Claude Vivier created his own life history in music

Claude Vivier

In the series of bizarre composer’s lives, the name of Claude Vivier (1948-1983) cannot be missed. On Monday 20 May the Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra and the soprano Erin Wall will perform his Lonely Child in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht.

Vivier was born in Montreal in 1948, but never knew his parents. He grew up in an orphanage until he was adopted at the age of three by a poor French-Canadian family. When he was thirteen years old he went to a Catholic boarding school, where he was prepared for the priesthood. Yet his love for poetry and music proved to be greater than his love for God and at the age of eighteen he went to study composition at the Conservatory of Montreal.

In 1971 he went to Europe, where he studied at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. After three years he returned to Canada, where he slowly began to make a name for himself as a composer. But soon the travelling itch crept upon him again and in 1978 he started a long journey through Asia, where he was inspired by the music of Japan and Bali. The timbres of these regions found their way audibly to his own music, for example in his successful opera Kopernikus.

Stabbed to death

The ever restless Vivier left for Paris in 1982, supported by a scholarship from the Canada Council. In the French capital he was stabbed to death in his hotel room a year later by someone he had picked up from the street. As a curious as well as horrifying detail is that on his desk they found the unfinished manuscript of Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele for choir, percussion, synthesizers and electronics, in which he describe his own death almost literally.

At a young age Vivier had accepted his homosexuality, but as an adopted child he felt somewhat displaced, so he modelled his own history in music, as it were. He said: ‘Not knowing my parents enabled me to create a magnificent dream world. I shaped my origins exactly as I wished, and pretended to speak foreign languages.’ In his vocal works he often uses a self-invented language, as in the above-mentioned opera Kopernikus and the ‘opéra-fleuve’ Rêves d’un Marco Polo. The two operas were performed here in 2000 as a double bill in the Amsterdam Gashouder as part of the Holland Festival.

Lost soul

Lonely Child is one of the six independent compositions that together form Rêves d’un Marco Polo. Vivier composed it in 1980, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He used his own text, which switches between French and his own fantasy language. It is considered to be his spiritual and emotional self-portrait, which he himself described as ‘a long song about loneliness’. It is a 20-minute nostalgic cry from a lost soul that will leave no one unmoved.

The music has a static character, with slow progressing sound textures that are rhythmically often in sync with the singing voice. The piece opens with a resonating blow on a bronze singing bowl, after which the strings introduce descending lines and the soprano starts a melancholic melody. The instruments mainly play very high or very low notes, thus creating great spaciousness. The first violins produce clusters of closely spaced tones that envelop the singing voice in a shimmering veil of sound.


In this way Vivier evokes an archaic sound world that seems to float somewhere between heaven and earth. The recurring buzz of the singing bowls and an intermezzo of solemn blows on the large drum halfway through the piece reinforce the atmosphere of a ritual. Instead of regular chords, Vivier uses so-called spectral techniques to create music that consists purely of sound; harmony no longer seems to plays a role at all.

All the tones used are derived from the vocal part, and Vivier weaves an enchanting carpet of sound that constantly changes colour – he himself referred to as ‘beams of colour’. Gradually the vocal part becomes more exalted, with the voice rising to an ever higher register. After about twenty minutes Lonely Child ends with a few lonely strokes on the singing bowl. Seldom have I heard a more poignant expression of forlornness and of longing.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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