Pierre Mercure (1927 - 1966)
“On that day (January 27, 1966) not only did an automobile accident, in France, bring untimely death to a brilliant musician, but it also robbed Canada of one of its most inquisitive and volatile creative personalities. One of the very few who possess enough dynamism to exert direct influence on the attitudes and activities of their art-conscious compatriots.
For Pierre Mercure, the composer whose young life (he had been born in Montreal on February 21, 1927) was so meaninglessly terminated that day, had all the gifts and qualities of an artistic leader-figure: his mind was perfectly in tune with his times, his creative talents were far above average, his temperament was that of a determined fighter who sees to it that his dreams come true.
It is probably pure coincidence that the majority of Canada’s musical avant-garde has congregated in Montreal. It is also very likely that the combined energies of the creative musicians in Montreal would have eventually launched such high-calibre projects of new music promotion as are the current regular concerts of La Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec, directed by Serge Garant. But there is no denying the fact that Pierre Mercure through his creative example and untiring activities laid a solid foundation for it all. He did much to create in Montreal a spiritual atmosphere which is conducive to creative experimentation, in which performances of new music command a position of distinction and consequence. He inspired courage in his colleagues and curiosity among his audiences.”
It is in this manner that Udo Kasemets, writing in an article for “The Music Scene”, reflects on the loss of such a great personality.
In his youth Mercure studied piano and later cello, trumpet, flute, organ and bassoon, still finding time to combine his musical activities with a difficult curriculum in mathematics and philosophy at a classical French college. While still at college he entered the Conservatoire de Musique in Montreal, taking bassoon as his major instrument, in order to play in a symphony orchestra. On leaving college in 1946 he did just that: He was engaged by Wilfrid Pelletier as a bassoon player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and remained with it for about four years.
At the Conservatoire Mercure studied composition with Claude Champagne, the distinguished Canadian composer and educator who has been the musical mentor for a whole generation of French-Canadian composers.
Mercure’s first major composition was a “symphonic fantasy” entitled Kaléidoscope, written in the spring of 1948. It was permiered by the CBC Symphony, Jean Beaudet conducting, in March 1948, in a programme which the International Service of the CBC broadcast to Europe over its shortwave facilities. In 1949, this work was revised and reorchestrated, and was performed by Les Concerts Symphoniques de Montreal (now L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal), under the composer’s direction. Since then, Kaléidoscope has become one of the most frequently performed Canadian compositions.
The year 1948 saw the completion of another work, Pantomime. The work was also performed by the CBC Orchestra and by Les Concerts Symphoniques and recorded by the CBC International Service. Written for winds, brass and percussion instruments, the work was most characteristic of the composer’s aim to evolve a personal, independent style of musical “objectivism,” concerned with the study of contrasts in line, form and new musical sonorities. However, there was one external influence, and a very strong one, that of the late French-Canadian painter, Paul-Emile Borduas, founder of several important avant-garde groups. Similarly, a group of young French-Canadian composers gathered together for the purpose of promoting and explaining contemporary music to Quebec audiences. This group, including many former students of Claude Champagne–Pierre Mercure, Clermont Pepin, Gilles Tremblay, François Morel, Jean Papineau-Couture, Gabriel Charpentier, István Anhalt, Roger Matton, Serge Garant–decided to move away from what they felt to be a tranquil and contented traditionalism of French-Canadian music, and to search for new forms of musical expression.
In 1949, with a grant from the Province of Quebec, Mercure went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the famous French educator and teacher of a great many American and Canadian composers. At this time three other Canadian composers lived and studied in Paris: Clermont Pepin, Jocelyn Binet, and Gabriel Charpentier. They were all intrigued by “musique concrète,” which at that time had just been introduced by Pierre Schaeffer.
In 1950, Mercure returned to Canada, continued working with the Montreal Symphony, and , with another grant from the Province of Quebec, spent the summer of 1951 in Tanglewood where he studied composition with Luigi Dallapiccola, the great exponent of serial technique.
In 1952 Mercure was invited to produce music programmes for the CBC TV French Network. He originated a very successful TV programme, called “L’Heure du Concert”, which was also very popular on the English Network, where it was known as “The Concert Hour”.
Mercure’s musical development, almost from the very beginning of his independent work as a composer, was always marked by a search for new forms in music, by an unquenchable desire to go beyond the bounds of the conventional, where he discovered the new worlds of sonorities, that of electronic music and musique concrète. He went to New York to work with Richard Maxfield, and electronic composer, in order to learn the technique. Most of his compositional efforts, during the last few years of his life, were spent experimenting with synthetic sounds, composing incidental music and modern dance music, and taking a three-year correspondence course in electronic engineering. In 1961 alone he completed no fewer than four electronic scores while, in the years following, his interests became concentrated in the area of mixing taped sounds with those of conventional instruments. Structure Métalliques and Incandescence, both from 1961, were especially created for performance at the International Week of Today’s Music, a grandiose venture which Mercure programmed and organized as part of the 1961 Montreal Festival.
Mercure once summarized the contemporary composer’s predicament in the following way: “The ordered world of forms should not make us ignore the phenomenon of the transformation of present-day life, nor the presence of the unintelligible. If we shut our eyes to it we risk being excluded from real life. The artist, the composer should be sincere in reflecting this new age of ours. It is up to him to play his part in this new world-in-the-making, a world emerging inevitably, with or without him. The artist has a choice: to share in it, or to shun it. But would it not be a confession of defeat for the artist to retire from the struggle at a time when such vast issues are at stake?”