André Mathieu and the Lesson of Genius

The following is an excerpt from Of Jesuits and Bohemians: Tales of My Early Youth by Jean-Claude Germain, translated from the French by Donald Winkler and forthcoming from Véhicule Press in May 2014. Writer, playwright, director and actor Jean-Claude Germain is a Quebecois icon
whose memoirs are filled with a Montreal-centric Who's Who of 1950's and 60's Quebecois painters, musicians, composers, writers and politicians, evoking a rich cultural milieu of which few English readers are aware. The except included below focuses on a young bohemian Germain's idealistic pursuit of the notion of genius and his transformative encounter with the eccentric and volatile "Canadian Mozart" André Mathieu. Véhicule Press has published an earlier volume of Germain's memoirs, Rue Fabre, in 2012.

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I was sixteen, and already too old to emulate Rimbaud. But I still had a chance to assert my genius by Orson Welles's age, when he directed Citizen Kane. He was all of twenty-four.

I don’t remember if it was at the Sainte-Marie film club or the System movie theatre on Saint Catherine Street that I saw his film for the first time. From the opening strains of music over the slow introductory travelling shot bearing down on the fence blocking entry to the castle of Xanadu, Kane’s spell was cast. “No trespassing!” Prohibitions are there to be ignored, muttered the camera, and the fence dissolved.


Welles’s challenge was like a blow to the midriff. More than a stimulus, it was a brazen incitement to overachieve! Be Orson Welles or nothing! Genius, in its excess, confers impunity. There are no great works without this deep conviction.

In my case, precocity had only been met with obstacles. At the age when little Mozart was embarking on his career as a musical prodigy, mine was shutting down. In first grade, the saintly Cécile of the convent asked me to sing a scale to see if I might join the choir. She had barely closed her eyes to listen when her frigid gaze stopped me in my tracks at “re.”  At Sainte-Marie, the piano was an upright. This time my musical recruitment was terminated at “mi.”

How to hit one’s own note in a world singing in unison, when your instinct is never to follow the crowd? André Mathieu, who I had the privilege of interviewing, gave me the answer:

“By pouring a lot of scotch into your wine!”

The Canadian Mozart knew what he was talking about: both scotch and thumbing your nose at conformity! 

I met him thanks to my friend Claude Morin. His family had taken Mathieu in when he was relying on his artist friends for a place to sleep, whether on a makeshift bed, a sofa, or on the hard floor of a studio.

It was Claude’s brother André who urged their parents to welcome the prodigy into their home, in the secret hope that the musician might begin again to compose. The presence of a grand piano at the Morin’s had the hoped for effect. But after a few weeks of sustained inspiration and a first draft thrown down on paper, the composer’s nocturnal rounds of the bars, and his picaresque reappearances in the wee hours of the morning, rapidly lost him his status as prodigy in residence.

Jean-Claude Germain
Still, André Morin’s devotion to the composer’s talent was unshakeable. In 1967 he was still there, at Expo, trying to convince Jean Drapeau to give André Mathieu’s music the global audience it deserved. The project was aborted, and Mathieu died the next year. Morin did not give up. He returned to the charge in 1976, and this time Mathieu’s compositions were heard during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

One day Vic Vogel told me that Morin and Mathieu used to get together at the Café Caprice. When Mathieu was dead drunk, he sometimes asked Vogel to give him a lift in his big limousine back to the Vincent-d’Indy music school. Despite the unearthly hour, the good sister on duty always greeted the “prodigal son” with angelic patience.

“Not so much to merit her stay in heaven, as out of respect for a great musician,” according to Vic.

In my memory, André Mathieu remains a flashy figure in his early forties. And yet he was only ten years older than my sixteen years! His brow was wide and prominent, his eyes mocking and his face chubby, but an alcoholic haze was already blurring his gaze, his features, and the way he moved.


André Mathieu

In the furnished basement where he lived, the entire space where he received us, Claude Morin and myself, was filled by a piano. Hardly any room for our tape recorder. In him everything had aged prematurely, except what one remembered of his precocity.

His touch on the piano was something else. His was the muscular approach of the Russian virtuosos who wrestled the keyboard into submission, tormenting it to the very last note. At which point the grand piano, torn limb from limb, buckled from exhaustion. 

An upright piano was more like a punching bag. Mathieu was a formidable pugilist when it came to banging out chords. We soon realized that his instrument was dreadfully out of tune, and the shuddering of the casing plus the narrowness of the room threw us literally into the vortex of the notes.

For the Morins' former houseguest I was a new audience that he seemed to want to amaze, seduce, and move. My friend Claudethe future producer of Lise Payette’s radio show, Place aux femmeswas already a convert. One more reason why Mathieu could count on his complicity to excite my admiration. It was certainly not the first time that he told the sad story of the famous Mademoiselle X.

“She might have been called Y! But that would have been too advanced for her!”

She was a student at Vincent d’Indy, labouring at a theme she was trying to develop, one dismissed by the pianist as musically insignificant, even as he reproduced it on the piano.

After having played the theme loudly and badly, the damsel was pondering her next move.

“A bit like an unmarried mother who had done nothing at all to have a child, but there it was!”

X soldiered on with her variations.

“It might be prettier with harmony!”

Only to change her mind.

“With a bass, it would sound better!”

His left hand launched into a boogie-woogie.

“Blame it all on her bad education!”

Then she put back in what she had taken out.

“A bass! I need a bass! A bass!”

But the entire keyboard had been pecked over in vain. Fortuitously, as in a Hollywood musical, the local Mozart just happened to be passing by.

“By then there was nothing in a pianist's first-aid kit that the poor girl hadn't tried.”

Mathieu stopped and sat down beside her. Why didn’t she try something like... what he was going to play for us?

There followed a manifold musical deluge that came at us from every direction, a furious sarabande whose theme emerged, haunting, desperately romantic, as if floating on a sea of raging notes it could not tame nor calm.

In the little room we were deafened by a storm so fierce it made the music almost palpable. The point of this improvised lesson was clear: genius cannot be taught.

Once launched, Mathieu took the microphone again to present his second number at a pace as slow and deliberate as the sentiment was laid on thick.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s with tears in my heart that I dedicate the next piece not to you, but to me. It’s a scherzando, because I wasn’t able to compose a scherzo. However, I still have enough masculine and musical pride to take on a piece that's even harder to play!”

And with sombre chords, hammered notes, and reverberations that washed over us in powerful waves, a maelstrom of sounds wheeled, called out and responded to each other, conjuring the vision of a heart beating frantically so as not to drown in its own pain.

At that level of intensity, we didn’t know if this was all pathetic or sublime, mawkish or tragic. The point of the second lesson had been made: genius obeys no rules.

For our interviewee, the public was no longer restricted to his two admirers. Quebec in its entirety had slipped into the room, and that is whom he was addressing.

"Now you're going to hear the Quebec Concerto, which many peopleabove all those who don't like me very muchsee as a minor work. They can't forgive me for coming into the world as an adult. That's why my old age will be a brief one."

His fingers ran over the keyboard for an instant.

"This was the theme for The Fortress. The film is forgotten, but not the concerto. That's already something, no? As I was thirteen years old, you could still call it a youthful indiscretion. But I'd like to see someone who could match it."

A descent of the rapids followed by a lightning attack, and spirited spates of notes. In the midst of raging gusts, a dull roar introduced the roll and pitch of a superbly romantic theme that parted the spray like an ocean liner, all lights blazing, to lose itself in the pianistic din of a virtuosic finale, Russian style. The proof was there: the young prodigy's genius was authentic. 

The old prodigy, on the other hand, was more and more in decline. An elderly woman had come into the room during the last number. She much resembled a nurse, and probably was one. Mathieu too the microphone again to make an announcement in a husky voice, for a public that was now reduced to one person. 

"The work I'm going to present is very dear to me. And she who will sing it is its living inspiration. May the sun in its most glorious days shine on me, who will forever seek its light!"

Overwhelmed by a piano that was more and more out of tune, the grey-haired solar muse, whose name was Rose, answered the call in a shrill, juvenile voice:

"Oh my loved one! Why die?"

The absurd and garish pathos of the scene suggested on the one hand Ionseco's The Bald Soprano, and on the other, the tragic risibility of the singer in Citizen Kane, with her wavering note that rises towards the flies, while she collapses onto the floor of the prompter's box. 

"Wh-y d-i-i-ie?"

I left the little Notre-Dame-de-Grace apartment, the tape recorder in my arms. It weighed on me less than my discomfort.

What to conclude from the genius's lesson? It was obvious. Better to be nothing than to be Orson Welles in Quebec. Pierre Dagenais, our theatrical prodigy of the day, would have agreed. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Writer, playwright, director, actor, journalist, historian, and critic, Jean-Claude Germain is a Quebec icon. He taught at the National Theatre School of Canada and was artistic director of Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui (1972-1982). He was a founding member of VLB Editeur. Well-known for his story telling on the radio, he related the year by year saga of the history of Montreal from 1642 to 1992 on the morning show CBF-Bonjour. The 350 episodes were ultimately published in three volumes as Le Feuilleton de Montréal. He is the author of Rue Fabre (Vehicule Press, 2012).


Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmaker. He has translated books by the atrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux, novelists Daniel Poliquin, Nadine Bismuth, and Mauricio Segura, among others. Winkler is a two-time winner of the Governor General of Canada's Award for French-to-English translation.


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