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Gilles Tremblay was a mainstay of Montreal’s contemporary music scene

Composer Gilles Tremblay celebrated the music of the past in his pieces, unlike some of his colleagues in contemporary music.

Donat Boulerice

Quebec composer Gilles Tremblay grew up in a small town near the Saguenay River and spent much of his adult life near the St. Lawrence. His music was not descriptive in the usual sense, but many of his pieces reflect on his deep relationship with flowing waters and the natural world.

Mr. Tremblay was a patriarch of Montreal's contemporary music scene and a tireless guide to generations of younger composers and musicians, including Claude Vivier, Isabelle Panneton and Serge Provost. His celebrated works ranged from his 1967 commission for the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67; to his 2007 "fairy opera," L'eau qui danse, la femme qui chante et l'oiseau qui dit la vérité (The water that dances, the woman who sings and the bird that speaks the truth), presented by the Montreal company Chants Libres in 2009 during a year-long celebration of Mr. Tremblay's work. His Envol, a work for solo flute, was the first music heard at the inaugural concert of Montreal's orchestral hall, Maison symphonique, in 2011.

Mr. Tremblay was born in the industrial town of Arvida, Que., on Sept. 6, 1932, and died on July 27 at the age of 84, after a series of illnesses.

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His family was not musical, he told a Radio-Canada interviewer in 1997, but his experiences of nature with his father formed the basis of "my first esthetic emotions." Musicologist Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre, who has studied Mr. Tremblay's work extensively, has said that he responded to nature "less as an ecological reflection than as another means of encountering the divine."

He began his composition studies at the Music Conservatory of Montreal in 1949, with Claude Champagne, whose folkloric lyricism left little trace on his pupil's later work. In 1954, Mr. Tremblay moved to Paris, where he met the man he called his "spiritual father:" French composer Olivier Messiaen. He studied with Mr. Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, and became an adept performer of the ondes Martenot, the early electronic keyboard instrument featured in several Messiaen works.

Before returning to Quebec in 1961, Mr. Tremblay made the rounds of Europe's buoyant avant-garde music scene, but Mr. Messiaen remained his pole star. As with his mentor, Mr. Tremblay favoured a clear, brilliantly coloured kind of music, filled with ecstatic episodes and sudden illuminations.

Also like Mr. Messiaen, he became a teacher of musical analysis, holding a position in that field at the conservatory for five years before adding composition classes in 1967. He remained at the conservatory until 1997. He was known for encouraging his pupils to find their own way, a trait later celebrated by pop-classical composer and Tremblay student François Dompierre, who dedicated a piano piece to his former teacher in 2010.

In 1968, Mr. Tremblay took a leading role with the nascent Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), the formation of which was both an important step forward and an acknowledgment that Montreal's existing music institutions could not provide contemporary composers with the support they needed. Mr. Tremblay remained a key personality with the SMCQ for 20 years, the past two as artistic director.

Mr. Tremblay never wrote to shock, but attracted resistance with works such as Fleuves, his 1976 commission for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO). The initially scheduled premiere was cancelled by then music director Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos with five days notice, ostensibly for lack of rehearsal time. Fleuves was performed for the first time a year later by the MSO under the direction of composer Serge Garant, but only after much of the audience had left during the preceding intermission. The 18-minute piece is a work of astringent opulence, turbulent at times but also inclined to settle into transparent reveries focused on a single chord.

Unlike some of his colleagues in contemporary music, Mr. Tremblay celebrated the music of the past, often guiding his students through scores by Claude Debussy and Guillaume de Machaut. His Vêpres de la Vierge (1986) incorporates a long quotation from the Gregorian hymn Ave maris stella. The vespers, one of Mr. Tremblay's most beautiful, was revived in 2010 by SMCQ and in 2014 by Toronto's Soundstreams and has been recorded on disc at least twice.

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Mr. Tremblay was made an officer of the National Order of Quebec in 1991, attained the same rank in the Order of Canada in 2012 and received several coveted music awards during his career. He was also the subject, in 2009, of a biographical comic book, Au pays de l'émerveilleux Gilles Tremblay – an honour seldom granted to Canadian composers.

Mr. Tremblay leaves his spouse, Jacqueline Tremblay, and four children, as well as siblings and grandchildren. His funeral service will be held at Saint-Albert-le-Grand Church in Montreal on Friday, Aug. 4, at 11 a.m.

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