This could be an overdue letter of thanks to a Montréal-based pianist and composer whose music has accompanied me since some time in high school.
Born August 1, 1942, in the tiny village of Saint-Pacôme, Québec, in the lower St. Lawrence River area known as Kamouraska, he had “beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup des frères et des soeurs” (many, many, many brothers and sisters) as he told an audience during a live recording of “André Gagnon au Centre Molson”. This was pretty typical in those days among rural, and not so rural, Roman Catholics.
The story he told the concert audience was how when he was about five years old he wanted a chance to show his mother a Mozart piece he had learned in recent days. With his father and siblings all gone for the day he had his chance. Later, just before falling asleep, he says he heard a few chords of music unknown to him. It was many years later, in recalling this beautiful moment, that he was inspired to write “Neiges.”
I have several favourite albums and “Neiges” is among them. It musically describes snow, everything from gentle flurries to a roaring blizzard, and I find it very moving as I listen, and listen again. The dynamics are very emotional. Mind you I project a lot of my own emotion onto it, too, as I so often have rushed to play it on my Discman, now iPod, as I leave sometimes emotional places and situations. If I’m not mistakes “Neiges” was the first album I purchased, back in the 1970s, although I think I already had a single called “Donna”, which I don’t think ever made it on to an album.
Soon to follow was “Le Saint-Laurent” whose title track is another epic piece. I have always pictured it as a voyage from the stark cliffs of Percé up to the Montréal area. It may be the opposite or, then again, it may not be so linear. Suffice to say the work captures the many moods of the St. Lawrence. As I listen I imagine the tranquility of cat-tails along the shoreline, gulls and even larger birds catching fish, and the rapids which the St. Lawrence Seaway diverts ships around. I’ve only quite recently been reunited with this favourite album thanks to the iTunes Store. (I think the last copy I had was a cassette.)
André Gagnon introduced me to the tragic life and death of
Émile Nelligan(1879-1941), a Montréal poet, whom I have written about and taken walking tours to find some of his landmarks. There’s even a hotel in his name in Old Montréal, although a direct link would be difficult to find.
In 1990, collaborating with famed playwright Michel Tremblay, André Gagnon fulfilled a dream of putting some of Nelligan’s poetry to music with accompanying musical drama to accompany the narrative of his life. A 2005 revival of the piece is available as a recording from CBC Records.
Nelligan fascinates me in many ways – a genius straitjacketed (perhaps literally) by mental illness. Thankfully his impact is still being felt.
It was exciting to locate one of his homes, and a bust at nearby St. Louis Square, but – no word of a lie – I have also just found a Facebook page for fans!
I’d better check to make sure that André Gagnon has one!