Serge Garant | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Serge Garant

Albert Antonio Serge Garant, OC, RSOC, composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, critic (born 22 September 1929 in Québec City, QC; died 1 November 1986 in Sherbrooke, QC).

Albert Antonio Serge Garant, OC, RSOC, composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, critic (born 22 September 1929 in Québec City, QC; died 1 November 1986 in Sherbrooke, QC). A daring and innovative musician, Garant was known for his promotion of 20th-century music, especially that of Canada. He introduced two innovative procedures into Canadian music, utilizing taped material in Nucléogame (1955) and incorporating aleatoric techniques in Trois pièces pour quatuor à cordes (1958). However, it was Anerca (1961) that gained him recognition as a leading Canadian musician. He was a professor at the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Music (1967–86), the host of Radio-Canada’s Musique de notre siècle (1971–85) and a co-founder of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), which he directed from its foundation in 1966 until his death in 1986. He was awarded the Canadian Music Council Medal, the Wm. Harold Moon Award, the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée and the Canada Council Music Prize.

Early Years and Education

Garant’s family moved several times during his childhood due to the Depression, eventually settling in Sherbrooke when he was about 12. He took up the clarinet and saxophone, and became especially attracted to jazz. While playing clarinet in the Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra and saxophone in various jazz groups, he studied piano with Sylvio Lacharité and harmony with Paul-Marcel Robidoux (1946–50). After hearing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the first time, he turned to composition and commuted to Montréal to study piano with Yvonne Hubert and composition with Claude Champagne (1948–50).

He composed works for piano, voice and piano, concert band and string orchestra. Some of these works were performed, most notably at a youth festival in 1950. His Fantaisie for clarinet and piano earned him a prize from the Association of Amateur Bands which enabled him to spend six weeks at New York's Juilliard School.

Career Highlights

By this time, Garant was a champion of 20th-century music. In Sherbrooke in 1950, he played Schoenberg on the piano to the astonishment of his fellow citizens. A stay in Paris, where he attended Messiaen's classes in analysis (1951–52), was a decisive step. He also studied counterpoint with Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger. As his knowledge of serial music deepened, Garant became convinced that Webern was the greatest composer since Debussy. His meetings with Stockhausen and Boulez also opened up new horizons.

Some works from this period, such as Concerts sur terre (1951) and Et je prierai ta grâce (1952), show Messiaen's influence, but that was short-lived. In succeeding works — Caprices (1954), Pièce pour piano No. 1 (1958) and Musique pour la mort d'un poète — the writing is unreservedly atonal, and pointillistic Webern-like passages can be observed. Even in these, however, more than a trace of Garant's own personality is apparent.

On his return to Sherbrooke, Garant worked as a jazz pianist but soon moved to Montréal, where he briefly continued his studies in counterpoint with Jocelyne Binet. Anxious to make contemporary music more widely known, he joined forces with François Morel and Gilles Tremblay in 1954 to present a concert featuring works of Boulez, Messiaen and Webern. The following year a second concert was presented to mark the 10th anniversary of Webern's death. In it Garant presented Nucléogame, recognized as the first Canadian work to combine magnetic tape and instruments.

In 1956, these two ventures resulted in the formation of the group Musique de notre temps, which presented two seasons of concerts. To ensure its financial support, Garant worked as a rehearsal pianist for ballet and as an arranger, accompanist and conductor for music variety programs on CBC Radio and TV. He also did some broadcast work as a critic (on Radio-Canada’s Revue des arts et des lettres) and wrote articles for the weekly L'Autorité (1954–55). He castigated the public, critics and performers alike for their indifference and hostility towards modern music and the contemporary creative musician.

Meanwhile, his compositional output became increasingly bold and innovative. In 1958, he employed aleatoric techniques in Trois Pièces pour quatuor à cordes, a three-movement work for string quartet. He was probably the first to make use of these procedures in Canada. Even though performers often recoiled from the difficulties in Garant's scores, some of his works were premiered by the CBC on radio (Premières and CBC Wednesday Night) and TV (L'Heure du concert). His Anerca, which premiered in Montréal in 1961 under the direction of Mauricio Kagel during the International Week of Today's Music, established him as one of the leading figures in Canadian music. Two subsequent commissions provided him with the opportunity to write for large orchestra: Ouranos (1963) for the Quebec Symphony Orchestra; and Ennéade (1964) for the Sherbrooke Symphony Orchestra.

In 1965, the pianist Claude Helffer played Garant’s Asymétries No. 1 in Paris at one of the concerts of the Domaine musical. The following year, Pierre Mercure engaged Garant to conduct R. Murray Schafer'sLoving on CBC TV, a premiere that established him as a conductor of contemporary music (see list of premieres he has conducted). When the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) was founded in the autumn of 1966, he was appointed its music director and kept that post until his death in 1986. He conducted this ensemble in regular concerts in Montréal, and on tour in Canada and in Europe. Among appearances of particular note were those at the ninth Festival d'art contemporain in Royan in 1972, and at Musicanada, the 1977 festival of Canadian music in London and Paris.

Teaching and Conducting

In 1967, Garant began teaching analysis and composition at the Université de Montréal, where he gained an eager following. His pupils included Ginette Bellavance, Walter Boudreau, Marcelle Deschênes, Richard Grégoire, Michel Longtin and François Tousignant.

Under his first Canada Council grant (1969), Garant took summer courses in conducting with Boulez in Basel, Switzerland. A second grant (1972) enabled him to spend some time in Bali, Indonesia. He spent the 1973–74 season in Italy on a scholarship from the Canadian Cultural Institute in Rome. Garant conducted the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) on several occasions; in 1968, he led it in the premiere of his work Phrases II, sharing the podium with Franz-Paul Decker. This work, which calls for two conductors, was repeated with the MSO in 1979 under Garant and Charles Dutoit. Also with the MSO, in 1977, Garant conducted the premiere of Gilles Tremblay's Fleuves.

Garant conducted in Toronto, Vancouver, Québec City and other Canadian cities. He was in charge of the orchestra class at the Camp musical de Lanaudière, near Joliette, Québec, in the summers of 1977 and 1978. He also conducted the Orchestre des jeunes du Québec (OJQ) in 1979, the Université de Montréal orchestra in 1978–79 (see Music at Université de Montréal), and served as musical director of the Série contemporaine of Montréal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in 1986.

Between 1971 and 1986, he was the host for Musique de notre siècle on Radio-Canada. In 1979, the broadcaster aired the half-hour episode “Portrait de Serge Garant” on the TV series Les Beaux Dimanches. In 1981, he wrote what was to become his last work, Plages, which was premiered by the OJQ on 26 November 1981.

Characteristic Traits

Garant's output spanned three decades and was remarkably steady. Early influences, in particular Messiaen and Webern, quickly gave way to what Raöul Duguay called an “open structuralism” (Musiques du Kébèk, Montréal, 1971), which was characterized by a remarkably personal writing technique stemming from the establishment of a series of proportions or ratios governing durations, tempi, registers and timbres. Notwithstanding the rigour of the writing, in which Garant demonstrated his concern for questions of structure and for organizing each work on its own terms, his music gives the performer freedom to participate creatively, on the one hand offering the possibility of improvising within a relatively defined framework, and on the other allowing a choice in the order of performance of the various sequences of a work.

Garant's musical language evolved into a style which, in certain respects, approached that of Boulez in its serial rigour combined with a penchant for lyricism. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are such works as Chant d'amours (1975) and Rivages (1976). Beginning with Anerca, Garant displayed an astonishing virtuosity in his instrumental writing and a marked originality in his handling of timbres. Far from becoming exhausted along the way, these qualities reasserted themselves ever more strongly, and can be found as much in the small ensemble works as in those for large orchestra.

Garant's work as a whole displays elements of proportion, harmony, sensitivity and precision rarely found to such a degree in one composer. His balanced mixture of intellectualism and expression resulted in works that are vital and full-bodied. In an interview with Pierre Rolland, reproduced in Radio Canada International's Anthology of Canadian Music (4-ACM 2, 1978), he said: “Whether a work is mediocre or great, it must first exist in the mind of its creator... but the work will only take shape when I begin to struggle with the technical problems it raises. I must resolve these problems as skilfully as possible, and with as much elegance and authenticity as I can muster. It is at this very moment, I think, that the work is born, and even the composer may not be aware of it... But the composer mustn't concern himself too much with emotion. If he has something to say, and if he manages to produce a work which is coherent in form, intelligently written and not too clumsy, then, providing he has the technique to express himself, that innermost part of him will be able to find expression... The emotion must come from that kind of mysterious magic which is produced when the technical problems are so well resolved that one cannot imagine that there ever were any... A Bach fugue!”

Honours and Legacy

In addition to his work with the SMCQ, Garant was also co-president of the national committee of the Société internationale pour la musique contemporaine and a member of the Canadian League of Composers. His status as associate composer is maintained at the Canadian Music Centre. He received the Wm. Harold Moon Award from PROCAN (now SOCAN) in 1978 for his contribution to the promotion of Canadian music abroad. His papers are held in the archives of the Université de Montréal.

Every three years, the Émile-Nelligan Foundation presents the Prix Serge-Garant for music, valued at $25,000. The first winner was Denys Bouliane in 1991. The periodical Circuit also created a music analysis prize in his honour in 1991.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.


Canadian Music Council Medal, Canadian Music Council (1971)

Wm. Harold Moon Award, PROCAN (1978)

Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée, Société Saint-Jean Baptiste (1980)

Officer, Order of Canada (1979)

Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music (Quintette), Canadian Music Council (1980)

Performer of the Year, Canadian Music Council (1984)

Canada Council Music Prize, Canada Council for the Arts (1984)

Member, Royal Society of Canada (1986)


“Le compositeur moderne : paria de la musique,” Le Québec libre, ed. Jean Depocas (Montréal, 1959).

“Dire une musique d'ici,” Cahier pour un paysage à inventer vol. 1 (1959).

“Un esprit de genèse,” Liberté 59 vol. 1 (September–October 1959). Reprint in Visage d'Edgard Varèse (Montréal, 1959).

“Chronique musicale,” Cahiers d'essai vol. 3 (January 1961).

“Musique 1961,” Liberté vol. 3 (March–April 1961).

“Music in Montréal 1961–62,” Canadian Art (July–August 1962).

“Un mal nécessaire,” Montréal La Presse, 30 December 1967.

Anerca,” Document d'information à l'intention des professeurs de musique, Ministry of Education (Québec City, 1968)

“Phrases I,” Parti pris vol. 5 (April 1968).

“Notes sur Anerca,” Musiques du Kébèk, ed. Raöul Duguay (Montréal, 1971).

“Une lettre de Rome,” CMB, vol. 9 (Autumn–Winter 1974).

“Serge Garant Offrande II (1970),” Variations vol. 3 (September–October 1979).

“Le revendicateur,” Presentation to the Royal Society of Canada vol. 40 (1985–6)

Also several reviews and reports in Jmc (1955–68) and in CMJ (1956–62).

The complete list of his writings can be found in Serge Garant et la révolution musicale au Québec (1986).


The following is a selected list of Canadian compositions whose premieres Garant conducted:

Robert Aitken, Shadows II: Lalita, SMCQ (1973).

Serge Arcuri, Prologue, SMCQ (1985).

Norma Beecroft, Rasas I, SMCQ (1968).

Allan Bell, Gaia, SMCQ (1984).

Denys Bouliane, À propos... et le baron perché?, SMCQ (1986).

John Burke, À la source d'Hypocrène, SMCQ (1981).

Gabriel Charpentier, Orphée I, NAC (1969).

Brian Cherney, Chamber Concerto for Viola and Ten Players, SMCQ (1975).

Yves Daoust, Trois fois quatre, SMCQ (1978); Valse, SMCQ (1981).

Marcelle Deschênes, Talilalilalilalarequiem, SMCQ (1974); Moll, opéra lilliput pour six roches molles, SMCQ (1976).

José Evangelista, Consort, SMCQ (1978).

Serge Garant, Phrases I, Expo 67 (1967); Amuya, CBC Summer Festival (1968); Jeu à quatre, Stratford Festival (1968); Phrases II, with Franz-Paul Decker, MSO (1968); Offrande I, SMCQ on CBC TV (1970); Offrande III, SMCQ on CBC radio (1971); Circuits II, SMCQ (1972); Circuits III, CBC Summer Festival (1973);... chant d'amours, CBC TV (1975); Rivages, Vancouver New Music Society (1976); Plages, OJQ (1981).

Michel Gonneville, Variations “auras,” SMCQ (1979).

Denis Gougeon, Éternité, Orchestre Métropolitain (1986).

Jacques Gouin, Distorsions, SMCQ (1977).

Bengt Hambraeus, Relief – haut et bas, SMCQ (1980).

Hugh Hartwell, Kâmê'a, SMCQ (1971).

John Hawkins, Two Pieces for Orchestra, 7th annual symposium for student composers (1971).

Jacques Hétu, Cycle, Opus 16, SMCQ (1970).

Richard Hunt, Nimbus I, CMM (1972).

Otto Joachim, Illuminations II, SMCQ (1969); Uraufführung, SMCQ (1977).

Alain Lalonde, Espaces, SMCQ (1981).

Rémi Lapointe, Écarts, SMCQ (1977).

Michel Longtin, Deux Rubans noirs III, SMCQ (1979); Kata :San Shi Ryu, SMCQ (1977).

Alexina Louie, Music for a Thousand Autumns, SMCQ (1983).

Bruce Mather, Madrigal V, SMCQ (1973).

François Morel, Radiance (4 movements), CBC Vancouver (1971); IIKKII (Froidure), SMCQ (1972).

John Oliver, Dévolution, Orchestre Métropolitain (1986).

Jean Papineau-Couture, Nocturnes, University of Montréal (1969); Obsession, SMCQ (1973).

Clermont Pépin, Interactions, SMCQ (1977).

John Rea,Treppenmusik, SMCQ (1982).

Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, Ishuma, SMCQ (1974).

R. Murray Schafer, Loving (Toi), CBC TV (1966); Patria II, Stratford Festival (1972).

Donald Steven, Images (Refractions of Time and Space), SMCQ (1977)

Gilles Tremblay, Souffles (Champs II), SMCQ (1968); Fleuves, MSO (1977).

Pierre Trochu, Miracrose, SMCQ (1977); Tangente, SMCQ (1984).

Michel Vinet, Acousmie, 7th annual symposium for student composers (1971).

Claude Vivier, Lettura di Dante, SMCQ (1974); Liebesgedichte, SMCQ (1975).

Selected Compositions

Early Works

“Un grand sommeil noir,” violin, piano, words by Paul Verlaine (1949). Ms.

Fantaisie, clarinet, piano (1950). Ms.

Musique pour saxophone et harmonie (1950); rev. orchestra (1951). Ms.

Ode: “Ta forme monte comme blessure du sang,” string orchestra (1950). Ms.

Sonatina, piano (1950). Ms.

Also a Quartet for 4 saxophone (lost); Adagio et Allegro, piano and orchestra (incomplete); other compositions written in Sherbrooke and Paris. All manuscript.


As Conductor

Music of Today, Vol. 3: Interplay, A Histrionic Controversy for Four Musicians, composed by Sydney Hodkinson (1969). RCI 300 (Jean-Paul Major, flute and piccolo; Gilles Moisan, saxophone and clarinet; Roland Desjardins, double-bass; Guy Lachapelle, percussion).

Music of Today, Vol. 4: Mythos II, flute and string, composed by Steven Gellman (Robert Aitken, flute; Eugène Husaruk, violin; Hyman Goodman, violin; Edward Kudlak, viola; Jean-Luc Morin, violoncello); Cantate, 12 singers, composed by Richard Grégoire (Margo MacKinnon, soprano; Louis-Philippe Pelletier, organ; Toni Romandini, guitar; Guy Lachapelle, percussion) (1970). RCI 301.

See also Discographies for Bruno Laplante; NACO; Orchestre Métropolitain; SMCQ.


Ennéade, full orchestra, 1963 (Sherbrooke, 1964). Ms.

Ouranos, full orchestra(Québec City, 1963). Ms.

Phrases II, 2 orchestras, words by Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Montréal, 1968). Ms.

Offrande II, full orchestra (Toronto, 1970). Québec CMCentre, 1978. RCI 626 (Orchestre Métropolitain; Serge Garant, conductor).

Plages (Montréal, 1981). Dob-Yppan, 1986. RCI 626. (NACO; Serge Garant, conductor).

Chamber Music

Musique pour la mort d'un poète, piano, strings (1954). Ms.

Nucléogame; “In Memoriam: Anton Webern,” septet, tape (1955). Ms.

Canon VI (1957). 10 performances. Ms.

Pièces pour quatuor (1958). Ms.

Asymétries No. 2, clarinet, piano (1959). Ms.

Phrases I, mezzo, piano, celesta, percussion, words by Pierre Bourgault (1967). BMIC, 1969. RCI 240/4-ACM 2.

Amuya (1968). Rev. of music for the film L'Homme et les régions polaires. 20 performances. Ms. RCI 655 (SMCQ).

Jeu à quatre, 4 instrument ensemble (1968). 16 performances. Ms. RCI 300/4-ACM 2 (SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Offrande I [originally titled Cérémonial du corps], pre-recorded soprano (1969). 18 performances. Ms. RCI 368/4-ACM 2 (SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Offrande III, 3 violoncello, 2 harp, piano, 2 percussion (1971). Sala, 1973. RCI 368/4- ACM 2 (SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Circuits I, 6 percussion (1972). Ms. McGill University Records 77003 (Pierre Béluse, percussion).

Circuits II (1972). 14 performances. Ms. RCI 368/4- ACM 2 (SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Circuits III (1973). 18 performances. Ms.

... chant d'amours, text by de Salomon, William Shakespeare et al. (1975). 16 performances. Ms. RCI 422/4-ACM 2 (SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Rivages, baritone, chamber ensemble, words by Alain Grandbois (1976). Ms. RCI 475 (Bruno Laplante baritone; SMCQ; Serge Garant, conductor).

Quintet, flute, oboe, violoncello, piano, percussion (Vancouver, 1978). Ms. Dob-Yppan, 1990. RCI 527 (SMCQ).

See also Anerca.

Voice and Piano

Concerts sur terre, words by Patrice de la Tour du Pin (no. 1–2, 1952; no. 3–5, 1956). Ms. RCI 201/4-ACM 2 (Jeannotte, tenor; Serge Garant, piano).

“Et je prierai ta grâce,” Saint-Denys Garneau. (1952). Ms. RCI 201/4-ACM 2 (Jean-Paul Jeannotte, tenor; Serge Garant, piano).

Caprices, words by F. García Lorca, trans. by P. Darmangeat (1954). Ms. RCI 201/4-ACM 2 (Jean-Paul Jeannotte, tenor; Serge Garant, piano).

“Cage d'oiseau,” words by Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1962). BMIC, 1968. 4-ACM 2 (Pauline Vaillancourt, soprano).


Pièce No. 1 (1953). Ms. RCI 465/4-ACM 2 (Louis-Philippe Pelletier, piano).

Musique rituelle (1954). Ms.

Variations (1954). Ms. RCI 135/4-ACM 2 (Josephte Dufresne, piano).

Asymétries No. 1 (1958). Ms. RCI 465/4-ACM 2 (Louis-Philippe Pelletier, piano).

Pièce No. 2 (“Cage d'oiseau”) (1962). BMIC, 1969. RCI 252 (Josephte Dufresne, piano)/RCI 465/4-ACM 2 (Louis-Philippe Pelletier, piano)/SNE 553 (Louis Bessette, piano).

Also music for the films L'Homme et les régions polaires (1967, manuscript), Vertiges (1969, manuscript) and for several television shows.

As Pianist

Phrases I (1967). RCI 240/4-ACM 2 (Fernande Chiocchio, mezzo; Guy Lachapelle, percussion; Serge Garant, piano and celesta).

See also Discography for Jean-Paul Jeannotte.

Further Reading

External Links