Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

by Nathan Cornelius

The history of Western music has largely been defined by methods of combining contrasting voices, with distinct rhythms and melodies, into a harmonious whole. From medieval motets to Renaissance counterpoint to Baroque fugue, all the way up to 20th-century “micropolyphony,” composers have developed intricate systems of composition and notation to regulate this complex relationship of parts. However, Canadian composer Claude Vivier negates the central thrust of this 800-year tradition in his masterpiece Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra.

Lonely Child was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. Vivier never heard the piece performed live, as he moved to France the following year and, tragically, was murdered in Paris in 1983. The text by Vivier himself, alternating between French and an imaginary nonsense language, is a lullaby comforting a sad child with fantastic visions of fairies, magicians, and stars. Vivier grew up in an orphanage and never knew his biological parents, and the text is often considered a depiction of his own childhood.

After an introduction featuring a sparse string melody interrupted by strokes on the bass drum and rin (a Japanese percussion instrument vaguely resembling a gong), the soprano enters with the text, accompanied by sustained notes from the full orchestra, moving in exact rhythmic unison with the voice. However, the texture continues to be sparse, as nearly all the instruments are concentrated on either the soprano note or one other lower part (which takes the place, if not the function, of a bass line). The lone exception is the first violins, who softly play hazy clusters in a very high register, appearing like a glassy sheen on the soprano’s vocal timbre.

In fact, these violin notes, as Bob Gilmore has shown, bear a precise mathematical relationship to the two principal voices.[1] Vivier generates them by repeatedly adding the frequency of the “bass” note to that of the soprano, as if they originated from electronic interference between the two notes. For example, the soprano’s first note is A440 (the A above middle C, having a frequency of 440 Hz), while the lower voice plays the G just over an octave lower (196 Hz). The violin notes above this approximately frequencies of 636, 832, 1028, 1224, and 1420 Hz (440 + 196 + 196 +196 +196 +196), forming a dense stack of notes. Played by itself, this cluster would sound noticeably out-of-tune, but in this context it blends seamlessly into the two lower notes. Vivier creates similar harmonies above each pair of soprano and bass notes for the entire melody, as it gradually ascends higher and higher.

With this innovative and boldly simple structure, Vivier has done away with the traditional musical elements of harmony and texture and absorbed them into a single element: timbre. (Timbre is often referred to in layman’s terms as “tone color,” and Vivier himself called these chords les couleurs.) The texture is such an extreme of homophony that it ceases to be noticeable as a texture at all. Meanwhile, the piece does not have harmony in the traditional sense, since there are only two main notes sounding at a time, but each simultaneity has a unique overlay of violin notes that impart to it a distinctive color. As a result, the dominant perceptual element of the piece is a series of shifting timbres generated by the relationship between the melody and its supporting voice.

Although Vivier is mentioned far less than his friends Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as an influence on the “spectralist” movement in 20th-century music, works like Lonely Child come as close as any to fulfilling the ideals of the movement. The spectralist composers conceived of music along a set of continua, such as pitch to rhythm, or harmony to timbre, and sought to show how these apparently distinct musical elements were actually two forms of the same entity, in a sort of musical theory of relativity. Vivier’s Lonely Child is a nobly elegant embodiment of that idea, but more than that, a deeply poignant and sensuously beautiful work of art.

[1] Bob Gilmore, “On Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child,” Tempo 61 (239), 2-17.

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