An excerpt from

Of Jesuits and Bohemians
by Jean-Claude Germain translated by Donald Winkler

André Mathieu and the Lesson of Genius

I was sixteen, and already too old to emulate Rimbaud. Orson Welles’s age when he directed Citizen Kane seemed a more realistic deadline for declaring my genius. He was twenty-four.
               I don’t remember if it was at the Sainte-Marie film club or the System movie theatre on Saint Catherine Street that I saw his film for the first time. From the opening strains of music over the slow introductory travelling shot towards the fence blocking entry to the castle of Xanadu, Kane’s spell was cast. “No trespassing!” Every prohibition is only asking to be ignored, murmured the camera, and the fence was left behind.
               Welles’s challenge was like a punch in the stomach. More than a stimulus, it was a brazen incitement to overachieve! Be Orson Welles or nothing! Genius, in its excess, confers impunity. There are no major creations without this deep conviction.
               In my case, precocity had only been met with obstacles. At the age when little Mozart was embarking on his career as a musical prodigy, mine was coming to a close. In first grade, the saintly Cécile of the convent asked me to sing a scale, to see if I might join the choir. She had barely closed her eyes to listen, when her frigid gaze stopped me short at “re.” At Sainte-Marie, the piano was an upright. This time, my musical recruitment died out on the “mi.”
               How to hit one’s own note in a world playing in unison, when one instinctively takes the opposite course from anything resembling unanimity? André Mathieu, who I had the privilege of interviewing, gave me the answer:
                “By pouring a lot of scotch into your wine!”
               The Canadian Mozart was well schooled in the subject: scotch and thumbing your nose at conformity!
               I met him thanks to my friend Claude Morin. His family had lodged Mathieu when he was relying on his artist friends for a place to sleep, whether on a makeshift bed, a sofa, or on the hard floor of a studio.
               It was Claude’s brother André who urged their parents to welcome the prodigy into their home, in the secret hope that the musician might again start to compose. The presence of a grand piano at the Morin’s had the hoped for effect. After a few weeks of sustained inspiration and a first draft thrown down on paper, the composer’s nocturnal tours of the bars, and his picaresque reappearances in the wee hours of the morning, rapidly lost him his status as prodigy in residence.
               Still, André Morin’s devotion to the composer’s talent was unshakeable. In 1967 he was still there, at Expo, trying to convince Jean Drapeau to give André Mathieu’s music the global audience it deserved. The project was aborted, and Mathieu died the next year. Morin did not give up. He returned to the charge in 1976, and this time Mathieu’s compositions were heard during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
               One day, Vic Vogel told me that Morin and Mathieu used to get together at the Café Caprice. When Mathieu was dead drunk, he sometimes asked Vogel to drive him in his big limousine back to the Vincent-d’Indy music school. Despite the unearthly hour, the good sister on duty always greeted the “prodigal son” with angelic patience.
                “Not so much to merit her stay in heaven, as out of respect for a great musician,” according to Vic.
               In my memory, André Mathieu remains a showy man in his early forties. And yet he was only ten years older than my sixteen years! His brow was wide and prominent, his eyes mocking and his face chubby, but an alcoholic haze was already obscuring his gaze, his features, and his movements.
               In the furnished basement where he lived, the entire space where he received us, Claude Morin and myself, was taken up by a piano. Hardly any room for our tape recorder. With him, everything had aged prematurely, except what one remembered of his precocity.
               His touch on the piano was something else. His was the muscular approach of the Russian virtuosos, who put a hold on the keyboard as in a wrestling match, to “make it suffer” until the final note. At which point you expect the grand piano to collapse from exhaustion, totally dismembered.
               An upright piano would be more like a punching bag. Mathieu was a formidable pugilist when it came to banging out chords. We soon realized that the instrument was dreadfully out of tune, and the vibrations of the casing plus the narrowness of the room drew us literally into the midst of the notes.
               For the Morin’s former houseguest, I was a new audience that he seemed to want to astonish, seduce, and move. My friend Claude ? the future producer of Lise Payette’s radio show, Place aux femmes ? was already a convert. One more reason why Mathieu could count on his complicity to excite my admiration. It was certainly not the first time that he told the sad story of the famous Mademoiselle X.
                “She might have been called Y! But that would have been too advanced for her!”
               She was a student at Vincent d’Indy, struggling with a theme she was trying to develop, one the pianist characterized as musically insignificant, as he reproduced it on the piano.
               After having played the theme loudly and badly, the damsel pondered her next move.
                “A bit like an unmarried mother who never did anything to have a child, but there it was!”
               X soldiered on with her inventory.
                “It might me prettier with harmony!”
               Only to change her mind.
                “With a bass, it would sound better!”
               His left hand launched into a boogie-woogie.
                “It all came from her bad education!”
               Then put back in what she had taken out.
                “A bass! I need a bass! A bass!”
               But the entire keyboard was pecked over in vain. Fortunately, by chance, as in all the Hollywood musicals, the local Mozart just happened to be passing by.
                “The poor girl ended up repeating the theme every which way with all the modulations in a pianist’s first-aid kit.”
               Mathieu stopped and sat down beside her. Why didn’t she try something like what he was going to play for us?
               There followed a musical deluge, from all directions and of all kinds, a furious sarabande whose theme emerged, haunting, desperately romantic, as if floating on a sea of raging notes which it could not tame nor calm.
               In the little room we were deafened by the force of the storm that made the music almost palpable. The point of this improvised lesson had been made: genius cannot be taught.
               Once launched, Mathieu took the microphone again to present his second number at a pace as slow and deliberate as the sentiment was laid on thick.
                “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s with tears in my heart that I dedicate the next piece not to you, but to me. It’s a scherzando, because I wasn’t able to compose a scherzo. However, I still have enough masculine and musical pride to take on a piece even more difficult to play!”
               And with sombre chords, hammered notes, and reverberations that washed over us in powerful waves, a maelstrom of sounds wheeled, called out and responded to each other, conjuring the vision of a heart beating frantically so as not to drown in its own pain.
               At that level of intensity, we didn’t know if this was all pathetic or sublime, sentimental or tragic. The point of the second lesson had been made: genius obeys no rules.
               For our interviewee, the public was no longer restricted to his two admirers. Quebec in its entirety had slipped into the room, and that is whom he was addressing.