Finding Émile


I reached another marker this week in my posthumous, intriguing, fan-like relationship with Montréal poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) when Craig’s partner, Claude, drove me to the site of his burial in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Even with a map of the cemetery it took us a while to find Marker #588 in Section N. At 350 acres, and with fifty-five kilometres of road, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery, dating back to 1854, and fast closing in on a population of one million people’s remains.

He even wrote about the place, the only reference in his works to Montréal:

Notre-dame-des-neiges

Sainte Notre-Dame, en beau manteau d’or,
De sa lande fleurie
Descend chaque soir, quand son Jésus dort,
En sa Ville-Marie.
Sous l’astral flambeau que portent ses anges,
La belle Vierge va
Triomphalement, aux accords étranges
De céleste bîva.

Sainte Notre-Dame a là-haut son trône
Sur notre Mont-Royal ;
Et de là, son oeil subjugue le Faune
De l’abîme infernal.
Car elle a dicté: ” Qu’un ange protège
De son arme de feu
Ma ville d’argent au collier de neige “,
La Dame du Ciel bleu !

Sainte Notre-Dame, oh ! tôt nous délivre
De tout joug pour le tien ;
Chasse l’étranger ! Au pays de givre
Sois-nous force et soutien.
Ce placet fleuri de choses dorées,
Puisses-tu de tes yeux,
Bénigne, le lire aux roses vesprées,
Quand tu nous viens des Cieux !

Sainte Notre-Dame a pleuré longtemps
Parmi ses petits anges ;
Tellement, dit-on, qu’en les cieux latents
Se font des bruits étranges.
Et que notre Vierge entraînant l’Eden,
O floraison chérie !
Va tôt refleurir en même jardin
Sa France et sa Ville-Marie…

Below, closer to his home as a teenager on rue Laval (also shown) near Square Saint-Louis, is a bust of the young Nelligan, which enjoys a prominent place in that lovely park.  It remains a somewhat bohemian, albeit pricier, neighbourhood of artists and students among whom, over the objections of his parents, he found companionship among peers.

Born at 602, rue de La Gauchetière (not far from present-day Gare Centrale) on Christmas Eve 1879, and baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Day, he was the first son of Irish immigrant David Nelligan and Emilia Amanda Hudon, a francophone and daughter of the former mayor of the lower St. Lawrence town of Rimouski. Two younger sisters, Beatrice and Gertrude, followed. It cannot be overlooked that Nelligan’s bi-cultural background represented something essential to the understanding of Montréal culture at the time (think of Hugh MacLennan’s later work “Two Solitudes”). At the time of Nelligan’s birth, the percentages of francophones and anglophones in the city-proper was tied (and the English overwhelmingly waved power over the French). It was only after the annexation of outlying “towns”, which have been part of Montréal for generations now, and with increased migration from rural areas to the city, that the proportion of francophones grew to 75% by 1920.

On the outside, his childhood would have appeared to be pretty good, spent between the family home in Montréal and their summer residence in Cacouna, not too far from his mother’s birthplace. However Nelligan skipped school increasingly, devoting more and more time to his love of writing poetry. He left school outright in 1897, over the strong objections of his working-class father.

Childhood, despair, difficult relationships with his individual parents right out of a session with Freud, social awkwardness, love, sin, music and a morbid fascination with what he viewed as the relief of death dominate his work.

The story is told, in the preface to P.F. Widdows’ bilingual edition of “Émile Nelligan – Selected Poems”, of David Nelligan sending his son off to Liverpool, as something of a would-be merchant mariner. Alas he was back home in two months. His father having given up on him, as Widdows writes, “he never again submitted himself to what the world and his father called work”.

Émile’s work, however, his poetry, continued unstopped.

His first published poem appeared in the journal Le Samedi de Montréal on June 13, 1896, which he submitted under the pen-name Émile Kovar. It was Rêve fantasque, an early indication of his fascination with death, even suicide.

Qu’il est doux de mourir quand notre âme s’afflige,
Quand nous pèse le temps tel un cuisant remords,
-Que le désespoir ou qu’un noir penser l’exige -
Qu’il est doux de mourir alors!

My shaky translation:

How sweet to die when our soul is grieved,
When we weigh the time such a bitter remorse,
-Such black despair of thinking that is required
It is sweet to die then!

Nelligan was just sixteen years old.

Between 1896 and 1897 he met, and was taken under the wing of, Roman Catholic père Eugène Seers, better known in Montréal literary circles as Louis Dantin. An encouraging critic of Nelligan’s work, he published some of his religious-themed poems in the newsletter of his Order and was instrumental in preparing his protegé’s collected poems for publication after Nelligan’s mental breakdown.

Joining, quitting, then re-joining, l’École littéraire de Montréal which met at the Château Ramezay (pictured below in Old Montréal) Nelligan’s brief public reading stint came to a dramatic end during the presentation of three of his poems to members, one of them his most well-known La Romance du vin. Following a rapturous reception from his audience a nearly-ecstatic Émile Nelligan was carried away on the shoulders of his friends during – or after – which he suffered a psychotic breakdown.

That was May 26, 1899.  He was diagnosed with irreversible psychoses, before schizophrenia had been named.

At the insistence of his parents, Nelligan was confined to la Retraite Saint-Benoît, a Catholic brothers’ retreat centre at the eastern end of the Island of Montréal. He was moved to what was then the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in 1925, where he remained until his death on November 18, 1941.

In 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp which paid tribute to one of his most widely-read poems Le Vaisseau d’Or:

“Le Vaisseau d’Or”

C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif: 
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues; 
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues, 
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif. 

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil 
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène, 
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène 
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil. 

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes 
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes, 
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés. 

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève? 
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté? 
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve! 

“The Ship of Gold”

It was a great ship carved from solid gold:
Its masts touched to the skies on uncharted seas;
Venus, goddess of love, her hair streaming, her flesh bare,
Flaunted herself on the prow beneath a blazing sun.

But one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck tilted its keel
Into the depths of the abyss, ineluctable coffin.

It was a ship of gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures which the profane mariners,
Loathing, Hatred, and Neurosis, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, a deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the dream!

Source: Wikipedia, translator unknown

My very first introduction to Nelligan was through the music of pianist and composer André Gagnon .  On an early album was a tune entitled “Nelligan”.

Then, around 1990, Gagnon collaborated with playwright Michel Tremblay and mounted an opera/musical “Nelligan”.

One of Nelligan’s poems Soir d’hiver was put to music by the recently-deceased Claude Léveillée

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
Ô la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai!   Oh the pain I have, that I have!

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,   All ponds lie frozen,
Mon âme est noire: Où vis-je? où vais-je?   My soul is black: Where am I living? Where am I going?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:    All his hopes lie frozen:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège   I am the new Norway
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.  Hence the fair skies are gone.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,  The thrill of sinister things,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,   Weep my tears, cry my roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.  On branches of juniper.

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai!…   For all the trouble I have, that I have! …

A lovely boutique hotel in Vieux-Montréal, complete with the renowned Verses restaurant, bears his name and celebrates his legacy. Hôtel Nelligan opens onto the cobble-stoned Rue Saint-Paul

Having learned about Nelligan’s impressive body of work (to say nothing of a promising career) dashed by mental illness that was treated with the crude methods of the day, I felt some identification with him – if only in the sense of having felt private despair.  I almost never fail to walk past Nelligan’s bust in Square St-Louis when I’m in Montréal.  I am so pleased to be connecting my love of André Gagnon’s music, the poetry of Émile Nelligan, my fascination with Nelligan landmarks downtown, and now his grave-site on the beautiful slopes of Mont-Royal.

André Gagnon


The upright grand piano in our living-room was given a good work-out most days when I was a kid, if not from older brother Craig or me (our sisters never took to it) then most certainly from Mom’s many piano students on weekdays after school, evenings and the occasional Saturday.  Piano music, therefore, is something I have always appreciated – and in most every genre of music.

I latched onto a recording artist during the 1970s and claimed his music as my own.  In fact I just came across his most recent recording on iTunes.  Prolific and well-loved Québec musician André Gagnon, not to be confused with impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon, was born 2 August 1939 in Saint-Pacôme-de-Kamouraska, one of nineteen children!

Map picture

The artwork on the cover of Gagnon’s album, Le Saint-Laurent, coupled with the very dramatic music of the title track, convey so well the ever-changing light, wind and colours of the widening river here with rolling hills adding to the beauty.

1252073628_le-st-laurent

Hand-in-glove with Le Saint-Laurent (1977) is Neiges, released in 1975, which introduced Gagnon to more fame in Canada outside Québec.  Incidentally, even at times when Gagnon appears to have vanished from the public eye here, he has maintained a very busy performance relationship with the people of Japan.  These two albums have travelled with me over the years in their LP, cassette, CD and now mp3 formats.  Also, if you’d like to get a sense of him in concert (which I’d highly recommend), he recorded a concert in Montréal a few years ago when the Bell Centre was named for the Molson family or their famous products.  I actually prefer the live version of Neiges as it, and all selections from other albums played that night, was souped up with some brilliant orchestration!

While a student at Niagara College I chose Gagnon as my subject for a music feature assignment.  In addition to highlighting his music, his record company (STAR, a division of Polydor) sent me an interview he had done with a Montréal radio personality which I was able to edit into my program.

I had the pleasure of seeing him live on two occasions, in the early eighties, back when I was playing the aforementioned albums over and over again.

The first time was at Massey Hall in Toronto, my first-ever visit there, on a date with a female co-worker from St. Catharines.  Of course that hall is pretty magical, as it was that evening.  The next time, if I’m not mistaken, was at Brock University in St. Catharines.  The music was fantastic but the concert ended a little strangely when the audience seemed more interested in getting home than anything else.  He acknowledged a couple of us yelling for more and sent us home happy with an encore.

Back when I first became a fan I was aware that he lived in a beautiful home on square Saint-Louis between the bohemian rue Prince-Arthur, the Latin Quarter, and the lovely public square.  It was no accident that his residence was once home to iconic, tragic nineteenth-century Québec poet and friend-in-history Émile Nelligan .  He and famed playwright Michel Tremblay would later collaborate on a modern opera, Nelligan, featuring some of his more well-known poems, a recording of which was later issued.

Well, as we used to say in the newsroom, talk about “burying the lead”!

André Gagnon has returned to the recording studio after seven years away from the environment.  The result? Les chemins ombragés (Shady Lanes), beautiful music he says was inspired by nature. Gagnon performs both solo and accompanied by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières, under the direction of Jacques Lacombe (who also conducted an orchestra assembled for the Molson Centre concert).

D i s c o g r a p h y
This is a list of André Gagnon’s albums.  He also had several successful singles which were not part of an album release.

Year
Title

1964
André Gagnon – Piano et orchestre

1965
Léveillée-Gagnon

1966
Une voix, deux pianos

1968
Pour les amants

1969
Notre amour

1969
Mes quatre saisons

1971
Let It Be Me

1972
Les Turluteries

1972
Encore

1973
Projection / Les forges de St-Maurice

1973
Les grands succès d’André Gagnon

1974
Saga

1975
Neiges

1977
Le Saint-Laurent

1978
Mouvements

1981
Virage a gauche

1982
Les grands succès/Greatest Hits

1983
Impressions

1986
Comme dans un film

1989
Des dames de coeur

1990
Nelligan (with Michel Tremblay)

1992
Noël

1993
Les jours tranquilles

1993
Presque bleu

1994
Romantique

1995
Piano

1996
Twilight Time

1996
Musique (Coffret de collection)

1997
André Gagnon au Centre Molson

1997
Éden

1997
La collection émergence

1999
Juliette Pomerleau

1999
Printemps

1999
Été

1999
Automne

1999
Hiver

2001
Histoires rêvées

2003
Piano solitude

2010
Les chemins ombragés

There’s a letter to André Gagnon in here somewhere!


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!