resources of Romanticism.

Vivier undoubtedly shared these impulses—we learn from Gilmore that Tchaikovsky and Mahler were two of his most cherished composer role models—but he was also nothing if not a man of extremes, consumed by what his former confidant and collaborator Philippe Poloni calls a "kind of death-energy." In this, however, he was only participating in a venerable, albeit dormant, tradition, that of the poète maudit, the tortured genius not long for this earth. Vivier was, after all, an orphan, and flipping through the pages of Gilmore's sensitive, clear-sighted account, it becomes evident that he never quite came to terms with the emotional wound this entailed ("the fact of knowing from the age of six that I had no father or mother"). Yet this may be precisely why his work continues to speak to today's listeners with such urgent force: unlike the brand name "neo-Romantics" who appropriated the passionate gestures of a language originally forged in Bohemian grime, Vivier was never afraid to get his hands dirty, his inner life teetering constantly between antipodes of ecstasy and oblivion. His good friend, the late Gérard Grisey, hit the nail on the head: "Vivier is a composer-vagabond, something more common among painters, but rare among composers, who prefer to have an apartment with a piano."

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