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The music of the French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier has been in need of a champion since his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1983. In recent years his music – some of it at least: the opera Kopernikus revived in Amsterdam in 2006; three pieces from a 2008 concert available on the Psappha ensemble’s website; other works emerging on disc – has begun to be heard again. The scores of his small and decidedly idiosyncratic oeuvre are currently being re-edited and re-published.

But it’s in Bob Gilmore’s pioneering portrait – ‘both a biography and a critical study’ – that Vivier finds his most sympathetic and eloquent advocate. The author of a fine book on Harry Partch, and a performer and composer with major leanings towards microtonalism, Gilmore comes to his subject clearly persuaded of the music’s merit yet he never indulges its wilder extremes. Nor does he shy away from criticising Vivier’s often no less self-indulgent personality. Instead, his altogether level headed interpretation of key events and relationships offers many insights into understanding the compelling combination of fiercely felt emotions and helter-skelter intellectual energy that characterises the music.

Vivier’s music was the product of both a perpetually displaced life and a sensibility larger and more extravagant than his ultimately stifling birthplace. Placed into a Montreal orphanage at birth, he was adopted at three by a poor family, expelled from a catholic training school at 17 (for ‘lack of maturity’) and in adult life became (in the best sense of the word) a fantasist. Exuberantly confident in public, wracked by crippling doubts in private, struggling with his sexuality, obsessed by death and murdered by a male prostitute in Paris, Vivier described his music as ‘a beautiful dream world’. But it was a world full of darker-hued obsessions that were not so easily satisfied nor understood, a creative penumbra that occupied, Gilmore pertinently says, ‘a shadowy realm between reality and the imagination’.

With access to the composer’s archives and through interviews with those who knew and worked with him, Gilmore fashions a revealing image of a composer whose worth has not yet been fully recognised and makes a persuasive case for further investigation. Vivier may yet turn out to be one of 20th-century music’s best-kept secrets.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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