top of page

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2023–24 subscription concert "Hannigan Conducts Strauss."

Claude Vivier_1980.jpeg

At the margins of Claude Vivier's life lie two mysteries. We know little about the Canadian composer's birth or heritage, other than that he was immediately placed in a Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, where he spent the first three years of his life. Just as confounding are the hours leading up to Vivier's death at the age of 34, when he was murdered in his Paris apartment by a serial killer targeting gay men in the city's Belleville and Le Marais neighborhoods.


Given that pair of profound question marks, it's little wonder the well-documented aspects of Vivier's existence have taken on the status of modern myth: his disarmingly charming and eccentric personality, the insatiable wanderlust that ferried him across the globe documenting musical traditions of the Middle East and Asia, and his unabashed openness regarding his homosexuality.


There's also the matter of the isolated and violent upbringing Vivier endured. His adopted working-class family moved frequently, making it impossible for little Claude to build friendships at school. He was the victim of persistent sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle, a stain on the Vivier household his parents refused to acknowledge. All this, compounded by Vivier's lifelong quest to find his birth parents, a mystery left unsolved at the time of his death in 1983.


His body of work — 48 compositions ranging from choral works and chamber music to opera — is also steeped in the myth surrounding his life, given that the most prominent figure in Claude Vivier's music is, well, Claude Vivier. To hear his music is to experience an autobiography etched in sound — the most resonant example being Lonely Child, his poignant meditation on love and longing for solo soprano and orchestra.


Commissioned in 1980 by the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, Lonely Child embodies every element of the musical language Vivier honed throughout his career: an obsession with melody above all else; texts written in languages of his own invention; elements of mysticism, ritual, and Asian musical traditions, especially the Balinese gamelan; and his thoroughly distinctive approach to sound.


Vivier was fascinated by Spectralism, an avant-garde style of composition developed in the 1970s that prioritizes timbre — the sound quality of a tone — over musical structure, harmony, and counterpoint. The key to experiencing Vivier's music is to understand the variety of harmonies our ears perceive when we hear a musical tone. When someone plays a middle C on the piano, for example, our brains register that fundamental pitch first and foremost. But we also hear a series of barely perceptible tones (known as a harmonic series) that waft through the air as the fundamental pitch continues to vibrate. 


In his music, Vivier stacked meticulously chosen combinations of tones that, when their harmonic series collide and interweave, create otherworldly arrays of sound — his so-called jeux de couleurs (games of colors) — that transform the orchestra into one undulating timbre. The way Vivier builds and releases those radiant, diaphanous rainbows of color, like the gentle blossoming of a lotus flower, is not only central to Lonely Child's musical form, but is further amplified by the text the soprano sings. 


Alternating between French and one of his invented languages, the poem Vivier composed presents a sequence of fantastical visions sung by a mother lulling her child to sleep. She promises that "dreams will come, gentle fairies will come and dance with you," and sings of glittering jade palaces where "wondrous magicians embrace the golden sun, the acrobats touch with their noses the mischievous stars, the gardens make the mauve monks dream." The music accompanying Vivier's invented language is made even more extraordinary by numerous extended techniques for the voice, including frequent use of hand tremolo, a wavering sound the soprano produces by rapidly moving her hand in front of her mouth. 


Vivier's poem anchors each section of Lonely Child, dividing the work into four separate soprano melodies that form the work's main material. Framing these melodies are a prologue and epilogue, as well as instrumental interludes punctuated by the thunderclap of bass drum and rin — a deep Japanese singing bowl used in temple rituals that, when struck with a mallet, produces an arresting chime that slowly decays into silence. These percussive moments guide us through the work, as Vivier's jeux de couleurs becomes increasingly pronounced with each new melody, until we're left with silken webs of gossamer harmonies swirling through the orchestral strings.


How are we to interpret this mysterious musical journey? Is Lonely Child the work of a composer who, according to those myths surrounding his life story, was seemingly both haunted by the specter of death and craved its dark embrace? Not necessarily: While Vivier called it his "long song of solitude," neither his remarks about the music nor the soprano's poem he composed allude to any sorrow, despondency, or impending doom.  


Here is where we need to separate Claude Vivier the myth from Claude Vivier the man. Yes, Lonely Child is an expression of solitude. But it's also a testament to the freedom and fantasy made possible through love in all its various forms: the familial love between mother and child (or what Vivier imagined that love to be); the carnal love he shared with other men, depicted in the poem's many references to Tazio [sic] — the object of queer desire at the heart of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice; and the cosmic love Vivier felt for the gift of life itself.


For as much misery and violence as he endured throughout his 34 years, the musical world Vivier created was one of radiant joy. Composing provided him with a portal for manifesting the human connection he was denied on this earthly plane. "I have to find the voice of the lonely child who wants to embrace the world with his naïve love," he once wrote to a friend, "the voice we all hear and want to inhabit eternally." 

That fervent desire to embrace the world, mirrored by the plea in Lonely Child's poetry to "please give me eternity," finds consummation in every performance of this work. By bearing witness to Vivier's musical memoir and absorbing within our bodies the orchestra's heavenly harmonics and the final transcendent decay of the rin, we have played a pivotal part in Vivier achieving the eternal rest, the enduring love and connection he so longed to receive.

bottom of page