Pierre Mercure | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Pierre Mercure

Mercure, Pierre. Composer, TV producer, bassoonist, administrator, b Montreal 21 Feb 1927, d in an accident near Avallon, France, 29 Jan 1966; premier prix harmony, counterpoint, deuxième prix bassoon (CMM) 1949.

Mercure, Pierre

Mercure, Pierre. Composer, TV producer, bassoonist, administrator, b Montreal 21 Feb 1927, d in an accident near Avallon, France, 29 Jan 1966; premier prix harmony, counterpoint, deuxième prix bassoon (CMM) 1949. The integration of the creative media (ie, a combination of theatre, music, dance, painting, and sculpture) was the axis around which Pierre Mercure's life and work revolved. He studied 1944-9 at the CMM with the avowed goal of becoming an orchestra conductor and concentrated on harmony and counterpoint with Marvin Duchow and Claude Champagne, as well as on instrumental techniques. His bassoon teachers were Roland Gagnier and Louis Letellier, and he studied conducting with Léon Barzin. Champagne helped him discover French music and develop the talent for orchestration which was evident even in his first works, Kaléidoscope and Pantomime. Before going to Paris in 1949 for further education, Mercure participated in some modern ballet productions with a group of young poets, musicians, dancers, and painters whose artistic views were much influenced by the painter Paul-Émile Borduas. In May 1949, at the Théâtre des Compagnons, he took part with the choreographer Françoise Sullivan, the poet Claude Gauvreau, and the painter Jean-Paul Mousseau, in realizing three works: Dualité, Femme archaïque, and Lucrèce Borgia. This collaboration with the 'automatists,' however, had little immediate influence on Mercure's musical language. Its effects were not measurable until 1961, or perhaps even 1965.

Philosophically disturbed by Paul-Émile Borduas' Refus global (1948), a proclamation denouncing the conservatism of society and demanding freedom for the artist, Mercure sought new means of expression. He enrolled in Nadia Boulanger's classes as soon as he arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1949. Increasingly attracted by new music, however, Mercure preferred to work on improvisations, superimpositions of forms, and collective compositions with his composer friends Gabriel Charpentier, Jocelyn Binet, and Clermont Pépin. His association with Boulanger thus was short-lived, but despite this setback he pursued his studies in orchestration with Arthur Hoérée and Darius Milhaud and in conducting with Jean Fournet. Two short works, Emprise for clarinet, cello, bassoon, and piano and Ils ont détruit la ville for choir and orchestra, belong to this period. The latter, based on a poem from Aire by Charpentier, won him a prize in the RCI competition of 1950. After a year filled with new experiences, Mercure returned to Montreal, still searching for new means of expression. The musical forms of past centuries no longer satisfied him.

On a grant from the Quebec government, Mercure spent the summer of 1951 at Tanglewood studying composition with Luigi Dallapiccola, who became both a teacher and a friend. Once he had assimilated the principles of the 12-tone method, Mercure was torn between a need for greater creative freedom and a need to organize, to see ahead, to construct. He finally rejected strict 12-tone writing because he saw in it a serious impediment to his flexibility as an artist. His essentially lyrical nature was revealed in Dissidence, three songs which with Ils ont détruit la ville formed the core of the Cantate pour une joie for soprano, choir, and orchestra on poems by Charpentier. Divertissement, for string quartet and string orchestra, and Triptyque, for full orchestra, marked a point of arrival after a hesitant but extensive search, full of the impulsiveness of youth.

Throughout the period 1948-59 Mercure was looking for new sonorities. Finding his wishes impossible to fulfil, he aligned himself not with tradition as such but with a kind of spontaneous lyric expression realized through traditional forms. Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Honegger were his models. He was not indifferent to US popular music and jazz; several of the themes he used were derived from songs made popular by Glenn Miller and his orchestra; the rhythms are insistent, the orchestration glittering. These elements are found in his numerous background scores of 1950-4 for CBC radio dramas (for example, Amal by Tagore and Le Mystère de la Nativité by Gréban) and for stage productions by Les Compagnons (eg, Anouilh's Le Bal des voleurs). This association with theatre, dance, and even painting was a determining influence on Mercure. In January 1952 he joined the CBC and became its first producer of TV music programs. He produced 41 programs 1954-9 in the series 'L'Heure du concert' and several 'Concerts pour la jeunesse,' and he also supervised 'Jazz Workshop,' 'Music Hall,' 'Pays et merveilles,' and others. His style became recognizable by its taste and its recurrent ventures into the visual realm, often with a touch of audacity. Starting in this period, his work rose more and more from a need for continual experimentation and a compulsion to grapple with the most up-to-date art forms. In practical terms, during 1959-62 he sought a new language, exploring the field of electroacoustics. This exploration grew out of his encounters with the Groupe de recherches musicales of the RTF and with Pierre Schaeffer during his second study trip to Europe 1957-8. Répercussions, Structures métalliques I and II, Incandescence, and Improvisation are works built from concrete sounds transformed by means of electronic equipment. The works were accompanied sometimes by choreographic movement and often by projections.

The composer's intense activity peaked in preparations for an avant-garde music festival, the International Week of Today's Music, of which he was the guiding force. The festival was held in August 1961, and Mercure invited, among others, John Cage, Serge Garant, Mauricio Kagel, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, and Iannis Xenakis. He wanted to show Montreal the latest manifestations of contemporary music, and he looked for new sounds which might build a new audience. This isolated event, which Mercure would have liked to make annual, prepared the way for what in 1966 became the SMCQ. Mercure's third study trip to Europe - to Paris, Darmstadt, and Dartington during the summer of 1962 - allowed him to gain a closer knowledge of music from electronic sources. Structures métalliques III, composed during this period, was presented 16 Sep 1962 at the Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik in Wiesbaden.

In the autumn of 1962 Mercure undertook the composition of a cantata for radio, Psaume pour abri, the first of three attempts at a synthesis of electronic and conventional music. This psalm essentially cries out against barbarism, atrocity, and absurdity. It is composed of seven parts, of which the last three are a non-literal recapitulation of the first three. They depart from, and at length return to, a human standpoint. This new avenue continues in Tétrachromie. In September 1963, Mercure wrote Lignes et points for full orchestra, commissioned by the MSO. A suite of variations on a single theme, the work shows a compositional similarity to the previous two; the same melodic cells of three, four, or five notes are central features in the organization. Most of the sequences are notated graphically by means of colours; in the first two, Mercure used sine-tones transformed with filters, echo-chamber, etc, and in the third he translated the same processes into orchestral terms. Moreover, he tried with Lignes et points to obtain from the orchestra a range of timbres comparable to that achieved through electroacoustic means.

At the time of his death in a traffic accident, Mercure had scarcely reached maturity. During the previous summer in Darmstadt, he had written H2O per Severino, for from four to tenor solo instruments, a work in open form, with neither beginning nor end, in which chance events of the moment together constitute a formal entity. This work was another step towards realizing his ideal of freedom governed by human thought.

In 1966 the Montreal Festival du disque awarded the Prix Pierre-Mercure for the best recording of a Canadian composition to the duo pianists Bouchard and Morisset for their performance of Matton'sConcerto. Mercure's manuscripts and papers are deposited in the BN du Q. Volume 35 of RCI's Anthology of Canadian Music (5-ACM 35), issued on CD in 1990, is devoted to Mercure's compositions. His status as an associate is maintained by the Canadian Music Centre.


Ballet, Film
Dualité, ballet. 1948 (Montreal 1948). Tpt, piano. Ms lost

La Femme archaïque, ballet. 1949 (Montreal 1949). Va, piano, timpani. Ms lost

Lucrèce Borgia, ballet. 1949 (Montreal 1949). Tpt, piano, percussion. Ms lost

Emprise, ballet. 1950 (Paris 1950). Cl, bassoon, violoncello, piano. Ms lost

Improvisation, ballet. 1961 (Montreal 1961). Prepared piano on tape

Incandescence, ballet. 1961 (Montreal 1961). Tape. 4-ACM 35 (CD)

Structures métalliques I and II, 2 ballets (Montreal 1961). Metallic sculptures by A. Vaillancourt. Tape. (No. 2) 4-ACM-35 (CD)

Manipulations, ballet. 1963 (Que City 1964). Tape. 4-ACM 35 (CD)

Surimpressions, ballet. 1964 (Montreal 1964). Prepared piano on tape. Ms. 4-ACM 35 (CD)

La Forme des choses, film. 1965. Brass quintet, concrete sounds. Ms. (1990). 4-ACM 35 (CD) (R. Larochelle narrator)

Élément 3, film. 1965. Fl, concrete sounds. Ms

See also Tétrachromie.


'Commentaires,' Musiques du Kébèk, ed Raoul Duguay (Montreal 1971)

Orchestra, Choir and Orchestra

Kaléidoscope. 1948, rev 1949 (Montreal 1948, rev version Montreal 1949). Full orch, rev medium orch. Ric 1960 (medium orch). CBC SM-132 (Atlantic Symphony Orchestra)/CBC SM-334 (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)/4-ACM 35 (MSO)/Bell 1989 (Conservatoire de musique du Québec Orch)

Ils ont détruit la ville (G. Charpentier). 1950 (Montreal 1950), later rev and included in Cantate pour une joie. SATB, 18 instr. Ms lost. RCI 35/4-ACM 35 (CD) (Waddington)

Divertissement. 1957, rev 1958 (Montreal 1957). Str quartet, string orch. Ric 1970. RCI 154 (A. Brott)/CBC SM-6 (McGill Chamb O)/CBC SM-5044/4-ACM 35 (CD) (Orford String Quartet)

Triptyque. 1959 (Vancouver 1959). Full orch. Ric 1963. 2-Col M2S-756/Col MS-6962/CBS 32-11-0038 (TSO)/4-ACM 35 (CD) (MSO)

Lignes et points. 1964 (Montreal 1965). Full orch. Ric 1970. RCI 230/RCA LSC-2980/Vic VICS-1040/Mel SMLP-4039/4-ACM 35 (CD) (MSO)

See also Cantate pour une joie.


Pantomime. 1948. Ww, string, percussion. Ms incomplete. 3 rev versions, all 1949: 1/14 woodwind, percussion; manuscript lost; RCI 2 (J.-M. Beaudet)/4-ACM 35 (CD) (MSO). 2/Vc, piano; manuscript incomplete. 3/18 woodwind, percussion; Ric 1971; RCI 117 (Waddington)

H2O per Severino. 1965. 4-10 instr. Ms. (1990). 4-ACM 35 (CD) (version 1: S. Gazzelone fl. version 2: Pentaèdre)


'Colloque' (Valéry). 1948. Med voice, piano. BMIC 1950, Master MA-275 (D. Mills)

Dissidence (G. Charpentier). 1955, later rev and included in Cantate pour une joie. Sop (tenor), piano. Dob-Yppan 1986. RCI 201/4-ACM 35 (CD) (Jeannotte)/Allied ARCLP-4 (J. Dufresne)

Electroacoustic Music

Jeu de hockey. 1961. Tape

Répercussions. 1961. Japanese wind chimes on tape

Structures métalliques III. 1962. Tape

Psaume pour abri (F. Ouellette). 1963. Narr, 2 SATB, brass quintet, string quartet, harpsichord, piano, harp, percussion, tape. Ms incomplete. (1990). 4-ACM 35 (CD) (C. Boisjoli speaker, instr ensemble and chorus, Mercure conductor)

See also Ballet above.

Further Reading