April 18, 1948 - March 7, 1983
born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, composed during the Contemporary period
During his short and complicated life, Claude Vivier distilled a unique musical language from the sounds of many different cultures. The results are intimate, otherworldly, and refreshingly coherent. His surviving forty-some works are approachable yet constructed with relentless systematic rigor. Vivier's passions often took wild forms, but in his music, a balance of reflection and exploration gave his toughness poise and his intensity a spiritual integrity. He wrote a great deal for voice, preferring to cultivate a striking delicacy in the female voice while males emote with bravado and vigor. In spite of the many sources that deeply influenced him, particularly his German instructors and his travels to the Orient, Vivier's music retains a French character.
Vivier studied composition with Gilles Trombley at the Montréal Conservatory between 1966 and 1970, and later with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne from 1971 to 1974. He also studied electronic music with Michael Koenig and Hans Ulrich Humpert. Not contented with resting upon such an impressive musical pedigree, Vivier concluded his studies by traveling through Asia to absorb the sounds of Japan, Bali, and Iran, where he frequently put himself in danger through willful acts of debauchery that clashed with local notions of decorum. Conversely, his music's spiritual quality became more pronounced, integrating his love of Gregorian chant with a fascination for the exotic song traditions and the musical textures he heard on the road. Drawing on these experiences, Vivier created a experimental sung language built on syllables culled from Eastern and Western languages. Words in the language had no meaning, but it suited his inclusive musical style perfectly.
His best-known works were written after his travels. His sound is deceptively simple, which flew in the face of the musical complexities common in the late 1970s. Vivier did not suffer for his musical direction. In 1980, he composed Kopernikus, "A Ritual Opera of Death" in two acts, scored for seven singers and seven instrumentalists. Beginning with a letter written by Lewis Carroll and read aloud in French, the opera ushers a young girl to an early grave with the assistance of Copernicus, Mozart, Tristan and Isolde, Merlin, and other characters from history and mythology. The traditional format of opera narrative is dismissed in favor of a set of mystic appearances that are revealed to the protagonist, and of an acceptance of death normally unexplored by the living. Unsentimental throughout, the work's potent message of transcendence betrays a compassion that is fundamental to Vivier's artistic outlook.
Vivier then turned his attentions to a great opera about Marco Polo. Surviving in fragments, four works intended as part of the project, Zipangu, Lonely Child, Prologue pour un Marco Polo, and Bouchara were finished in 1980 and 1981. Some consider these masterpieces of contemporary Canadian composition.
In 1981, the Canadian Music Council named Vivier Composer of the Year. He returned to Montréal to teach and compose, and, still productive, he maintained his wild and self-destructive personal habits. While partying in Paris in 1983, the composer was murdered by a young man in his hotel room. Vivier was not yet thirty-five. His final project, an opera about Tchaikovsky, was never completed. ~ John Keillor, Rovi