Many things can be said about the music of Claude Vivier, but one thing is certain: No one who hears it is quite the same afterward. Vivier, who would have turned 70 on April 14th, is a unique figure in music. Orphaned as a baby, he attended Catholic boarding school and later the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, before studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. A boisterous figure known for his distinct laugh and an omnipresent sheepskin coat, Vivier’s works, largely biographical, were, as British musicologist Bob Gilmore has written, a way of “confronting loneliness, darkness, terror; of negotiating a relationship with God; of voicing an insatiable longing for acceptance and for love.” His music combines voice, rhythm and instrumental textures, in French, German, and even imaginary languages. Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul), his final, unfinished work, concerns a narrator (named Claude) meeting a young man and being fatally stabbed; Vivier would perish in this exact way on March 8, 1983.
There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being longtime supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors. One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.
Days later, Jurowski led the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin, where he is chief conductor and artistic director, in a harrowing performance of works by Berg, Shostakovich and contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean, whose operatic adaptation of Hamlet was given its world premiere at the Glyndebourne opera festival last summer, with Jurowski on the podium. As well as being principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, he holds a directorship in Moscow and keeps a busy schedule of dates across Europe. Building creative programs, especially ones featuring 20th-century work, is his specialty, and in the case of Vivier, he notes that “the further away we’re getting from him physically, the more important he becomes spiritually and artistically.”
In 2021, Jurowski begins duties as general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and has indicated that Munich audiences can anticipate lesser-known works alongside opera hits. Will that include Vivier’s 1980 opera Kopernikus? Only Jurowski knows for sure.
Why Vivier in 2018?
He was, in many ways, ahead of his time, and he was beyond time and space. Some people who were very much in their time, like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or [Pierre] Boulez, made their time, made it an epoch – an era – and in some of their aspects, remain timeless, but in other aspects sound extremely dated. For instance, Stockhausen, who Vivier studied with, a lot of his work sounds incredibly dated today. Vivier, because he was creating his style from scratch, precreated something which came into full effect only after he departed. So now, of course, we can only imagine what he could have developed had he lived any longer.
When did you first hear the work of Vivier?
My personal route was via [French composer] Gérard Grisey . I discovered his last piece, which he also tragically left unfinished, because he died – Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold – and that piece was, in its initial stages, connected to Vivier’s death. So Grisey was trying to pay tribute to his friend, and they were near-contemporaries. I somehow instinctively felt that in the case of Vivier, we have one of those rare, highly romantic cases where the life of a composer and the work of a composer become one thing. In my head, Vivier is sitting up there with people like Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Franz Schubert, those people for whom an artistic expression became an existentialist act which could be life-changing, life-saving or life-annihilating. So without having any facts at hand to prove the case, I am convinced, more than I am convinced about anything else, that Vivier had initiated and planned and nearly, could say, staged, his departure.
You think so?
I’m convinced. Having composed this imaginary death, he felt he had to oblige his own artistic imagination, and go. It’s like one of the traditional Japanese beliefs, that if you cannot change the world and strongly dislike it, you’re supposed to leave the world to its karma and leave. For someone like Vivier, who’d been strongly connected to all sorts of Oriental spiritual beliefs and practices, that was the most natural thing to do. The unnatural aspect of course is the form of death.
So his passing was his final artistic act?
That’s exactly what I feel about it.
What’s it been like to be so involved with a work that demands more as a conductor?
I think that’s to do with me generally being some kind of, I call it bat syndrome, a bat in the sense of it being an animal which has left the world of mammals but hasn’t quite reached the world of birds. I am flying between the worlds.
So you don’t want to be a traditional conductor?
No, it’s boring. There’s a whole new generation, people like Teodor Currentzis – he also goes over borders stylistically – we are very different, but still I think it’s a genuine interest for not just one direction in the music. For me, the predominant points of my artistic being are symphonic music, early music, contemporary music and music theatre. And sometimes I’m even allowed to combine all of them in one.