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  • Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore
  • Jeffery Vacante
Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life, by Bob Gilmore. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2014. xiv, 295 pp. $34.95 US (cloth).

The most important Canadian composer in the second half of the twentieth century is almost certainly Claude Vivier. From the early 1970s until the early 1980s, Vivier produced some of the most innovative pieces of music this country had ever heard; he also attained a level of international recognition that few Canadian composers ever had. When composing he spent much of his time in Europe and Asia, seeking out cultures and experiences he felt were necessary for his creative energy. His works during these years, including Lonely Child, were often brooding and dark, and have long been understood by critics to be deeply autobiographical. They were said to come from a tormented soul who was in constant motion, as if running away from a troubled childhood toward an identity and a home he suspected he could never really find.

In this full-length biography, Bob Gilmore, noted musicologist and biographer of Harry Partch, argues, as most observers have, that Vivier’s work reflected his life, and so turns to Vivier’s life to understand his music. Gilmore does more than simply reveal the childhood traumas that shaped the mature composer. He situates Vivier’s early life firmly in the context of a postwar Quebec defined by the autocratic regime of Maurice Duplessis and the powerful Catholic Church. He then places Vivier’s development as an artist against the backdrop of the liberal reforms associated with the [End Page 400] province’s Quiet Revolution. By grounding his subject this way, Gilmore suggests that Vivier spent a lifetime attempting to escape the province associated with childhood trauma but ultimately realized that whatever success he achieved as an artist was the result of the life that he had created for himself in 1960s Montreal. By framing his study in this way, Gilmore reclaims Vivier as a Canadian composer.

Vivier was born out of wedlock in 1948 Montreal, a time when such births were considered shameful. Vivier spent the next two-and-a-half years in a church-run orphanage before being adopted by a couple that already had older children. It was hardly a loving household. The parents were distant and when he was eight years old Claude was raped by an uncle. When he told his mother about the incident, she could not come to terms with it and effectively held Claude responsible. Not long after, Claude was sent to a boarding school known as a training ground for a life in the Church. Vivier never really fit in at the school and was eventually asked to leave.

In 1967 Vivier enrolled in the Montreal Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory, a state-run music school established in 1943, offered Vivier a way to escape his troubled past. It provided him a means of expressing himself at a time when the province was throwing off the last vestiges of the conservative fifties. As others in Quebec were turning to violence or the state as the vehicles for their emancipation from the traumatic era when the Church and Duplessis wielded enormous power, Vivier was turning to music and travel to escape his traumatic childhood. After three years at the conservatory, and with a grant from the Canada Council, Vivier travelled to Europe to continue his musical education.

Throughout the seventies and early eighties, Vivier spent a considerable amount of time in Europe and Asia in search of a musical tradition he felt he needed to become the mature artist he yearned to be. He had come to believe that he could live a life ‘‘without boundaries’’ (213) in pursuit of an identity that was separate from the place he associated with his childhood. In the end, however, Vivier discovered his art was not a reflection of the avant-garde style he studied in Europe. Nor was it nourished by the community of friends he found there. He came to understand, instead, that by seeking refuge from his troubled childhood he was also removing himself from the artistic community and...


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pp. 400-402
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