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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 10

Jacques Hétu: The Joy of Composing

by René Champigny / July 1, 2008

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Jacques Hétu celebrates his 70th birthday this year, and soon, the 50th anniversary of an impressive career as a composer.

Jacques Hétu is visibly happy, considering himself privileged to live in the Laurentians, “in the middle of the forest, lakes, flowers, deer, and the singing of birds.” His happiness is connected to his forties: “That period, for me, was the most remarkable and memorable, to the point where I always feel like I’m 40. It had to do, of course, with meeting my partner, Jeanne Desaulniers, and our return to the city in the whirlwind of our small family, teaching at UQAM (the University of Québec at Montréal), important commissions – basically, life in Montreal. For me, happiness increases according to how well suited the environment is to the accomplishing a work. This is true for me. As the years passed – without calming down, because I always was calm – I have become less anxious, more serene, and even freer to express through music what I had to say . . .. My only worry is sometimes realizing how quickly time passes.”

But happiness isn’t always in the cards. At the age of five, after a “bright” period in his childhood, Hétu’s parents sent him to boarding school. This was in 1943, in the middle of the war, and no one could see an end to it. His father, a military doctor, was caught up in the turmoil: “The break was violent. Luckily, when I was fifteen, I discovered music and the ability to express myself through sound. I dropped out of college shortly thereafter, with a box full of manuscripts. . . I had decided to become a composer and learn all that was necessary to succeed. In that box, there were pieces for the piano, a symphony, a symphonic poem, as well as a draft for an a capella arrangement of Vaisseau d’Or!”

Nelligan’s poetry touches him. He isn’t indifferent to the poet’s pain, which he feels almost as if it were his own. The painful and troubled world of Nelligan inspired Hétu’s 1972 composition, Clartés de la nuit for soprano and orchestra and then, in 1982, Abîmes du rêve for bass and orchestra. In 1988, he composed Illusions fanées for an a capella choir, and then in 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death, Le Tombeau de Nelligan for orchestra. It’s “the piece which is most characteristic of my style”, says Hétu, a style which he insists is now changing. “The painful and troubled world is no longer a factor in my frame of mind, which is currently directed towards light and serenity. My more recent works are festive and playful. I want to celebrate life more than pain!”

Among Hétu’s close friends is Jean Laurendeau, to whom the Concerto for Ondes Martenot and Orchestra is dedicated. It was performed under the direction of Charles Dutoit by the National Orchestra of France in 1995, then at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) two years later. Laurendeau sees in man and musician the meeting of two antagonists of happiness: “As far as Jacques is concerned, joy is always accompanied by a ‘but’ – unless it is the contrary and incontrovertible sadness in the face of life is always accompanied always with him by a ‘but’ opening the door to joy. Isn’t this ambiguity the source of a great richness in art? Isn’t one of the specifics of music in fact to have the ability to say one thing as well as its opposite at the same time?

In his work, Hétu has a serenity, a happiness that he never hesitates to share, as confirmed by organist and composer Rachel Laurin: “He’s a very simple man, passionate and generous with his time. I met him at the meetings of the Canadian Music Centre, where he was fumbling for his pipe and not saying much, but was very attentive. He called me in 2000 to ask me to do his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mario Bernardi. After that, I stayed in touch with him. I sometimes ask him for advice for my own compositions, especially with the orchestration. He’s a remarkable orchestrator! Do you know Images of the Revolution?” she asks. Commissioned by the OSM, the 1989 piece commemorates the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Dutoit directed it with the OSM and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Hétu remembers that the piece was born in “a particular exaltation, as the studio was covered with colourful reproductions from that era.” Hétu’s catalogue now numbers eighteen orchestral works, four of which are symphonies. The Passacaille (1970), Antinomie (1977) and Le Tombeau de Nelligan (1992) are among the most performed. Thus, in 1990, Pinchas Zuckerman included Antinomie and 3rd Symphony in the Ottawa NAC Orchestra program during a tour of Germany, Denmark, and the UK.

After 80 compositions, the composer’s production is far from decreasing; rather it tends to be intensifying! Since his retirement from the world of teaching in 2000, Hétu has devoted himself entirely to composing. And he has to choose among numerous commissions. In May of this year, the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Yoav Talmi, created Legends, a folkloric work commemorating the city’s 400th anniversary. Next September, the Trois-Rivières Symphony Orchestra will perform Sur les Rives du Saint-Maurice. And in May 2009, there will be an OSM tour with Variations on a Mozart Theme for three Pianos and Orchestra, his 20th concerto! Clearly, this composer is never idle. An imposing piece for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was even announced for February 2010. We look forward to it! n

The Language of Hétu: Independence and Expression

“What I like about him is that he has this sort of musical independence. He’s always been free of influence. He’s never been tied to an avant-garde movement. He’s stayed true to himself throughout the years. He’s the most personal Canadian composer,” Victor Bouchard declares. In 1962, while a student at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris with Henri Dutilleux, Hétu wrote his Sonata for two Pianos, as a duet for Victor Bouchard and René Morisset, a sonata that the duo played on several European stages as well as in New York, at Carnegie Hall, the following year. With this sonata, the composer passed the final examinations at the school and obtained his Diploma of Excellence.

After studying at the Montreal Music Conservatory with Clermont Pépin from 1956 to 1961, Hétu avidly took in the artistic richness offered in the French capital. “It was the great number and frequency of concerts in Paris which enriched me the most. Leaving the musical desert of Montreal in the fifties was a delightful and exciting shock,” he emphasizes. But this quest left no space for musical dogma. “You already know your calling,” Dutilleux told him. So, the young composer had already found his path in life and had placed himself in the margin of the currents.

The analysis of the language of Hétu shows evidence of great stability. Since his start, the composer has used the octatonic scale (eight notes alternating between tones and semi-tones within an octave). Is this evidence of the influence of Messiaen, a composer Hétu studied in his music analysis courses at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris from 1962-63? Yes and no. The scale that Messiaen designed as his “second mode of limited transposition” had been used before, notably by Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. And Messiaen rarely uses just one mode at a time; he amalgamates two or three. With his 1964 piece Variations for Piano, Hétu made a brief foray into the world of twelve-tone music. But the twelve-tone series that he invented is composed of two octatonic hexachords! Through the exploration of various writing techniques, the young composer had, as he puts it, “his first experiences with the octatonic scale.”

Throughout his long career, Hétu remained independent. Resorting to one writing technique free of any ties, however, meant excommunication by a certain society. “During the seventies, the Montreal musical atmosphere had ostracized me.” The supporters of the serial technique notably kept him outside the circle of “contemporary” music concerts. But Hétu resisted. His music was circulated, little by little, from one end of the country to the other. Instrumentalists took interest in him and filled his little black book with commissions. “I handled the ostracism thanks to performers who played my music or commissioned works from me. And the situation is still the same to this day, the only difference being that there are many more performers and much less ostracism!” To prove it, there are twenty concertos at present that have unflagging support from performers.

However, the commission of a work is often an arduous enterprise, as percussionist Marie-Josée Simard will tell you. “Commissioning a concerto of a composer is quite laborious. Finding an orchestra that will interpret the work is difficult enough but it is even more so for a percussionist, marimbist/vibraphonist. I believe it takes four years to ‘create’ a Hétu concerto, what with the money, the writing of the concerto, and its performance.” Despite these difficulties, Hétu never ceases to receive commissions. Both substantial and accessible, his works touch numerous musicians and music lovers. Musical organizations have no problem turning to him; they are certain never to receive a profuse work or a big blank sheet with a red dot in the middle, the product of “arduous thinking”.

Hétu’s language puts to use a new kind of tonality that is not founded on traditional diatonic scales. During his serial experiences, Hétu noticed that his series always have a magnetic note, a “keynote” which governs it all. “So I rapidly detached myself from the stranglehold of the serial to get back to tonal, modal, and chromatic freedom.” This attraction of a note manifests itself today across a composite language largely branded by octatonicism, but also by chromaticism, a language where melodic units play a fundamental role. Therefore, Hétu’s music establishes a new hierarchy between sounds, a tonal predominance in a mixed language. It’s one of the most important characteristics of his language. It’s as if the composer demonstrated to us, through his music, that there is always somewhere a natural attraction, a gravity, a pole, regardless of the planet where our aspirations and dreams may lead us.

If Hétu likes Schubert, notably his 8th Symphony, he admires Berg just as much – particularly for his lyricism. And it’s in melody that Hétu’s own inspiration is born. It is the colliding musical cells that, in him, give birth to new melodies. All is pretext in the melodic interactions between voices. Robert Cram, to whom the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1991) is dedicated, claims that Hétu’s music becomes more and more lucid with time: “When you observe his development, from the very austere and demanding music of his youth up to the voluptuously mixed bittersweet chords which characterize his music today, you hear a clarification, a rejection of intellectual and ideological concepts for creating music which, even if it is not at all simple, nevertheless directly touches the heart as well as the mind.” Simply put, expression dominates, touching both the performer and the listener. n

[Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark]

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