Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jacques Hétu dead at 71

CBC reports that the great Canadian composer Jacques Hétu succumbed to lung cancer yesterday. A student of Clermont Pépin and Henri Dutilleux, Hétu languished in relative obscurity until Glenn Gould featured his piano Variations on one of his recordings; this recognition opened doors for many prestigious commissions in Canada and beyond. Before his final illness took hold, Hétu completed his fifth symphony, which is scheduled for its premiere in Toronto on March 3rd.

Hétu has long been among my favourite Canadian composers, and is one of the few whose compositional voice is absolutely distinctive and unmistakeable. You only need to hear a few measures of an Hétu piece to identify the composer: his characteristic lyricism, depth of emotion, and harmonic language are like no-one else's. He was a particular master of the concerto form, having written twelve concerti for various instruments; I was lucky enough to hear Olivier Latry perform his organ concerto in 2008, which is a tremendously successful work of great emotional power.

In an age where the ideals of craftsmanship seem old-fashioned and defunct, Jacques Hétu exemplified compositional skill. Every note seems to be in its proper place; every movement seems exactly the right length for its material. Particularly impressive are his intense, brooding slow movements, where the melodic line and emotional trajectory is always completely controlled and assured.

For those of you new to Hétu's music, I refer you to his powerful piano Fantasie, written ten years ago, a perfect illustration of his characteristic style.