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Interview with Gabriel Charpentier


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Listen to Gabriel Charpentier's music on the Canadian Music Centre's website

In December 2005, Jane Baldwin conducted an interview with Gabriel Charpentier about his career as a composer for theatre.  With a special focus on his compositions for Shakespearean productions, Charpentier provides insight into French Canadians' roles in the formation of the Stratford Festival, and the effects of Shakespeare's works on Montréal theatre.  Charpentier's career spans over 50 years as a composer, and while he has composed predominantly for French theatre (Molière, Racine, Tremblay, Roux, among many others), his oeuvre contains 15 compositions for Shakespeare.  Of particular interest in this interview is Charpentier's explanation of his unique composition style using colour to represent sound.  Theatre and music scholars will also be interested to know that Charpentier was the first composer to install speakers in the Stratford Festival theatre, and to employ electronic music in a performance there.

CASP gratefully acknowledges Jane Baldwin's assistance in conducting this interview.  Baldwin is a theatre historian, and a member of the Boston Conservatory faculty, where she teaches Acting, Dramatic Literature, and Humanities.  Baldwin is author of Michel Saint-Denis and the Shaping of the Modern Actor published by Greenwood (2003).


Gabriel Charpentier: May I suggest to you a little phrase about Vladimir Jankélévitch as the beginning of our conversation? Shall I do it in French or in English?

Jane Baldwin: Well, the questions are in English …

GC: I would prefer to say it to you in French "Il faut commencer par le commencement, et le commencement du tout, c'est le courage" [You must begin at the beginning, and the beginning of everything is courage]. C'est de Vladimir Jankélévitch, a very important French philosopher.

JB: 20th century?

GC: Yes.  And I want to give you a last phrase by Jean Vilar: "La mémoire est une forme de courage" [Memory is a form of courage]. So in-between are our lives.

JB: How do you think of your cultural identity? As Québécois, as Canadian, or both?

GC: My cultural identity was me. I don't know if I was cultured like a pearl or if I was a cultured pearl at the end. I don't know if my first breath was to suck the breast of my mother or if the breast of my mother was culture! But my first feelings about what would have been very important in my life, was the discoveries of colours, (and it is plural because there are many colours), and the discoveries of sound, and in general birds, life, cars, and all those little pearls of sound that we discover. How people work, the way they walk or whatever. The discovery of life with everything.

JB: I understand it and because you are talking about yourself, it's both individual and universal, but what I really want to know is to what extent do you think of yourself as Québécois?

GC: I am Québécois of course, but I am Canadian too. And when you're young, you have the feeling that the world is you, that it belongs to you…

JB: … is your oyster, as we say in English …

GC: To be alive is to discover all those rhythms and this always was, and I still am a beginner in that, because I'm still discovering everything, every time, every minute, with courage sometimes! But really, sometimes it comes very shrilly to get it; I'm imposed with things that I have to work on, what I have to note. And that's great fun, that's the fun of being alive too.

JB: So you identify as both Québécois and Canadian. Is there any kind of conflict for you in that?

GC: No, no conflict. When I got out of Montréal for the first time, I discovered a little place here, and a little place there, and another little place like Paris, and then a little place like Lyon or whatever.  The memory is like a sponge, you know. So I was a sponge with all those, but I cannot say that I was that completely, because I would have liked to know politics, I cannot be everything, but I would have liked to be Leonardo Da Vinci. For me he was a kind of father of inventions.

JB: Da Vinci?

GC: Yes, and fun! He was kind of a Renaissance man, I was always thrilled with the gift he had and the work that he had done. You cannot know everything at the same time in the first minutes of your life, but you bring pearls, you discover pearls in your life, and that's great but you have to work for that a lot.

JB: Could you reflect on your own cultural background in relation to your music and work in theatre?

GC: Yes, I can say now, at 80 years oldbecause I am 80 years old––I don't think it is the age, I think it is not humility, but if I speak of yellow, it's a yellow plus, a colour plus. Everything is becoming very simple and very definite. And in definition, it opens doors to other things.  And in my music I can say that, when I write a note, it is essential. It is funny, it becomes more simple. And it's not coming from a recipe, it comes from what I feel at the moment, it is like breathing, it is just like the end of an arrow, and it is changed because everything goes very quickly, and very sincerely, and very directly, it's the way it's done.

JB: So things are becoming more and more spare?

GB: Yes, exactly, and it's because of the discovery of my youth, and the discovery of architecture, the feeling that I had to touch a squirrel, and the feelings I had when I did theatre with Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who felt the costume and suddenly discovered something which became, not music, but suddenly I understood that just feeling three little colours superimposed, and it suddenly became music for me. And it is really to touch, so I felt that with Tanya Moiseiwitsch with costumes. And then I felt colours when I was six years old with my father when he showed me a huge kind of yellow wool in a factory - very funny - and the architecture when I was for two years in France, just to be in an architecture, it goes into my music. So all those discoveries go there, all the nourishment.

JB: When you say architecture, do you mean landscape as well?

GB: Oh, landscape yes, but more architecture done by people. Of course, I am sensitive to landscapes, but I am more sensitive to others’ creations.

JB: How important is the theatre as a means of representing national identity?

GB: My nation is myself as when I did television, when I did some expression in so many mediums.  I would like to paint, I would like to do so many things, but I can't do everything. To me, it is myself. I always wanted to witness that great big inspiration physically. I wanted  to be able to express after, but the inspiration was my quest. To express something I have to be nourished. This is nourishment before, to feel all those things: with my hands, with my body. I have to feel the eyes of others, to feel the poems of poets, etc…I need creation around. I'm not doing that because I am Canadian or Québécois, but because I am just me, as an artist. It is as simple as that.

JB: Are there things you do in your own compositions that are distinctly linked to your being Québécois?

GB: Well, I'm a cocktail of French, English, Greek, and Latin, and all those things, all those plural different worlds, this is me.

JB: So you're saying that you're a product of all your cultural influences.

GC: Yes, I'm interested! Je suis très intéressé [I am very interested] …

JB: Are there elements in your compositions that are linked to being Canadian? (You don't have to say yes …)

GB: Well, if I am an alouette …  I am a bird …

JB: The reason I ask that is because of things that you told me about your composition, the kind of musical jokes that you make, all that makes it seem that there are things in your music that are obviously linked to Québec, and if you hadn't lived that life … I don't want to answer for you, but … there are certainly aspects of your composition that, I think, are probably very linked to when you were born, where you lived and when you lived?

GB: This is very true because it's a part of myself, and it is a part in Richmond, where I was born, it's a part in Paris, it's a bit in Montréal, it's around my table here, in 2005, because I am trying to write something for the Hilliard Ensemble. I think, because I am active, all those elements that I have, I'm not copying French Canadian, I'm not copying Paris, I don't copy whatever it is. I'm just trying to be me.

JB: As you said, it's all the cultural influences in your life …

GB: … and courage, and fun.

JB: This is another identity question: how does your Québécois identity figure in your perception and portrayal of Canadian identity?

GB: I have here the series of work I did with others in theatre and television, and that is us. On television, we had something, at that time, to invent or to discover through that great medium, which is television. And we did what we loved, it was very important for us, first, because we had fun and to be exposed to others sometimes. We had and we received a gift that we just exchanged, we exchanged those gifts with much humility when did television, with the great facts of inventions and this was a part of our mission fact, to use a big word. But when I did music for the stage, for theatre, it was just to be with the actors and the poets, and just to hear the little silence of the public, while performing. The fun of it and the fun of us too.  And still in my little trip to Stratford recently, I had that same kind of feeling. It is the way to exist. When I arrived there, as a Québécois, after 5 years of not being there, suddenly, Desmond Heeley is there, he is England, he's the world, he is American too, and suddenly we have le plaisir of meeting together again; and the way we exchange looks is the same, time doesn't exist and suddenly we are there, we kiss each other and it's marvellous to see each other. This kind of chemistry is part of  le courage, because we had courage and the memory.

JB: Yes and you're held together by this memory…

GB: Exactement!  There is no limit of time, so it's a gift, and it's fun! It's chemistry.

JB: How has your relationship with Shakespeare's work been affected by your experience as a Québécois artist?

GB: Suddenly I was chosen by people who decided to produce a play in Montréal, and it was chosen by others, and I said "Mon Dieu, c'est merveilleux!", and then I became very nervous, but it is my country, me, me, me, and suddenly it's prepared, so we open away to a step. But I will tell you something: after I went to the Benedictine monastery in 1945 - I was there for nearly two years - and when I went out of the monastery in the campagne, I went to join Les Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, and then I suddenly arrived at Vaudreuil, near Montréal, alone   and I was there, to start my career in theatre. My first approach to Shakespeare was there. The cupboards and wardrobes were full of costumes. There I knew that they were from one of Shakespeare's plays, and I knew that my friend Jean-Louis [Roux], and all the actors and actresses (I don't remember their names) had been in it. I think I was still in the monastery at that time. But there I was alone in that big house in Vaudreuil, I opened those cupboards, there were all the velvets and all the colours handmade, and it was winter. So I put on a dress of one of the actresses - I don't know who she was - and - it's very romantic when I'm telling you that! - there was the moon of January, it was a beautiful outside with so much snow, and I went to dance in front of the empty big house, and I was in a costume of a Shakespeare play. That was my first touch of Shakespeare.

JB: That's a beautiful story. It's like a symbolist painting.

GB: It's the discovery of colour. It's a kind of celebration and a kind of liturgy too, and you have to put on those ornaments, and then you are yourself, or you are your future. It's silly, but it is how it began with Shakespeare.

JB:  So that was your first experience with Shakespeare, and your second one was Richard II?

GC: Yes it was Richard II.

JB: Could you tell us a bit of the history of how you came to write music for the theatre generally and for Stratford specifically?  When  you entered the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, was it to write music, or didn't you know what it was that you were going to do?

GC: No, I did know what it was, but I began to be a  helper in the building of a set for a play by Félix Leclerc. And in my little room in that big building I did the set on little pieces of paper for all the scenes.  I did the set for Le Soulier de Satin. I still have a memory of those little things. In a way it was a beginning of analysis, little sketches of readings that I did at that time, that was a moment that I had with Les Compagnons de Saint-Laurent. And still many years after, in 2000, I did a project for Stratford for an English version of the Claudel play.

JB: So you did that play?

GC: No, I didn't, but I wanted them to, because it's a marvellous thing, and it was kind of a Stratford extravaganza that should have been done. But I still have the project.  La culture, Madame, la culture!

JB:  You've told me about your first experience with Shakespeare, and then the second one being Richard II, and I guess the third one must have been The Comedy of Errors in Stratford?

GC: Yes.

JB: That would've been different, I mean because it was a change of language.

GC: Yes, well I had many experiences with Jean Gascon like that. When, in 1956, I was a teacher at McGill University, for the French theatre school. I was in charge of the staging of a play and there was another teacher, Michel Beaujour, who lives in NYC at the moment. He was a philosopher and a great French teacher, he was young, we were about the same age. We did Le Bal des Voleurs, by Jean Anouilh. We had to invent a place, a stage, so we did that in the refectory of the French University.  Perhaps 60 students were there, paying their tuition to speak French, so we organized a kind of oblong stage which was more or less the stage you've seen for The Brothers Karamazov in Stratford at the Third Stage. On the tables we put some chairs to create an auditorium, it was just wood,  it was very nice. It was my first staging. My work on CBC television was theatre, music, opera, and everything. So one of the directors for theatre on television at CBC said to me: "it was a discovery to see that you are the first to have designed this kind of stage". Once again it was great fun. But I always have to see the reality according to a budget, to invent things about the reality, to transform it into a message. It was great fun to do Le Bal des Voleurs. It was full of organization. It was not Comedia dell' Arte, but there was a kind of freshness in the story. So that was in fact my first real approach to theatre. And the invention of music at that time, we were so busy creating television you couldn't believe, so being a teacher of French and music at the university at that time was kind of a breath. And then it became theatre.

JB: Did you write music for that play?

GC: Yes.

JB: And was that the first time that you wrote music for a play?

GC: Yes.

JB: And successfully obviously.

GC: We did one performance, but it was a gem.

JB: That's how you came to write?

GC: Exactement.

JB: And then what happened?  What was the next show?

GC: Then I have been asked to make music for a Lorca play: Doña Rosita. And I was very very busy with television. I wrote my first music I did with Nadia Boulanger; I think I told you about my first experience with Nadia Boulanger, in 1947, when she played something, she asked me something very technically and I did a piece , and it was again with the circle of fifth , I made a kind of piece which was orphic, je n'avais jamais pensé à ça., but it was from the reality of the circle of fifth, and then she said to me "do something for me with this." But when she arrived, she started to cry, she said:" he doesn't know what he is doing!" with a kind of clin d'oeil to me. I was very surprised when I heard that … So again from reality it becomes, not a message, but something I put on myself to do something for people to hear. It's becoming orphic. So the Gregorian chant goes into all my past and my present, because Gregorian chant is still my present, well all those things were for the Lorca play, and it worked. There was a piano on the stage so it was played on stage, by Monique Mercure; you know what happened to her, she was Pierre Mercure's wife, and I was part of the family! …

JB: Where did they do Doña Rosita?

GC: They did it for Le Théâtre du Rideau Vert in 1956, and then at Monument-National.

JB: Was the name of the company Le Rideau Vert?

GC: Yes.  And then in 1961 it was Les Choéphores  (The Libation Bearers) at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.  It was a kind of Shakespearean approach to a play.  Then, it was The Comedy of Errors, but a different version, commedia dell’ arte, with Jean Gascon.  It was my first music from all those many things I did at Stratford.

JB: And how did you come to write for Stratford?

GC: Stratford was 1963. Between those two, I became a teacher and did some Molière plays at that time. I was introduced to Stratford by the conductor Louis Applebaum.  After that introduction, I was asked to write the music for The Comedy of Errors. At that same time, there were so many things on Radio-Canada, all the ballets with George Balanchine, L'enfant des Sortilèges, the Daniel story directed by Jean Gascon. It was a huge organization. All those masterpieces with television. Pierre Mercure was writing music and so many things, he was so active at that time. It was in fact the peak of our invention in theatre, in Shakespeare and on television, and of course Jean Gascon did the direction of Cosi Fan Tutte, of Stravinsky’s Oedipe-roi And he did L’histoire de Daniel of the 13th century, and Powys Thomas came to do Pulcinella.  All those people were creating so many things at that time.

JB: It is extraordinary!

GC: Yes it is! We were very active.

JB: And the money was there to do that quality of work?

GC: Money was there, and invention. Of course, Toronto television was also active at that time, but we were more active than Toronto, we had more audience. All the French and Offenbach, all sort of colours, it was us.

JB:  Your earliest work with Shakespearean productions was with Jean Gascon and the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. How did your work with Shakespeare in Québec compare with your work in English at the Stratford Festival?

GC: At the beginning, in general, with Jean Gascon I was speaking French of course, and sometimes it was very difficult for him to speak English, but we became bilingual. Through the analysis of texts, we became bilingual. In fact the musical analysis of text, I think I invented that, for television productions I had to analyse, because I was responsible of presenting and supervising projects, and to organize and define the budget, so the reality again! In order to be funny, you have to have your feet on the ground.  So it was the same kind of thing in order to do the Shakespeare's plays, we had to do an analysis of everything. And that is why all the colours began to invent ways, so that was the way.

JB: So, are you saying that it was similar to what you did at the TNM, except the added difficulty of the language not being yours?

GC: I must say that, at that time, at the TNM, I began to analyse things to surround the reality of the show, and it was the same kind of way to see the reality, it was in Stratford, it was in Montréal, at the TNM. So all this happened in the same kind of thing, but the recipes were the same, and it is still the same now to do big productions, you have to analyse it. There was invention in many ways in order to see the realities in every domaine for the production. But in 1963 for instance, when we did the Offenbach, La vie Parisienne, well it was exactly the same ways to supervise the budget, and to organize the madness of Monsieur Offenbach and all the tragedies of Mr. Shakespeare. C'est la même chose!

JB: How was your work received by your English Canadian colleagues at the Stratford Festival?

GC: They were very stunned, the English people said "they are mad those people, they don't see realities!"

JB: "those people" meaning those French Canadians?

GC: Yes. Offenbach is just mad you know. We were "à la lettre", we were very surprised, because the big production we did, and in 1971, when we did Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for England, because there are mad pieces in it, and great pieces after it, I knew what I wanted with loud speakers, and Jean knew it too.  We had different rhythms, but the others didn't really have those rhythms.  Tanya Moiseiwitsch had her own, but we were together, and we were exchanging, but also being extraordinarily stunned by the inventions of everybody, so, it was some group creation, and then coming from the same school in a way… We were coming from the same school and it's still the same.

JB:  Did you find any difference in style or approach when you got to Stratford?  I guess you've partly answered saying that in a sense both the theatre practitioners from Montreal and those from Stratford were products of Copeau through Michel Saint Denis and through Gascon's experience in France.

GC: Yes. When Jean did come there he brought a kind of Comedia dell'Arte style, in the gestures, in the organized madness and improvisation, and freshness. Which was very different from the English freshness, what Jean, Robert Prévost and I brought, we actually came into theatre with another colour. Because previously to Jean, there was the English kind of theatre, which is kind of different, but meeting Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and Jean, when we did Cymbeline, for instance, she said to me " it is the first time I 'm working that way, with the musicians, with everybody. You cannot believe what freshness it is for me, for us.”  So because, for example, I needed some maquettes, I needed fabrics, I wanted to feel it, to be together in one production, I was very happy when she said that to me. This is the only way to work together. It's so great to feel that humanly, to be together, and the looks change, and the surprise of our looks, and then suddenly, our looks were always new at the same time. She does what I feel, it is the fun to finally do things together, it was like having children together! To be together to make child, is like to be together to make a Cymbeline or a Romeo, and then some day, Romeo and Juliet make children if they have chance! It becomes the National Theatre School of Canada!

JB: What role has Shakespeare had in French Canadian theatre both inside and outside Québec during your career?

GB: I must say that, I don't have the whole list of  Shakespeare's plays which were done in Montréal, but if I do Hamlet, which was on at the TNM about seven or eight years ago, it has the same flavour, the same organisation as the one in Stratford, even if the production were not done by others. But in the Brecht theatre which was in Montreal after, it has the same kind of vivacité, that same hope, that same reality, that same odour, the same kind of rhythm, which was rather different, in Toronto, I did some Brecht kind of things, well it had that kind of flavour, and the director Jean-Marie Serrault of that kind of Brecht play came to the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. I think all of the directors want the freshness, the organization in the playing, invention, and rigour. La rigueur dans le comique, la rigueur in the Claudels which were played years after with Jean-Louis, it comes from the qualities of Michel Saint- Denis, and Jacques Copeau who was in fact our master, many years ago. L'humilité, l'humanité, la rigueur, l'invention et la simplicité, la vérité, et le respect infini de la poésie, c'est-à-dire l'amour de la poésie, ce n'est pas du romantisme. La rigueur française peut-être, even if it's so difficult to do, and when we did Phèdre it was so French because of the rigour and because of the respect. C'est ça qui était merveilleux! And in Shakespeare, with directors like Jean Gascon, it was the madness and the organization. I remember now in Titus Andronicus, it was just madness, but the way to express madness and horror was organized.

JB: Well, it wouldn't be Grand Guignol?

GC: No, it was organized. And the respect of colours: here, 'respect' is not negative, respect is love. The madness was organized in order to make the feeling of real, for the public to feel this madness. It was not exterior, it was just interior. When I think about the big moments we had for instance, with Jean. It's another stage, it was just wood and then suddenly, the invention of other things. So everything was very clear, and it was one of the great qualities of Jean, to insist on clarity, to leave the message, for a complete understanding of feelings by the public. So this was the colour searched by us. We wanted to have the same will in our message. Like the Balanchine choreography, it's just essential, the blue colour and the black and white costumes, to see the choreography, and to hear the music. So that was the essential. Even in Offenbach, it had to be very sculptured, very mad in many ways; it's the same kind of language.

JB: What are the special challenges you faced when approaching a Shakespearean production in Québec?

GC: Even with a different kind of budget, because we know that Shakespeare is big extravaganza, so you need money to do that, we had to face the reality of Shakespeare, of the actors who were there, and the reality of money. All that was the same for Montréal.

JB: when you say "face the reality of the actors" that you had, could you be more specific?

GC: I don't think that, in Montréal, it could have been possible to have the actors of Titus Andronicus, those are big plays with 75 people. But it was because of technology and all the qualities and all the realities of a large theatre like Stratford. But in Montréal it was different, we began to have all the actors, after the theatre school and the conservatoire, it was about 40-50 years ago we began to have actors of different ages. So that's why we can design. In 25 years it will be different, we will have actors of different ages to design a Shakespeare or a Molière play. This year the TNM is doing Le Malade imaginaire.  And it will be a big production, with singers, dancers and everything.  I think it will be done at Christmas, you should come!

JB: Maybe I will. For you, what are the musical challenges in writing for Stratford or for the theatre generally? How important is the text to the music? Is the text more important than the director's vision of the play?

GC: To write music for theatre is always a challenge. Because it's not easy, music in theatre is in fact the counterpoint of a play, and the counterpoint can be a counterpoint of the soul of the characters invented by the poet. The counterpoint sometimes takes time to hear, this is why you have to prepare yourself. You have to hear the text, and not a counterpoint written note by note or word by word. For instance, he will write a little instrumental music and then the singer, even if it's a kind of duet with the orchestra, with the music ensemble, and singing of a text, he can write the music for the music ensemble in one key and the answer will be in another key. The questioning will be 'en sol', and then the answer by the singer will be in another tone. Music in theatre is a counterpoint to an action.

JB: The second part of the question, what's more important, is it the director's vision or the text? You can say that the director's vision comes from the text, but the director's vision of the text may not be the same as yours?

GC: This is true, and that's why we have to work together. If the director has confidence in the musician, they will hear together. With Jean (Gascon) for instance, between two scenes, the setting would be a battle in a city in one scene and the other scene would be in the room of a castle. There's a change of set up, a change of colours, and everything. But it has to be rather quick because that's what the rhythm requires. You see what's going on stage and you say: "it will be seven seconds"! So you have to be together, and the director has to understand what you want and he has to hear the instrument that you project. Under my responsibility, somebody will walk, the design will be seven seconds and it always worked, and I had to teach that to people. That's why, when I wrote my black book, you know, that's why I described that for them, so they would be prepared. This is my way of understanding that on my table in Montréal, and we live in confidence. Theatre has to be done with confidence with others. Otherwise it doesn't work.

 So that's why I do respect the music, I do understand the music. I have to translate it in my language. It's like to make a recipe, you know! In theatre you don't separate the text from the music, it has to be together like a marriage! For the division of the play, we have nine months to be together. No, but really, for me, a Shakespeare play takes nine months!

JB: Yes, because of the pre-production …

GC: Yes, after the first performance, you need a rest, when you see the play on stage, you say "the baby is on stage" and your 'nine months' were done in a very good way …

JB: That's being a composer and a mother! How did your musical education in France influence your work in Québec and vice versa? Why are you laughing? I don't think you like this kind of question!

GC: I don't like this kind of question!  Well, in France, I knew what I wanted to know. When I arrived in Paris, it was very strange because, I knew where to go, being a Quebecer! You have to feel well in Québec, you have to feel well in Canada, you have to feel well in both countries, and you have to have a great respect with the commission we had for a year. Well I had a good education in Québec, but a strange education as I was a monk for two years: that was my education in Québec. My other education in Québec was with Jean Papineau-Couture at college, who was a very cultured man. That was the beginning of many things. And when I came back, I was stuck in front of the cameras on television. And we had to invent ways to use those machines.

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