Lettre d'Étienne à Jacques (1983)
- Composer: Longtin, Michel
- Conductor: Pauk, Alex
- Performance Date: 1986-06-21
- Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
May 20, 1946 -
A book the composer read when he was just fourteen left a deep impression on him. Years later, he translated his personal, deeply-felt reaction to a boy’s self-sacrifice into music. Haunting images of war and its aftermath can be experienced in this dark journey into the soul. Learn more
Born in Montreal, May 20, 1946;
now living in Montreal
“Michel Longtin is a genuine creator who combines a sense of the magic of sound with the talent needed to structure a coherent whole.” So proclaimed Bruce Mather in speaking of Longtin’s Le Pèlerin d’Alnéoïl (his Master’s thesis). This Montreal composer has found his own road from theater arts to electro-acoustic music to a synthesis of the old and the new.
Before pursuing a career in music, Michel Longtin was particularly interested in the dramatic arts. In 1963 he received certificates in acting, stage movement, diction and pantomime from the Banff School of Fine Arts. In 1968 he received a certificate from McGill University in production and theatrical direction. He began his musical education only in 1968, taking private courses in music theory, analysis and composition with André Prévost. In 1970 he continued his studies at the Université de Montréal, where he received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1973, his Master’s in 1975 and his doctorate in 1982. André Prévost and Serge Garant were his main teachers there. Further studies were undertaken at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and at McGill University with Paul Pedersen, Bengt Hambreas and Alcides Lanza between 1971 and1975.
From 1973 to 1986, Longtin taught composition, music literature and theory at various schools in the Montreal region, including the St. Laurent Cégep, the Vincent d’Indy School of Music, Collège Marie-Victorin and McGill University. He taught part-time also at the Université de Montréal and became a full-time professor there from 1987 to 2008. His teaching skills were recognized in 1992 when the UdM conferred on him the Prix d’excellence en enseignment.
Longtin’s first compositions were attempts at duplicating the enormous symphonic frescos of his great love, Mahler, but he soon abandoned this route to find his way into electro-acoustic music, the medium in which he worked exclusively for a decade. In the 1980s, his musical language became “more Sibelius than Mahler” as he sought a quieter, calmer confidence in life, “less tortuous and anxious,” as he put it. In 1986, Longtin won the prestigious Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music for his Pohjatuuli (the Finnish word for “North Wind”), which was directly inspired by the stark, serene music of late Sibelius and of the wintry, windswept landscape paintings by Canada’s Group of Seven.
Other influences have come from such obvious sources as György Ligeti’s Atmosphères and several of the orchestral scores of Toru Takemitsu, and from such unobvious sources as Hollywood film composers James Horner and Gerry Goldsmith, whom Longtin considers one of the best contemporary composers along with Boulez and Xenakis. As a result of his abiding interest in writing for film, Longtin has produced numerous sound tracks of his own.
The road to self-expression and artistic identity
The titles of many of Longtin’s compositions evoke journeys in time or place: Il était une fois (Once upon a time), Le Pèlerin d’Alnéoïl (The pilgrim of Alneoil), Migration vers l’automne, De Saint-Malo à Bourges par Bouffémont, La Route des pèlerins reclus (The Road of the reclusive pilgrims), Paix en migration, and Et j’ai repris la route (And I’m on the road again). These titles may serve as a metaphor for Longtin’s own search for musical self-expression and identity as an artist. Furthermore, there is often a personal programmatic element to his works. La Route des pèlerins reclus is based on episodes form a novel by Virgil Gheorghiu that relate directly to experiences in Longtin’s own life. He describes De Saint-Malo à Bourges par Bouffémont as the story of his life from age three to 35. Likewise in Et j’ai repris la route, we find references to characters who have been role models to Longtin: Jean Vanier (founder of L’Arche, a host of communities for people with developmental disabilities), the composer Gerry Goldsmith (“who brought to film music a lofty quality it scarcely knew before he came along”) and Terry Fox. “My music is aimed at the soul rather than the mind,” he has said.
Concert Program Notes
Michel Longtin: Born in Montreal, May 20, 1946; now living in Montreal
Lettre d'Étienne à Jacques was commissioned in 1984 by the Orchestre des Jeunes du Québec, which gave the first performance that year in Montreal under the direction of Uri Meyer. The work is dedicated to Serge Garant and is written in memory of the author Pierre Labat.
In this work, Longtin portrays in sound his intimate, emotional reaction to a book that has affected him deeply since he first read it as a boy of fourteen. This book, by his friend (an author Longtin has drawn upon for several other works as well) Diane-Ischa Ross (an author Longtin has drawn upon for several other works as well), describes how, in postwar Germany, the boy Jacques sacrificed himself in the rescue of his friend’s father Étienne, who was involved in an airline crash, The letter was written some years after Jacques’ death; it is dated April 18, 1952, Paris. It begins, “This letter will never be sent. There is no point in mailing it to a person who no longer has an address on this earth.” And near the end Étienne concludes, “To you I owe that visceral knowledge that no individual or collective act is neutral. Whether successful or not, every action seeks to improve the lot of humanity or lets misfortune run its course.”
“This book was written after the war,” comments the composer, “and talks about the spirit of malaise that pervaded Germany in the post-war period. Germany was slowly rebuilding. There is a beautiful, human adventure that is depicted in this book, about the gift of life. This book showed me the path, a way of thinking about everyone who surrounds me. In my composition, I have tried to instill the post-war mood in Germany at that time, along with the heroism of Jacques, who gave his own life to save another. The mood is dark, Berlin is covered in snow, all the buildings are crumbling, people are on the verge of starvation.”
The twenty-minute work is in seven connected sections played without pause:
Journal I – A threatening, unsettled mood hovers over the music. Distant, mysterious fanfares in the muted trumpets seem to call from another time, another world.
Investiture – This section is introduced by bells and vibraphone, followed by solo oboe. The air of menace continues.
Lettre – six loud beats on the log drum followed by a muted trumpet announce the letter. Haunting echoes resound in the mists.
Commentaire I – An upward whoosh of strings sets off a chatter of woodwinds, and later brass, which are periodically interrupted by loud thwacks from the percussion.
Overation “Overland” – This begins with sustained lower strings, then repeated notes, then what sounds like a long, improvised trumpet call. The chaos and horror of war are invoked, followed by the still aftermath of battle.
Commentaire II – bells, vibraphone and slithering strings mark the beginning of an eerie mental landscape. A snare drum begins a relentless rat-a-tap to announce the approach of a military corps. They play tonal music to express the glory of Jacques’ gift of life to save another man.
Journal II – The drums abruptly cease. A lonely, austere line is heard high in the violins. The music fades into silence …nothingness.Robert Markow
This Year in History: 1983
History, Politics and Social Affairs
- On January 1, the metric system of weights and measures is officially adopted by the federal government.
- More than 80,000 across the country protest against the arms race as the U.S. plans to test the cruise Missile in Canada.
- Bill 101, protecting the French language in Quebec, is ruled unconstitutional.
- Brian Mulroney replaces Joe Clark as leader of Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.
- American President Ronald Reagan signs a bill creating a federal holiday on the third Monday of every January to honor American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nature, Science and Technology
- The ARPANET officially changes to use the Internet Protocol, creating the Internet.
- Soft bifocal contact lens invented.
- Apple, Inc. releases the Apple Lisa personal computer.
- The immunosuppressant cyclosporine is approved by the FDA, leading to a revolution in the field of transplantation.
The Arts, Literature and Entertainment
- Canadian pianist Glenn Gould dies.
- Porky’s, the highest-grossing film in Canadian history (over $100 million), receives the Golden Reel Award.
- The Canadian Film Development Corporation changes its name to Telefilm Canada.
- The National Art Therapy Council of Canada is founded in Ottawa.
- Quebec author Gabrielle Roy dies.
- The film Never Cry Wolf is adapted from Farley Mowat’s eponymous book.