History Reborn: André Mathieu’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at 75

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By now you’ve probably heard the story of André Mathieu (1929–68). A child prodigy hailed as Canada’s Mozart, Mathieu lived a tragic life and died in obscurity. It was not until the twenty-first century that many were able to experience his music, due in no small part to the tireless work of Québécois pianist-composer Alain Lefèvre. Now, in time for the 75th anniversary of the work, Lefèvre is releasing a new recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3, known commonly as the “Concerto de Québec.”

The Concerto de Québec — which Lefèvre recorded himself in 2003 with Yoav Talmi and the Orchestre symphonique de Québec — was long assumed to have only one version until Georges Nicholson discovered a score while he was doing research for his 2010 book André Mathieu: Biographie. And this rediscovered score, now known to be the original, was not written for piano and orchestra, but for two pianos.

The late-Romantic concerto was perhaps Mathieu’s best-known work while he was alive; it was popularized by its use in the score of the 1947 film La Forteresse, a thriller shot in Quebec City. It was the first film in Quebec to be released for English audiences in America, under the name Whispering City.

“We discovered that Mathieu, at the time, was quite upset in some letters and in some comments,” explains Lefèvre. “We didn’t understand why until we found the original score.”

Mathieu’s father, Rodolphe, had licensed the work to the film’s production company, who hired Giuseppe Agostini to arrange the concerto specifically for the film. The company retained the rights to the music, so that when even Mathieu wanted to perform the Concerto, he had to play the arranged version.

“They had done a very bad job for the movie and this is why Mathieu was upset,” says Lefèvre. “Mathieu’s entire life was dramatic and this was one of the most dramatic moments. This Third Piano Concerto is one of his most achieved pieces, it is his masterpiece.”

For Lefèvre the rediscovery of the Piano Concerto No. 3 is a triumph, the culmination of almost 40 years of work on Mathieu. “I started with Mathieu when I was 15 and I didn’t stop working,” he says. “As we’re talking today there is a lot of excitement around Mathieu, and not just in Canada.”

The original speaks at last

André Mathieu composing at the piano

André Mathieu composing at the piano

The authentic two-piano version varies significantly from the Concerto de Québec. “Of course, the second movement has the very popular theme,” explains Lefèvre, “but we have at least a good seven minutes of an orchestra solo that was completely cut, as well as a third theme, more extraordinary than the first.”

However, the biggest change is in the third movement. “It was always a struggle for me to play live because everything was so badly written. There was no logic. But now, when you listen to the new recording, it makes much more sense.

“That was my anguish, because I was able to play the Piano Concerto No. 4 abroad very often, but No. 3 was unplayable. I knew that an orchestra would laugh at the score, they would have so many questions. This was my special work, to make it playable.”

The score that Nicholson discovered was for two pianos; Mathieu often composed works he intended for piano and orchestra in two piano parts, and his father would play the accompaniment for him in concert. Lefèvre had to find an orchestrator for the new version and commissioned Jacques Marchand, composer and conductor of the Orchestre symphonique régional d’Abitibi-Témiscamingue. The work took three years to complete.

“André Mathieu had no knowledge of what it was to be an orchestrator, this is a fact. He was talented enough to be able to imagine and to write the second piano part, that was enough. So the orchestration is by Jacques Marchand, who tried to place himself into the period and into Mathieu’s head,” states Lefèvre. “It was a colossal job, but he did it. I think we’re in front of something that is impressive.”

Maintaining a Canadian legacy

Alain Lefèvre, Photo: TSHI

Alain Lefèvre, Photo: TSHI

For all of his work, there has always been an amount of criticism thrown at Lefèvre for reviving the works of Mathieu. “The main problem we have here is that it’s always difficult to recognize the talent of Canadian composers. Some people have said that Mathieu’s music was bad — blah, blah, blah. But I always say, you have it all wrong.

“I never attempt to prove that Mathieu was the greatest composer of all time. As I’m trying to say to Canadian people, we do have a history of Canadian composers.”

Lefèvre continues to pursue his Mathieu project in tandem with promoting the music of living composers, including François Dompierre and Walter Boudreau. He states that many of his fans have been introduced to contemporary music through the more accessible music of Mathieu. “The fact that Mathieu’s themes are so accessible was a way for me to prove that you can listen to and enjoy Canadian music.”

It’s all part of Lefèvre’s goal to democratize Canadian art music and educate people about Canadian history. “I believe that the Mathieu factor is important because it proves that a Canadian composer can have success,” says Lefèvre. “It is not to say that Mathieu’s music is the greatest music in the world. It’s not that. It’s that every country in the world is allowed to have their own history.”


André Mathieu: Concerto No. 3, recorded with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, will be released this fall on Analekta.

  • At Le Centre des arts Juliette-Lassonde, September 24. www.centredesarts.ca
  • Concerto de Québec, Orchestre symphonique de Québec, September 20 & 21. www.osq.org
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Kiersten van Vliet was the Web Editor and an Editorial Assistant for La Scena Musicale from 2015–17.

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