Claude Vivier / Lonely Child
A "long song of solitude" from a composer eager to embrace the world through music of naïve love.
In late 2010, as I was first cutting my teeth on the idea of "writing in public," I started working as a concert reviewer for a popular New York City music blog. The gig didn't pay anything — but it did afford me free tickets to almost every classical concert venue in town.
The three years I spent writing these reviews were invaluable, in that I had the opportunity to consume a lot of music that was completely new to me, without having to bear the burden of pricey tickets. Out of 100-plus concerts, there is one moment of discovery that's stayed with me ever since: Hearing the Juilliard Orchestra perform Lonely Child, a work for soprano and small orchestra by Claude Vivier, a Quebecois composer whose music has been largely overshadowed by the tragic tale of his life and early death.
I expected to hear music of darkness and despair, but what I encountered in Lonely Child was a work of shimmering, opalescent beauty that seemed to speak more to joy and wonder than any sense of tragedy. Experiencing the music in the fourth row of Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall felt like taking part in a grand ritual, in which the soprano cast an incantation that tenderly infused my soul with love. I'm not one for massive hyperbole (only minor hyperbole), but I felt changed on a spiritual level by this music.
I had to know more about this work, and the enigmatic composer whose life lies within the notes of its score. What I ultimately found was a tale worthy of a true-crime bestseller — and music I'll forever hold close to my heart.
At the margins of Claude Vivier's life lie two mysteries. We know little about his birth or heritage other than that, on the day he was born in 1948, he was placed in a Catholic orphanage in 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.
His body of work — 48 compositions ranging from choral works to instrumental music and 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.
Lonely Child embodies every element of Vivier's signature musical language: an obsession with melody above all else; texts written in languages of his own creation — a practice of self-invention he began as a child without a family history; and elements of mysticism and ritual. But above all, Lonely Child is the perfect introduction to his distinctive approach to sound.
The key to experiencing Vivier's music is to understand the variety of sounds our ears perceive when we hear any musical tone. When someone plays a middle C on the piano, for example, our brains register that fundamental pitch first and foremost. At the same time, however, 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 stacks meticulously chosen combinations of pitches 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 also 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 begins with a promise that:
The dreams will come the gentle fairies will come and dance with you wonder The fairies and the elves will celebrate you and the merry farandole will inebriate you friend
Soon, mother and child embark on a journey to distant lands of diamond and jade:
The wondrous magicians embrace the golden sun the acrobats touch with their noses the mischievous stars the gardens make the mauve monks dream Children's dreams give me your hand and let us go and look up the fairy Carabosse her palace of jade lying amid pieces of forgotten dreams already Floating in eternity The stars in the sky are shining for you Tazio and will love you eternally
In contrast to the French text and its music of unrushed grandeur, the music accompanying Vivier's invented language grows increasingly wild and energetic. These sections are made even more extraordinary by the extended techniques required of the soloist, including frequent use of hand tremolo, a wavering sound the soprano produces by rapidly moving her hand in front of her mouth.
In addition to Vivier's poem, each section of Lonely Child is anchored by the recurring punctuations of sound produced 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 become increasingly pronounced with each new melody, until we're left with silken webs of gossamer harmonies swirling through the orchestral strings.
So how are we to interpret this mysterious musical journey? Is Lonely Child the work of a composer who, according to the myths surrounding his life story, was seemingly both haunted by the specter of death and craved its dark embrace?
Not necessarily: While Vivier called Lonely Child 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 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 largely denied on this earthly plane. He once wrote to a friend about his music:
"I have to find the voice of the lonely child who wants to embrace the world with his naïve love, the voice we all hear and want to inhabit eternally."
That 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 play a pivotal part in Vivier achieving the eternal rest, the enduring love and connection he so longed to receive.
Take a listen …
I had the chance to return to the world of Vivier's Lonely Child last fall when I was commissioned to write a program note for the Cleveland Orchestra's first-ever performance of the work (from which this essay has been adapted), performed under the baton of Barbara Hannigan, a Canadian soprano-conductor with a deep affinity for Vivier's music.
The concert was live-streamed, which gave me the opportunity to discover the astounding voice of the evening's soloist, soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou, whose performance proved transfixing from end to end. She doesn't just sing this music — she embodies every aspect of the work's solitude and joy, longing and fantasy. Wherever Claude's energy is right now as it hurtles through the cosmos, he must be so happy to have Patoulidou as an ambassador for his Lonely Child and its powerful message of love.
The Cleveland performance is no longer able to stream, but thankfully Hannigan and Patoulidou's performance of the work at the 2021 Ludwigsburg Festival in Germany is available to enjoy on YouTube. (For the work's complete text in French and English, head over here. And for those looking for an audio version to save on a streaming platform, the original recording with Marie-Danielle Parent, who premiered the work after Vivier's death, is also available.)
I'd love to hear about your time floating through Vivier's world of jade palaces and profound love. Let me know about your experience in the comments.
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