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Esquisse (1947)

  • Composer: Morel, François
  • Conductor: Bernardi, Mario
  • Performance Date: 1970-12-02
  • Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Portrait of composer Morel, François

Morel, François

Mar 14, 1926 -


Esquisse (sketch) is François Morel’s first published composition but it is no student effort. Though not entirely lacking in melodic interest, what concerns Morel first and foremost in Esquisse is sensitivity to nuances of sound and colors – how the instruments sound individually and how they interact. Learn more


Born in Montreal, March 14, 1926;
now living in Sainte-Foy, Quebec

François Morel’s career as a composer unofficially dates from 1953, when Leopold Stokowski conducted the world premiere of his Antiphonie in Carnegie Hall. Since then Morel has written more than fifty works, many of which have been performed in major cities on four continents.

Early years

François Morel comes from a musical family. Both parents studied music and an uncle played cello in the Chicago Symphony. Unlike most of his colleagues of the time, Morel undertook all his musical training in Quebec and was one of the first Quebec musicians to be educated exclusively at the Montreal Conservatoire, which he entered only one year after it was founded in 1943. During his nine years there his teachers included Isabelle Delorme (harmony, counterpoint, fugue) and Claude Champagne (composition). Shortly after completing his studies, Morel, Serge Garant and Gilles Tremblay joined forces in presenting a highly controversial concert of all-modern music at the Conservatoire on May 1, 1954. Morel’s contribution included the Canadian premieres of some piano pieces by Messiaen. In 1956 the group reorganized to become Musique de notre temps. Which in turn became the forerunner of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, founded in 1966 and still flourishing to this day.

The Montreal connection

Morel’s music has enjoyed wide exposure from Canada’s top orchestras, especially the Montreal Symphony. In 1960, Igor Markevitch conducted the premiere of Boréal. In 1978, the Toronto Symphony took this work on its tour of Japan and China, and again in 1997. In 1962 the Montreal Symphony premiered another work that become one of Morel’s most frequently heard compositions, L’Étoile noire, which was inspired by the eponymous painting of Quebec artist Paul-Émile Bourduas. In 1976, the same orchestra premiered Jeux, commissioned for the inauguration of the 78th session of the International Olympic Committee prior to the opening of the Olympics. Melisma for piano and orchestra was the required work at the 14th Montreal International Music Competition in 1980. In 1988, the Montreal Symphony gave the premiere of Aux Couleurs du ciel, inspired by astrophysicist Hubert Reeves’ book Poussières d’étoiles, and in 2006, at a concert in honor of the composer’s eightieth birthday, Passage à l’aube.

Work for the CBC

For the CBC, Morel worked as composer, consultant, researcher, host and free-lance conductor for nearly a quarter of a century (1956-1979), a collaboration that produced music for numerous broadcast series and many television dramas. These included L’Heureux Stratagème, The Andersonville Trial, Piège pour un home seul, Quelle Famille and Grand-papa. Compositions the CBC commissioned for concert use include Spirale, String Quartet No. 2, Prismes-Anamorphoses, Trajectoire and Radiance.

Later Works

Throughout the 1990s, Morel focused on compositions for wind instruments. For brass septet and percussion he wrote Lumières sculptées: Litanies de la reconciliation (1992); for horn quartet and tuba, Les Éphémères (1995); for twelve saxophones, Strophes, sequences, mouvements (1999); and for woodwinds, brass, piano, harp and percussion, Calligraphies sonores (2002). Then there are the works for single unaccompanied instruments: Stèle for solo clarinet (1991), Ekleipsis for solo marimba (1993) and Miroir for solo bassoon (2001). One of the most unusual works in Morel’s catalogue is Les Récifs du rêve, a concerto for two pianos (left hand only) and orchestra.

Craftsman and alchemist

Morel has defined his approach to composition as “a craftsman of sound and an alchemist of color.” Lyse Richer sums up his accomplishment as follows: “A quality of vitality, always so essential for a musical work, has penetrated Morel’s thought … He remains a composer who uses rich colors and dazzling sonorities. He is also a man whose free and spontaneous sense of wonder gives way readily to the satisfaction afforded by a well-written work that sounds well.”

Schoolwork and honors

Morel spent two nearly decades (1979-1997) teaching analysis, composition and orchestration at the Université Laval in Quebec City. He also conducted the school’s contemporary music ensemble. The school appointed him Professor Emeritus in 2000. Morel was awarded the Serge Garant Prize from the Émile Nelligan Foundation in 2003, and was made Chevalier de l’ordre national du Québec in 1994. He has received many other honors as well, including the prestigious Denise Pelletier Prize in 1996, the highest distinction conferred by the Government of Quebec in the field of performing arts.

Concert Program Notes

François Morel: Born in Montreal, March 14, 1926; now living in Sainte-Foy, Quebec

The nine-minute Esquisse was Morel’s first published opus and dates from 1946-47. It was first performed by the CBC Montreal Orchestra conducted by Alexander Brott on October 7, 1947. At this time Morel was deep in the study of French music, particularly scores by Debussy and Ravel. The Esquisse (“sketch”) was directly inspired by one of Debussy’s compositions, Nuages, first of the three orchestral Nocturnes.

From the opening moments, scored for pairs of clarinets and bassoons moving slowly in parallel motion to the barely audible pizzicatos in the last bars, the two compositions bear remarkable similarities and analogies. Both are oriented toward the soft end of the dynamic spectrum, rarely rising above piano. Gently oscillating effects and diaphanous textures are much in evidence. Instruments are used with reticence but also with an ear toward imaginative color combinations. Morel has even stated that for him, “when writing a work, what I search for are sonority and orchestration. I consider these two things far more important than themes.”

Like Debussy, Morel exploits his woodwind section to the fullest. Where Debussy features the English horn in lyrical solos, Morel uses the flute. The two horns and timpani in the Morel score are used only occasionally and with great restraint. Even the key signatures are the same in Esquisse and Nuages: two sharps for the opening and closing sections, six sharps for the central episode, though, in both cases, the harmony is more modal than tonal. To complete the analogy, Esquisse and Nuages invite the listener to create visual accompaniments to the aural experience.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1947

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • Wartime food rationing ends.
  • The first General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is signed by Canada and 22 other nations in Geneva.
  • A Parliamentary committee seeks advice from Indian (First Nations) leaders on Indian policy for the first time in Canada’s history.
  • The Canadian government passes the National Wildlife Act, establishing a week each year to promote the conservation of wildlife and natural resources.
  • The Chinese Immigration Act is revoked by Parliament and immigration laws are broadened to allow the immigration of Jewish orphans.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • The first car telephone is introduced by Bell Telephone Company.
  • The City of Toronto sells its last remaining 25 Clydesdale horses used for garbage removal (down from 400 in 1929).
  • The DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver prototype airplane is test-flown at Downsview, Ontario.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • A group of artists gathered around Quebec artist Paul-Émile Borduas becomes famous as les Automatistes. The Calgary Group promotes non-objective art in the west.
  • Hundreds of artists submit work for an exhibition of Canadian Women Artists to take place at the Riverside Museum in New York. The federal government's modest support of the show is effectively the first such governmental patronage in Canada.
  • Painter Jean-Paul Riopelle completes his painting Abstraction.
  • Lawren Harris completes his abstract geometric painting Project.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank is published.