Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (The Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices [...]
They spoke about it
The Genius of André Mathieu
An afternoon spent interviewing Alain Lefèvre is much like attending a play. One sits in rapt absorption as he enacts a spontaneous, improvised one-man show, alternately speaking volubly and demonstrating at the piano. An interviewer need not even pose an opening question. Alain Lefèvre launches impulsively into whatever subject is consuming his attention at the moment. These days, it is the life and music of the Quebec composer André Mathieu.
“The incarnation of pure genius for Quebec and Canada” is Alain Lefèvre‘s unequivocal assessment of André Mathieu. This composer and pianist, a child prodigy who was once dubbed “the Canada Mozart,” has been largely forgotten, but Lefèvre’s ambition is to revive public interest in André Mathieu. “The first piece I ever heard by this composer was his Prélude romantique,” relates Lefèvre. “I was fifteen at the time, and was stunned by its beauty. André Mathieu has been my passion ever since. I think it’s almost scandalous that he remains unknown.”
André Mathieu was born in Montreal on February 18, 1929. Like Mozart, he received his first music lessons from his father, and was already composing little pieces by the age of four. Noël Strauss of The New York Times wrote that even Mozart, the greatest musical prodigy of all time, only began composing at the age of four, and his first works were much simpler in nature than those of the young Canadian. Also like Mozart, he astonished audiences far and wide with his pianistic prowess from a very young age: at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal at six, in the Salle Pleyel and Salle Gaveau in Paris at seven, in Carnegie Hall, New York at ten. Rachmaninov pronounced him “a genius, more so than I am.”
André Mathieu undertook composition studies in Paris, then later in New York, and after World War II again in Paris. Most of his works are short piano pieces, but only about a quarter of his known compositions – well over two hundred – have been located thus far, and much research remains to be done. Mathieu’s fame peaked around 1950. He died on April 18, 1968, completely forgotten, at the age of 39.
Alain Lefèvre talks about André Mathieu and his music:
Except for the Concerto de Québec (piano solo version), which opens my program, in these notes the piano pieces are presented chronologically. The music is surprisingly complex and intensely emotional right from the start. Some people have remarked that some of these pieces must have been written by another hand, that André Mathieu could not possibly be the real composer. I can affirm unequivocally that he is. I have spent many years studying Mathieu’s music, so I am intimately familiar with his style, his mistakes, his strengths and weaknesses. The same for his father Rodolphe Mathieu, also a composer. There is no way anyone could have faked the procedure so perfectly.
As a pianist, André Mathieu was equally extraordinary. His technique was prodigious from a very young age. He had amazingly large hands, nearly the size of Rachmaninov’s; he could stretch an octave and a fifth. There exists a video of him playing to prove it. On this same video you can observe that he had the velocity of a Horowitz. The technique is fabulous. Actually, much of his music looks quite innocent to the eye – there are rarely pages black with notes as you find in composers like Rachmaninov or Scriabin or Alkan – but when you try to play it, you quickly realize the enormous difficulties involved.
Concerto de Québec (piano solo version)
This is a one-movement version of the Concerto de Québec. It is essentially the central slow movement plus fragments of the first and third. It may have been a sketch or preliminary model for the complete, three-movement work.
Dans la nuit (In the Night)
This is apparently André Mathieu’s first composition, begun at the age of four and completed at five. If you compare it to the kind of pieces Mozart was writing at a comparable age, you realize that Mathieu’s musical mind was already further advanced even than Mozart’s. There is a complexity to the matière that defies explanation. The music exudes a smoky, Scriabinesque quality. How can a five-year-old kid possess the imagination to write such music? There are weaknesses, to be sure. André Mathieu is always ready to jump impulsively from one stylistic influence to another, even within a single composition. There’s a bit of Scriabin, then a bit of Debussy, then a bit of Gershwin, etc. No denying this is a weakness, but at the same time, it’s fascinating to observe what a five-year-old can do.
Abeilles piquantes (Stinging Bees)
Musically this piece is a bit less impressive, but it manifests once again Mathieu’s compositional ability and pianistic technique at the age of five. What is interesting is that it is his Op. 17. What happened to Opp. 2-16?
For me, this is one of the most important pieces. Mathieu is now seven. There is no opus number. Why? Another puzzle is the sheer depth of sadness portrayed here. How can a seven-year-old be so sad? Tristesse is dedicated to Dr. J. E. Dubé, who seems to have been the boy’s own personal doctor. What was his ailment that required a doctor’s ministrations? The questions pile up.
Les Mouettes (The Seagulls)
In 1938, at the age of seven, André made his first sea voyage to Europe. During passage on the S.S. Richmond, he composed Les Mouettes and dedicated it to the president of the Canadian Pacific Co., a Sir Edward Beatty, who seems to have done some personal favor for the boy. The outer sections are representative of the great fluidity André possessed at the keyboard, while the central episode reveals the influence of Debussy and Ravel,, whose music Andre’s father Rodolphe had already introduced to the boy back home in Montreal.
This delicate little piece was dedicated “to my dear teacher,” the French composer Jacques de La Presle (1888-1969).
Été canadien (Canadian Summer)
André Mathieu had strong nationalist sentiment, evident in his portrayal of the four seasons in Canada. Unfortunately, the two seasons I feel are most special to this country, fall and winter, are lost. Mathieu wrote his four evocations of the seasons in 1939 and 1940, years before the craze for Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons began. Été canadien is dedicated “to my country.” I think this is the first Mathieu composition we can call a masterpiece.
Printemps canadien (Canadian Spring)
This is not as strong a piece as Été canadien, but prefigured in it is the essential style of the second movement of Mathieu’s Concerto de Québec, written two years later.
We now jump six years forward to André Mathieu at age seventeen. Only the second of his six “Laurentienne” pieces survives. I would say it is a remarkably good work for a composer of any age, let alone seventeen. In it I found something that I have never seen anywhere else: trills in the right hand for the inner fingers while the outer fingers (thumb and pinkie) are involved with other material.
Bagatelles Nos.1 & 4
Written in France in 1946 and 1947. In No. 4, echoes of Ravel‘s Pavane for a Dead Princess are obvious. Mathieu had recently encountered this work, and it shows. But unlike Ravel’s piano piece, Mathieu’s requires enormous, almost impossible stretches for the hands.
Prelude No.5 (Prélude romantique)
This was the first piece I ever heard by André Mathieu. I was fifteen at the time, and was stunned by its beauty. Where can we go from here?
After the age of 21, the trail runs cold. Alain Lefèvre has pursued his subject with the tenacity of a bull terrier and the keen sense of a bloodhound, but further evidence so far has eluded him.
Boris Petrowski: Fantasia “Tribute to Mathieu” in G Minor
The next chapter in the life of the “Canadian Mozart” remains to be written. In the meantime, Lefèvre has hit upon a novel idea. He asked a talented, young Montreal-based composer, Boris Petrowski, to inspire himself from André Mathieu’s music in a “Hommage” to what the late composer might have written, should he had lived a much longer life. Petrowski has, in Alain Lefèvre’s words, “successfully realized the huge range of colors toward which Mathieu was aspiring even as a child, but never had the opportunity to develop, due to his early death at age 39.”
Walter Boudreau: La Valse de l’asile (Asylum’s Waltz
The final work on Alain Lefèvre’s program was composed by another Montrealer and one of Canada’s leading composers, Walter Boudreau. His waltz forms part of the incidental music he prepared for Claude Gauvreau’s play L’Asile de la pureté (The Asylum of Purity), written in 1948 when its author was just 23. Like Mathieu, Gauvreau died young under tragic circumstances. “Both belonged to an era – the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s – when genius in Canada often went unrecognized,” says Lefèvre. “The presence of this piece on the program is my way of putting André Mathieu into historical context. Listeners will sense intuitively that this painfully sad, almost surrealistic little waltz serves as a kind of benediction not only on all that André Mathieu stood for, but more importantly, on what he might have become.”
© Robert Markow