updated 3 September 2013
© Boosey & Hawkes

Claude Vivier

Canadian composer born 14 April 1948, in Montreal; died 7 March 1983 in Paris.

Claude Vivier was born in Montreal on 14 April 1948 (although this date has been disputed) to unknown parents. “Knowing that I had neither a mother nor a father left me in a wonderful dream world; I created my origins as I wished, and pretended that I spoke foreign languages. But alas, the reality that I faced on a daily basis was harsh and predatory.” Adopted in 1950, Vivier grew up in a modest setting. At nursery school, it was thought that he was deaf-mute; he only began conversing at the age of six. In 1964, following a period of spiritual exploration, he decided to join the priesthood and became a junior resident at the School of Saint Vincent de Paul, where he first came into contact with the organ and composed his first works, having experienced live music for the first time at a midnight mass. Expelled from the seminary due to “a lack of maturity,” a rejection that caused him considerable distress, he began studies at the Montreal Conservatory. He remained there until 1970, studying piano with Irving Heller and composition with Gilles Tremblay, with whom he extensively analysed the works of Varèse, leading to a self-declared “rebirth through music.” Fellow conservatory students Michel-Georges Brégent and Walter Boudreau were among his close friends.

His early works, including String Quartet (1968), Ojikawa (1968), in which he used a constructed language, Musique pour une liberté à bâtir (1968-1969), and Prolifération (1969) aroused considerable interest, and the Quebec Contemporary Music Society began programming his works in concerts. Thanks to a grant from the Canada Arts Council in 1971, he was able to study electro-acoustic music at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht with Gottfried Michael Koenig, before spending time elsewhere in Europe, notably in Paris, where he studied with Paul Méfano in 1972, and Cologne, where he studied with Richard Toop, Hans Ulrich Humpert, and Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1972 to 1974. His time in Cologne, and a performance he witnessed of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, had a decisive influence on Vivier’s choral writing, leading him to declare that he had been “born for a third time,” this time through composition.

His works Musik für das Ende (1971), Désintégration (1972-1974), Chants (1973), O ! Kosmos (1973), Jesus erbarme dich (1973), and Lettura di Dante (1974) signalled a new fascination for composing for voice and for the use of homophony, in contrast to earlier “stucturalist” works which were more conceptual in nature. Upon returning to Montreal, he composed seven short pieces for duos or solo instruments for the Canadian Music Competition “Tremplin international,” as well as Liebesgedichte (1975) and Siddhartha (1976) for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada.

In 1976, he briefly taught at Ottowa University, and created a tape piece for an Ottowa National Arts Center adaptation of Büchner’s Woyzeck for puppets.

In 1976-1977, he travelled extensively in Asia, visiting Japan, Iran, Java and, most notably, Bali where spent three months; he was deeply impressed not only by the Gamelan tradition, but also by the manner in which art is integrated into daily life. At the end of this trip, he noted “it is abundantly clear to me that this trip was ultimately an inner journey.” His return to Canada saw a flurry of creative activity, with new works, such as Pulau Dewata (1977), Shiraz (1977), and Paramirabo (1978) that betray the influence of his time spent in the East; Journal (1977), which examines themes of childhood, love, death, and immortality; and the ballets Love Songs (1977) and Nanti Malam (1977), composed in collaboration with dancers from the Groupe de la Place Royale.

After a period as the representative of Quebec on the Board of Directors of the Candian Music Center, Vivier, along with Lorraine Vaillancourt, John Rea, and José Evangelista, founded les Événements du Neuf in 1978, an institution seeking to promote contemporary music in Montreal. His first opera, Kopernikus (1979), for which he also wrote the libretto, was premiered in 1980.

After having completed Orion (1979), Lonely Child (1980), Zipangu (1980), Prologue pour un Marco Polo (1981), a setting of a text authored by his friend, Paul Chamberland, and Wo bist du Licht (1981), Vivier, a devotee of cinema, collaborated with Daniel Dion and Philippe Poloni on the production of the video work, L’Homme de Pékin. He also made plans for an opera based upon the life of Tchaikovsky. In 1982, with the support of the Canada Arts Council, he moved to Paris, where he was brutally murdered, most likely on the night of the 7 or 8 March, 1983. His final work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele [Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?], for choir and five instuments, was left unfinished.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007

By Laurent Feneyrou

May the Mayans bring me back to the terra firma of my origins …

It’s strange. Despite everything I’ve told you regarding the grown man I’ve become, the only voice I hear is the one I had as a child, when I spoke softly to the angels in the evening. All around me is silence.

These words were written by Claude Vivier on 26 January 1983 in a letter to his friend Thérèse Desjardins. His oeuvre is marked by childhood memories and imaginary characters: Merlin, the Devil’s son, a witch, the Queen of the Night, Mister Pickwick, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bruder Jakob (perhaps a kind of Brother John or Jakob Böhme), Zorro in Glaubst du an der Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?), as well as other mythical figures in Love Songs, Journal, and Kopernikus. One also finds fairies, dwarfs, and giants who, according to Vivier, also belong to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s universe. As in Love Songs, a piece that speaks of tenderness and of the permanence of wonder, the whole meaning of Vivier’s art can be found in his need to reconnect with the voice of his inner child: a lonely little one who wanted to embrace the whole world with a sometimes ingenuous — and sometimes consciously cultivated — love.

In Vivier’s works, references to childhood and childish games obscure days, weeks, and months; they pause, expand, or even destroy the flow of time, and they blur together play and the sacred. Play and the sacred confuse diachrony and synchrony, aion and chronos, living and dead, nature and culture. In a discussion with Jean-Claude Cubaynes, Vivier shared how his faith was responsible for him being “a child, now and always, immortally and eternally.” The Child Redeemer or “God Child,” as a text from his juniorate called him, incarnates beauty and purity. The angel looks for extraordinary ancestry and mourns the lost mother. Lonely Child is a lullaby from another, and this time cosmic and all-surrounding, Mother. It is a long song of solitude, with the promise of a renaissance; it is a hymn to the night, between a dream and the fear of darkness. Vivier avoided polyphony in this piece. Instead, disjunct intervals in the melody create a rugged and microtonal texture, with complex timbres and colors like the complementary melodies in Balinese music. Vivier rediscovered music’s secular meaning, which is far from structuralism and the idea: “this delightful imponderable, living alone in the castle of its Hegelian Truth.”1 Lonely Child is a mirage of a melos and a rhythm that have become pure duration, a series of moments that toggle, balanced and imbalanced, around a center.

Like Stockhausen, Vivier composed with a focus on melody. Writing in 1978 about Stockhausen’s work Mantra, which has a similar style to his other pieces Momente and Inori, Vivier added:

In my case, one melody is often the origin of a whole piece. I compose the melody, then I internally sing it all day long until it self-develops and has a physiognomy of its own. It can sometimes create the scaffolding for the greater structure of the piece, or it can lead to the organization of its minute sections. Certain emotions are too subtle to be manipulated and expressed by “structuring” tools like mathematical models, Latin squares, and the like … I have to feel close to my musical material; I have to experience it.2

Such a melodic universe is homophonic and sometimes diaphonic. As the author Jaco Mijnheer has underlined, in Orion — a piece named after the constellation where, as a child, Vivier imagined his biological parents to be living — the melody contains the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. These twelve tones are grouped in four segments, each with a modal sound that Vivier links to specific motives. Vivier even repeats certain notes, eschewing traditional serial restrictions. These motives are also “intervalled,” to use Vivier’s word, meaning that one note is added under another or is harmonized through superposed transpositions, inverted time variations, or time-lag. Vivier also plays segments simultaneously, gives them rhythmic unity, or sends them through progressive transitions. While harmonizing in these ways, the fundamental of the chord is not always the bass note, which is often the major third. Vivier explores timbre combinations, as with the strings and clarinets in Prologue pour un Marco Polo. Many other of his works could be cited, such as Pulau Dewata, a nine-melody suite derived from a single melody. Another is Lettura di Dante, structured around six musical cells containing up to three notes each. The notes are constantly repeated and modified slightly by the soprano.

Yet, embedded within the melody of Lettura di Dante lies the constant threat of silence. In Lonely Child, the silence itself becomes a rhythm through the violent interventions of the bass drum, thereby permanently altering the silences in the rest of the piece. Vivier walks a fine line between two types of silence. The first is the Ur silence: the mute silence of absence, from which desire emerges. It precedes everything. It is a silence that “nurtures, liberates, opens the consciousness. A silence that is loving and spreads love.”3 The second is the silence of the closing secret, within which the song fades. Vivier is a musician of affect and pathos. His music — foreshadowing death perhaps — is essentially shielded from language and is more centered around feeling than knowledge. It recounts the enchantment and bewitchment of silence, in tales and in fables. Musicians and audience members are faced with the great void and must contemplate it.

Childhood is filled with dreams of traveling to promising faraway lands. It also might represent a melancholic outlook on the state of the unappreciated artist. In scores from the late 1960s and 1970s, the Orient, both real and imaginary, was an important source of inspiration, influencing Vivier in the way that Balinese theater had influenced Antonin Artaud. In Zipangu (the name for Japan in the time of Marco Polo), for example, he represents this island as the symbol of immense richness that even Kublai Khan could not conquer. He takes up this same symbol again in the first, second, third, and fourth sections of Prologue pour un Marco Polo, whose title evokes an Orient well beyond the reach of “humans who do not want to discover new lands.” After experimenting with electronic music techniques and ring modulation in Lonely Child, he used Zipangu — scored for thirteen stringed instruments, divided in two groups (one for six violins, the other for one violin, three violas, two cellos, and one double bass) — to focus on color, performance, and techniques ranging from exaggerated bow pressure to pure harmonics. Even before Paramirabo, Bouchara, and Samarkand — each composed upon returning from a trip to the Orient — he had written Shiraz, titled after the Iranian city, a “pearl of a city, a rough diamond.” This piece for piano bears the influence of Robert Schumann’s Toccata, op. 7, and Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX. The pianist’s hands, intermittently static on the keyboard or moving in parallel or contrary motion, are always in relationship with an imaginary horizontal axis. The piece’s five sections represent an “embodiment of musical thought” where the love affair between the creator and his idea can be played out.

Childhood is also a land of invented languages, without grammar, syntax, meaning, or law. The sounds ka, nou, ya, and zo appearing in Vivier’s pieces since Ojikawa mediate between a pure language and the language of humans, between semiotics and semantics, following linguist Émile Benveniste’s categories. These phonemes are an acoustic color, like Stockhausen presented in his Stimmung, a language that Marco Polo, in his travels, could not comprehend, and the babbling of an infant. Childhood is thus not understood as a mere chronological point or a physical or psychological state in the process of aging; it is an experience of language: an examination of the existence of speech even before it became symbolic and transformed into discourse. Following suit with other attempts in the twentieth century, including the ones of Velimir Khlebnikov, Vivier creates phonemes that have universal scope and allude to a language that would enable contact with “all beings of the past, present, and future, close and far away.” In sum, they are a pure natural language, of which all humans are a part. Through these phonemes, often isolated in Vivier’s works, one touches the multitude, the universe. They are the mirage of a cosmic throat, dissociating letters from their articulation and language from their embodiment in the voice.

… Serene, I will cross the threshold of terror …

For Vivier, music is love and is ruled by love: a love of nature and of men, which finds its equal only in the premonition of death. Vivier evokes this premonition with Indian bells in Chants and with the opening trumpet melody in Orion, which he links to Ingmar Bergman’s medieval death dances. “Do not leave me alone. I’m scared,” sings a character in Journal. “I can only see the reflection of my eyes in the void.” In Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele, a young man says, “My name is Harry,” before stabbing his victim in the heart. In Le Clown, a poem Vivier wrote at seminary, the cold winter does not evoke the fear of death, but rather a fascination about fear and the voluptuousness of dying for love. In Zipangu, Lonely Child, and Prologue pour un Marco Polo, everything grows and folds back up. The melody lights up in multiple colors before returning to its initial state, purified and solitary. As a death ritual, Vivier’s approach blends intuition and reason, and does not shy away from melodrama. Human existence is portrayed as a painful meditation and a scream implied by all of creation. Vivier aims for absolute frankness and intimacy, recognizing that profound aspects of life cannot be separated from the artistic creation.

Be it in Lonely Child or in the Eastern-influenced Orion, Vivier reflects on the terror one can experience when faced with the end of life. In this vein, he evokes religious or funereal rites with the resonance of the kempli, the rin, and gongs, as well as in his orchestrations with bells — which reminded György Ligeti of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. “Do not fear, walk toward the light,” sings Vivier’s Kopernikus. An amen concludes Musik für das Ende, and Deo Gratias is heard in Désintégration, Chants, andLettura di Dante. Even the titles of the works are thematically telling: Jesus, erbarme dich, or again Liebesgedichte, a piece that “holds the love of God for humans, as well as the love of humans for God.”

Vivier’s mysticism went beyond the tensions of Catholicism, enacted through psalms and remnants of Gregorian chant. Somewhere between Christianity and his imaginary Asian rituals, he held a deep faith in the love of God. His art is essentially religious. “Like the Gods,” he assimilated music and prayer under the aegis of choral, psalm, and a mysterious and incantatory process of purification (Reinigung, German for “purification,” was the initial title of Chants). According to Ligeti, Vivier considered Stockhausen to be his model, both as a believer and as a missionary. For Vivier, Stockhausen inscribed mankind in the universal totality of the cosmos and placed the individual between the inner self and the infinity of stars, in such a way that the soul’s interiority becomes a reflection of sidereal space. Beyond religion, sect, or ideology, Vivier said,

I want art to be a sacred action, the revelation of power, and the communication with this power. The musician must now organize revelation sessions rather than music: incantatory sessions on the power of nature, on the power that has existed, exists, and will forever exist. This power is truth. All true revolutions aim to put civilization back on the path of this power, in the wake of this power.”4

Such a conception of the role of the musician deeply impacts the role of the composer. As in the ethic of Japanese art, where the self has no expression of its own but acts according to ancestral precepts, Vivier incorporated the self into the work. But critically, if not objectively, he underwent this diffusion of the self.

In Vivier’s work, spirituality, slow breathing, and a general call to wisdom are meant to reveal the meaning of our existence, all the while reaching for the lures of immortality. His art of the distribution of sounds, his proportion systems, the directionality or non-directionality of his sounds create an ambiguous space of variable geometry. Like in cinema, the curved lines of Vivier’s universe momentarily eclipse our despair, suspend time, and amalgamate a desired past with the sad linearity of “the movement toward an unreachable future.” O! Kosmos sings of this torn position. As a pilgrim of the atemporal, Vivier’s Marco Polo is also outside time, and somewhat an outsider in his travels. He eventually finds what Vivier has called, in a text on Chants, the “transhistorical breath of life.” The eight musical statements in Chants lead to nowhere particular. Rather, they follow the magic of an era where multiple dimensions cohabit, penetrate each other, and change according to celestial mechanical rules.

The first quality of music is its absence — absence of links between two consecutive moments. Temporal moments are but an abstract vision, or a conceptualization of the relation between past and future. Music amplifies to the absurd such non-existing relation: an object that was not supposed to be can become a real and palpable object of possible speculation. It is the magnification of an impossible desire.5

The sound of music is thus the point of non-contact between hope and melancholia: it is the tearing of a flux. The only important exercise is the one on the current state of melancholia — on the tension that objectifies events in the tenderness of memories. Only then can past and future revolve around an eternally moving point, as if to “feel its heat.” Vivier, in discussion with Paul Chamberland on Marco Polo (recorded and broadcast in the seventh part of the Prologue), re-established the fragility of the continuum. Acheron, as a space between time and eternity, desires transcendence. Vivier’s Glaubst du an der Unsterblichkeit der Seele oscillates between mobility and immobility, a state that Kopernikus establishes as a “stagnation of temporality.”

1. Claude VIVIER, “Petit historique de la musique contemporaine” (1981), in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Volume 2, 1991, Claude Vivier, p. 121. 
2. Cited in Johanne RIVEST, “Claude Vivier: les œuvres d’une discographique imposante,” in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 154-155. On the melodic dimension, Vivier wrote about Liebesgedichte (1975): “In 1968, I composed an extraordinary melody, and still today it lives in me. That melody was completely intuitive. One afternoon, I harmonized it in four voices. Again, the process was intuitive, even loving. Finally, I divided it into twelve groups, and each group had between one and twelve chords. I then spread out my music in time, and I gave each chord series a duration that followed very precise proportions. I then gave each inner group chord a duration that formed a harmonious proportion scale. I proceeded to give each section a character, tempo, and behavior.” (“Liebesgedichte,” in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 65-66) 
3. Claude VIVIER, “Notes du soir” (1971), in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 53. 
4. Claude VIVIER, “L’acte musical” (1971), in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 49. 
5. Claude VIVIER, “Que propose la musique?” (1981), in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 130. On time, see also “Pour Gödel” (1982), in Revue nord-américaine de musique du XXe siècle, p. 125-126, written after having read Douglas R. HOFSTADTER, Gödel, Escher, Bach, a Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll, New York, Basic Books, 1979. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007


  • « Claude Vivier », Circuit, Revue nord-américaine de musique du xxe siècle, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Volume 2, 1991.
  • Claude Vivier, Concert commémoratif, 2 juin 1983 (Les Amis de Claude Vivier).
  • Bob GILMORE, Claude Vivier: A Biography, University of Rochester Press, 2013.
  • Johanne RIVEST, « La discographie de Claude Vivier », in Revue de musique des universités canadiennes, 1985, n° 6, p. 35-45.
  • Jaco MIJNHEER, « Shiraz, pour piano, de Claude Vivier », in Les Cahiers de l’ARMuQ, 1991, n° 13, p. 90-106.
  • Yassen VODENITCHAROV, Claude Vivier, une figure singulière dans le paysage musical contemporain, Mémoire de musicologie (Hugues Dufourt, dir.), Ircam / EHESS, 1997.


  • Claude VIVIER, « Rêves d’un Marco Polo » : Kopernikus (I) ; Prologue pour un Marco Polo (II) ; Shiraz (III) ; Lonely Child (IV) ; Zipangu (V) ; Wo bist du Licht (VI) ; Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (VII), Claron McFadden : soprano (I, II, VII), Tomoko Makuuchi : soprano (I, VII), Susan Narucki : soprano (II, IV, VII), Kathryn Harries : mezzo-soprano (VII) : Marion van den Akker, mezzo-soprano (I), Lani Poulson, alto (I, VII), Helena Rasker, alto (II, VII), José Scholte, alto (VII), John van Halteren, ténor (VII), Charles Hens, ténor (VII), Terence Mierau, ténor (II, VII), Karl Daymond, baryton (I), Richard Lloyd Morgan : baryton (I, VII), James Ottaway : baryton (II, VII), Harry van der Kamp : basse (I, II, VII), Johan Leysen : narrateur (I, II, VII), Marc Couroux (III), Asko Ensemble, Schönberg Ensemble, direction : Reinbert de Leeuw, Pierre Audi, mise en scène, 2 DVD Opus Arte, 2006, OA 0943 D.
  • Claude VIVIER, Orion (I) ; Siddharta (II) ; Cinq chansons pour percussion (III), Christian Dierstein : percussion (III), WDR Sinfonieeorchester Köln, direction : Peter Rundel (I, II), 1 cd Kairos, 2006, 0012472KAI.
  • Claude VIVIER, Orion, Orchestre métropolitain de Montréal, direction : Walter Boudreau, 1 cd Centredisques, 2005, CMCCD 10705.
  • Claude VIVIER, Wo bist du Licht (I) ; Greeting Music (II) ; Bouchara (III) ; Trois airs pour un opéra imaginaire (IV), Marie-Danielle Parent : soprano (III), Ingrid Schmithüsen : soprano (IV), Marie-Annick Béliveau : mezzo-soprano (I), Ensemble de la Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, direction : Walter Boudreau (I-IV), 1 cd Atma, 2001, ACD 22252.
  • Claude VIVIER, O ! Kosmos, Phoenix Chamber Choir, Cortland Hultberg, dir., CD Skylark, 1994, n° SKY 9401.
  • Claude VIVIER, Jesus erbarme dich ; Chants ; Love Songs ; Journal, Les Jeunes Solistes, direction : Rachid Safir, 2 cds Soupir, 1990, S 206 – NT 103.
  • Claude VIVIER, Chants (I) ; Prolifération (II) ; Pianoforte (III) ; Hymnen an die Nacht (IV) ; Pièce pour flûte et piano (V) ; Pièce pour violoncelle et piano (VI) ; Siddhartha (VII) ; Lettura di Dante (VIII), Pulau Dewata (IX) ; Zipangu (X) ; Lonely Child (XI) ; Shiraz (XII) ; Paramirabo (XIII) ; Cinq chansons pour percussion (XIV) ; Prologue pour un Marco Polo (XV), Marie-Danielle Parent : soprano (XI), Pauline Vaillancourt : soprano (IV, VIII, XV), Marie Laferrière : mezzo-soprano (XV), David Doane : ténor (XV), Michel Ducharme : baryton (XV), Yves Saint-Amant : basse (XV), Jacques Lavallée : récitant (XV), Lise Daoust : flûte (V, XIII), Louis-Philippe Pelletier : piano (II, III, V, VI, XII, XIII), Jean-Eudes Vaillancourt : piano (IV), Jean Laurendeau : ondes Martenot (II), David Kent : percussion (XIV), Serge Laflamme : percussion (II), Denise Lupien : violon (XIII), Claude Lamothe : violoncelle (VI, XIII), Atelier de musique contemporaine de la Faculté de musique, Université de Montréal (I), Ensemble instrumental de Radio-Canada à Montréal (XV), Ensemble de percussion McGill (IX), Ensemble de la Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (VIII), I musici de Montréal (X), Orchestre métropolitain de Montréal (VII, XI), direction : Pierre Béluse, (IX), Walter Boudreau (VII), Serge Garant (VIII, XI), Yuli Turovsky (X), Lorraine Vaillancourt (I, XV), 4 cds, Anthologie de la musique canadienne, Radio-Canada International, 1990, ACM 36.
  • Claude VIVIER, Et je reverrai cette ville étrange, Arraymusic, 1 cd Artifact Music, 1988, ART 002.

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