Mathieu, Rodolphe

(Joseph) Rodolphe Mathieu. Composer, teacher, writer, pianist, b Grondines, near Quebec City, 10 Jul 1890, d Montreal 29 Jun 1962.

Early Career

Born into a rural family, he moved to Montreal at 16 and studied piano 1906-8 with Alphonse Martin and voice at the same time with Céline Marier. He dedicated his first important work, the choral piece 'Le Poème de la mer' (1908), to Marier. She introduced him to Alfred La Liberté, who enthusiastically acquainted him with the works of Scriabin. The young musician was deeply impressed with these, and some of his piano compositions, Chevauchée (1911) and the Sonata (1927), show the influence of the Russian composer.

In 1907 Mathieu was appointed organist at St-Jean-Berchmans Church and began teaching piano, solfège, harmony, and counterpoint. Several of his pupils were to become winners of the Prix d'Europe: Jean Dansereau, Wilfrid Pelletier, Ruth Pryce, and Auguste Descarries, among others. His studies ca 1910 with Alexis Contant led him in the direction of composition. In 1913 he wrote the song 'Un peu d'ombre,' which was sung in 1924 by Marguerite Bériza at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris and later by Sarah Fischer in London. The pianist Léo-Pol Morin included Chevauchée and Trois Préludes in his repertoire.


With the aid of funds raised by his friends, Mathieu went to Paris in 1920. On the advice of Albert Roussel he enrolled at the Schola cantorum, where he studied composition with Vincent d'Indy and orchestration with Louis Aubert. He also studied orchestral conducting with Vladimir Golschmann and psychology with Pierre Janet at the Collège de France. At this time he composed the works that may be his most significant: String Quartet, Trio, Monologues for violin, and Dialogues for violin and cello. In 1923 a grant from the Quebec government, the first awarded to a composer, enabled him to prolong his stay.

Return to Montréal

On his return to Montreal in 1927 he taught at the Institut pédagogique of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame and at the convent of the Sisters of Ste Anne at Lachine. In 1928 he wrote his Sonata for violin and piano. In 1929 he founded the Canadian Institute of Music. Among his many pupils were Fleurette Beauchamp, Lydia Boucher, Pierre Brabant, Father Paul Lachapelle, Raymond Lévesque, and Cécile Préfontaine. He also directed the International Society of Music, which in 1934 became the Édition exclusive de musique canadienne, through which he published some of his own works. After 1930 he organized the Soirées Mathieu, monthly concerts held intermittently until 1952. The first Soirée took place 28 October and was devoted to his own works. During the years 1930-56 he completed 'Tests d'aptitudes musicales,' in which he extended certain ideas previously expressed in 'Problèmes - Aperceptions,' a treatise on creativity he had begun in 1915.

After 1934 Mathieu devoted most of his time to teaching and to furthering the career of André, the son of his marriage to the violinist Mimi Gagnon, and a gifted prodigy. Of the few works he wrote during this time, the Quintet for piano and strings probably is the most accomplished. He taught analysis 1955-9 at the CMM. The Symphonie pour voix humaines for six-voice choir with brass accompaniment, begun in 1956, was never finished. It may be viewed as a last attempt by the composer to rediscover the inspiration of the 1920s.

Musical Aesthetic and Compositional Style

Mathieu's work reflects two currents which dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries: first, the revolution in aesthetics and musical language achieved by Debussy and, second, the wave of romanticism that came through Wagner and, later, the post-Wagnerianism of Schoenberg and Berg. In his earliest compositions, Mathieu deliberately aligned himself with the music of Debussy. One senses in his compositions the same determination to break boundaries, the same pursuit of sonority for its own sake, and the same occasional use of the whole-tone scale, parallel chords, and cadences built on chords with added notes. Yet Debussy's influence remains partial and is limited to certain technical features.

Mathieu is first and foremost a romantic, and his roots are Wagnerian; his language is infused with the Wagnerian spirit and with a desire for display. Pushing chromaticism to its limit, led him to the solution later called complementarity. He may have been influenced in this by Scriabin's theory of the attraction of unstable harmonies by stable ones. Whether this is so or not, the process of resolution by complementarity is evident in the passages which link the various sections of the Trio and in most of the compositions of that period. Mathieu takes great pains to eschew tonality and to avoid repetitions, but it would be wrong, to conclude that he accepted the serial system in its entirety. At one point in his writings, he denounced it vigorously: to accept it, according to him, was to free oneself from traditional boundaries only to be subjected to an even more tyrannical discipline, one which is arbitrary and contrary to the elementary laws of aesthetics and expression.

There is a duality in Mathieu which on the one hand compels him to a rigorous organization of micro-structures, yet on the other causes him to place lyrical expression in the foreground and to employ expansive and proliferating forms. Although the latter tendency in his work is not surprising, the former may be explained as a need to pursue a path in which form must be invented continually. With Mathieu, the need for freedom was always uppermost; but such freedom meant choosing, on occasion, a rigour that was not customary for his time.

Mathieu asserted his position - modestly perhaps but nonetheless spontaneously and at a certain risk - in the general development of contemporary music. His rich imagination and the ease with which he expressed his ideas have helped give his works an intrinsic value as well as an undeniable interest.

At a time when Mathieu would have liked to secure a wider public for his works, neither audiences nor critics - with the notable exception of Léo-Pol Morin - were prepared to perceive or understand his musical language, despite the immediacy of its emotional impact. Among Morin's commentaries on Mathieu are those in Le Nigog, (18 May 1918) and La Patrie (1 May 1926). The novelty of Mathieu's methods created a barrier. At that time, simply adopting the syntax of Debussy was sufficient to bestow an aura of privacy on the musical language and to classify the composer as a mere aesthete. Mathieu's talent did not gain for him the recognition as a pioneer of the new Canadian music that he deserves. In any case his music, being rejected, was unable to point the way to creativity for newer (and younger) talents. In the 1960s, when some of his works finally were heard, a new school was gaining prominence, and Mathieu, though of a stature to have done so, could not preside over it.


Mathieu wrote extensively and was published in reviews and journals of his day including Le Nigog (Feb 1918); La Lyre (Mar 1931); Le Canada (Sep 1931); and Opinions (1931 and 193). He also left several unpublished manuscripts, and the book Parlons...musique (Montreal 1932).

Posthumous Recognition

The Canadian Music Centre has granted him associate status posthumously. An avenue in northeast Montreal was named after him in 1965. The concert hall built in 1981 at the UQTR was named after him. Volume 32 of RCI's Anthology of Canadian Music (4-ACM 32), issued in 1988, is devoted to his music. The Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur in Montreal commemorated the 100th anniversary of his birth with the exposition 'Rodolphe Mathieu (1890-1962): un musicien à connaître,' prepared by Anik Larose.

Rodolphe Mathieu was portrayed by Marc Labrèche in the film l'enfant prodige (2010) about his highly gifted son André.

See also the article on André Mathieu. The Mathieu Family Fonds are at Library and Archives Canada.

For a list of Rodolphe Mathieu's compositions see the Canadian Music Centre website.