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André Mathieu, pianist and composer

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As part of my Friday blog and montage this week, I will be featuring music by Montreal composer and pianist André Mathieu (1929-1968). I thought I would spend some time today discussing Mathieu, and illustrating some of his music through available materials.

A Tragic Life

When I think of Mathieu, I think of quasi-tragic figures of today’s Hollywood: Corey Haim, Lindsay Lohan, Brittney Spears… A generation of wunderkinds, of child prodigies that, well, simply haven’t aged well.

Mathieu was in every shape and form a true precocious enfant prodige of the early 1930’s. Mathieu started displaying musical affinities when he was but two, and composed his first work Dans la nuit (in the night), spontaneously when he was all of… four years old. Only then did his father, Rodolphe Mathieu, a music teacher and an avant-garde composer in his own right, start giving him formal lessons.

In order to avoid the inevitable argument as to whether or not the younger Mathieu's works were influenced or even bear the helping hand of his father, let me place here one of Rodolphe's more famous works, trois préludes, which he originally composed for the piano in 1915 and later orchestrated. Notice the modern flavour of the works - nothing close to the romantic lines espoused by his son:

As you can well imagine, we get into an all-too familiar scenario: little André is paraded and displayed for all to see, and becomes the talk of the town. Such was his notoriety that he was given a grant by the Quebec government to study piano and composition in Paris (as had his father a decade or so earlier). So an eight year-old Mathieu and his family would live in Paris during the year, and return to their Montreal home for the Summer. At a time where well-to-do households would have a monthly income of $1000, Mathieu would perform for $1000 a coincert!

And this continued for a few years until the outbreak of the World War II kept them from returning to their Parisian lifestyle. All is not lost, however, as a tween Mathieu goes and studies at Columbia University, and begins seducing New-York, winning the Philharmonic’s centenary composer’s competition (with his Concertino no. 2), and receiving the adulation of Albert Einstein and Sergei Rachmaninov. There was a short stint in Europe (1946-47) where Mathieu studied with Arthur Honegger, but then the trail goes cold...

For whatever reason, we find a late teenage Mathieu in Montreal, living what Jacques Languirand (playwright, broadcaster and acquaintance of the composer) describes as a life in suspended animation. “When Mathieu needed a shirt”, Languirand reports in an interview, “his mother took it out of his trunk, as it was still expected that they would be going back to Paris.”

The opportunity never materialized. Mathieu and his family, according to Languirand, lived in this state of suspended animation for nearly 10 years. Sad, if not pathetic.

What of Mathieu, then? He continued to practice, he continued to think of music, but he also grew restless, and turned to Montreal’s night life, and alcohol. Mathieu, when he hadn’t yet reached the age of 21, would sneak into bars and would befriend patrons, bartenders and some of the local performers – one of them being Vic Vogel, a man who will have a say in Mathieu’s life story in a large way, as we will later discover.

For the remaining 20 years of his life, Mathieu will simply sink into depression, disillusionment and drunkenness. Mathieu will, as did his father, take on students. He will organize recitals. And he will make a mockery of himself by staging pianothons, events where he will play the piano non-stop for 20 + hours. He will surface ever so often, and be one of those “Whatever became of…” personalities, giving the odd interview, but by the time of his death, he is simply remembered for “being a drunk”, not as being a misunderstood genius or a forgotten local talent.

Mathieu, the performer

We are lucky that there are a few surviving audio documents, maintained at the Canadian Music Centre, that display Mathieu as a pianist. Here is am old 78 RPM recording of Mathieu playing some of his very early works, during his early days in Paris:

And here is Mathieu performing as the soloist for his “Concerto de Quebec” (also known as his “Concerto Romantique”) for a radio broadcast on 23 November 1947. It is interesting to compare this performance to Lefèvre’s recording of the “reconstructed” concerto featured Friday:

The Mathieu story continues - click here)

Updated Jan-10-2012 at 13:34 by itywltmt

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Classical Music , Musicians , Composers