Jacques Hétu: The Joy of Composingby René Champigny
/ July 1, 2008
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
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]