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Andre Gagnon arrives at Celine Dion's concert in Montreal on July 31, 2016.Denis Beaumont/The Canadian Press

Growing up in the village of Saint-Pacôme in the Quebec region of Kamouraska, André Gagnon would attend church every Sunday with his family. He was the youngest of 19 children (seven would die before reaching adulthood) and like his siblings, André had an obvious talent for music.

An older sister, Yvette, was organist at the church, a position she ended up holding for 60 years, and another sister played the violin.

Coming home one week from mass when he was about 3½, André went up to the family piano in the living room and with his tiny fingers tinkled out the first phrase of the hymn Tantum Ergo, which he had just heard at church. “I stood in front of the piano and my nose just reached the height of the keyboard,” Mr. Gagnon recalled in a 2013 interview on Radio-Canada.

It was the start of Mr. Gagnon’s remarkable career as a pianist, composer, conductor and pop-music idol, both in Canada and abroad. He died in Montreal on Dec. 3 at 84 after a long struggle with Lewy body dementia, a devastating degenerative disease.

André Gagnon was born on Aug. 2, 1936, in Saint-Pacôme, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. His parents, lumber dealer David Gagnon and his wife, Amanda, soon recognized that their youngest son had a special talent and hired a local nun, Sister Marie-Laetitia, to give the precocious pianist private lessons. He was 5.

“She was a fabulous woman,” Mr. Gagnon later recalled. “She understood that music would end up being my life.” After collegial studies in the nearby town of La Pocatière, he continued his musical training as a classical pianist at a music conservatory in Montreal and then in Paris.

After 10 months of studies there, Mr. Gagnon realized that what he wanted to do was compose and perform popular music for a mass audience rather than pursue further formal training. “I understood very quickly that I would not be a classical pianist. I played piano well and have done so all my life, but I wasn’t a virtuoso. Others played better than me.”

Returning to Montreal in 1962, he became part of a burgeoning music scene, populated with talented singer-songwriters who spearheaded the cultural aspect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. For eight years, Mr. Gagnon accompanied the chansonnier Claude Léveillée as a pianist, composer and arranger before deciding to launch his solo career in 1969.

Over the years, the diminutive Mr. Gagnon accompanied many of the great Quebec performers of his generation, including singers Monique Leyrac, Pauline Julien and Renée Claude, and he was a prolific songwriter and composer of instrumental music.

His album Neiges, featuring the catchy disco tune Wow, became a huge hit, winning the 1977 Juno Award for bestselling Canadian album of the year and spending weeks on the Billboard list of top-selling LPs. He won other Junos and a slew of the Quebec Félix music awards, including 10 for instrumental album of the year.

He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 and an officer of the National Order of Quebec 40 years later, in 2018.

Mr. Gagnon, known to his friends as Dédé, also composed music for film, notably Kamouraska, directed by Claude Jutra, and for TV series including the popular Des dames de coeur, for which he won a Gemini award.

Although Mr. Gagnon concentrated on popular music, he frequently performed with orchestras both in Canada and abroad and loved to meld popular and classical music. In the 1970s, he composed the Petit Concerto pour Carignan, an homage to the great Quebec fiddler Jean Carignan, and brought together Mr. Carignan and the great classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin to perform the piece under his direction at a concert sponsored by the CBC.

Mr. Menuhin loved the experience. “As for my own solo in this work, Gagnon has astutely picked scraps of Vivaldi … strung them together and swung them to my delight,” he said at the time.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Gagnon collaborated with Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay on perhaps the musician’s most important single work, Nelligan, an opera based on the tragic life of the brilliant Quebec poet Émile Nelligan, who died in 1941 in a mental hospital.

Mr. Gagnon had long been inspired by Nelligan’s poetry and in the 1970s purchased the Nelligan family residence in Montreal’s Saint-Louis Square, which he made into his own home.

Mr. Tremblay, who knew Mr. Gagnon for 50 years, said their collaboration on the opera proved a challenge because his role as librettist was less important than Mr. Gagnon’s task as composer. “It was up to me to accede to his requirements,” Mr. Tremblay recalled in an interview after Mr. Gagnon’s death. “It was difficult for me. When I wrote for the theatre I was the only master, but here I was No. 2. I was the composer’s assistant. They were two difficult years, but it was absolutely fascinating to work with him.”

Mr. Gagnon’s romantic approach to music was not to everyone’s taste and critics could be harsh. Writing about a 1980 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall, Globe and Mail rock critic Alan Niester called Mr. Gagnon’s music “the kind of instrumental fluff that’s most often encountered as the background in movies. But when there’s no movie to go along with it, sometimes one’s mind tends to wander a bit and create films for the music to succumb to.”

His fans clearly didn’t see it that way, and Mr. Gagnon achieved success across Canada, rare for a performing artist from Quebec. And he was particularly popular in Japan, where he first performed as part of the Canadian delegation at the Osaka world exposition in 1970. Over the years, he conducted 11 concert tours in the country and recorded several albums for the Japanese market. Mr. Gagnon credited his Japanese success to their love of instrumental music and particularly the piano.

Mr. Gagnon’s later years were marked by health problems. In the early 2000s, he was struck with a case of Dupuytren’s contracture, a genetic disease that causes the fingers to become permanently bent toward the palm in a claw-like position. With his right hand struck by the disease, he stopped performing and giving concerts for several years, only resuming with a concert tour in 2010 after successful hand surgery.

The symptoms of Lewy body dementia appeared four or five years ago, but worsened in the past two or three, leaving him incapable of communicating with friends and loved ones. Mr. Tremblay last spoke with his friend three or four years ago, but conversations then became impossible as Mr. Gagnon’s dementia took hold.

While the disease robbed Mr. Gagnon’s of his ability to communicate, Mr. Tremblay said, he still reacted to music. “As soon as he heard his own music, something would happen. Music was his life’s passion,” the playwright recalled.

Despite the success that took him around the world, Mr. Gagnon remained close to his family’s roots in Kamouraska, along the St. Lawrence River downstream from Quebec City.

Gaston Gagnon, a nephew, remembers first meeting his famous uncle at the age of 7 or 8 at his grandfather’s home. The musician was accompanied by Claude Léveillée, who was a Quebec star. Mr. Gagnon visited his family frequently and often invited his 11 brothers and sisters to spend time with him in the Laurentians.

Music was omnipresent in the Gagnon family. “They would always sing and André would accompany everyone on the piano,” said Gaston, a retired teacher living in La Pocatière. “We were all very proud of him.”

In addition to his numerous awards, the concert hall at the CEGEP de La Pocatière was named the Salle André Gagnon in 1982.

Mr. Gagnon leaves a brother, Jean-Louis, and a sister, Jeannine, as well as 17 nieces and nephews. He never married.

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