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Symphony No. 2 (1957)

Portrait of composer Pépin, Clermont

Pépin, Clermont

May 15, 1926 - Sep 02, 2006


In this tautly constructed, finely-crafted work Pépin has used models of musical genres common to the Baroque world of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to create a thoroughly twentieth-century example of the symphony. Learn more

Music Connection

Musical Structures

Musical Structures explores how Canadian composers Clermont Pépin, Murray Adaskin, John Estacio, John Beckwith, Godfrey Ridout and Jacques Hétu have creatively used traditional musical structures and forms. Examples of concerto, suite, overture, ternary form and divertimento are studied. Learn more


Born in St-Georges-de-Beauce, Quebec, May 15, 1926;
died in Montreal, September 2, 2006

Audiences have been exposed to the music of Clermont Pépin since 1937, when the eleven-year-old boy was presented as both composer (his orchestration of a minuet) and conductor at a matinee concert of the Montreal Symphony.

Educational background

Pépin’s early musical training took place with Claude Champagne, among others. He later went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1942-1945). In 1949 Pépin won the Prix d’Europe and for the next five years lived in Paris where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger and André Jolivet. Upon his return to Montreal in 1955, Pépin began teaching at the Conservatoire de musique, where he remained almost continuously until 1987. Among his most famous students have been Jacques Hétu, André Prévost and François Dompierre. Hétu is especially laudatory about Pépin’s talent as a teacher: “He really opened my eyes and ears to the fundamental thing … and that is structure or form. Knowing how to develop an idea, whether short or long, and giving unity to a work – that is what I learned and that is still what interests me.”

A kaleidoscope of styles

Pépin’s style went through several sea changes in the course of his career. His earliest works, which include his first string quartet, first piano concerto and first symphony, were written in the late 1940s in a post-romantic style. Another work of this period is the Variations symphoniuqes, which won an award at the 1948 centennial competition at Collège Ste-Marie in Montreal. In Paris Pépin was much influenced by one of his teachers, Arthur Honegger, an influence that can be easily heard in Symphony No. 2 (in the Timeline). His symphonic works Guernica (1952), inspired by the famous Picasso painting, and La Rite du soleil noir (1955), after a poem by Antonin Artaud, both won prizes. In Paris Pépin began experimenting with serial techniques, and after returning to Montreal in 1955 wrote his first completely serial composition, the String Quartet No. 2 (1957). With Nombres (1962) for two pianos and orchestra, Pépin employed mathematical formulas and surround sound with speakers arranged around the auditorium. Then there were jazz elements introduced into the ballet scores L’Oiseau-phénix (1956) and music inspired by his interest in astronomy and space: Quasars commissioned by the Montreal Symphony in 1967 and Interactions (1977) for percussion and two pianos. Pépin was chosen by the Montreal Symphony to write a new work for the orchestra for its landmark 50th anniversary season. This was his Fifth Symphony (Implosion), the first piece on the first program of the 1983-1984 season.

Honors and distinctions

Among Pépin’s many honors, he served as national president of the Jeunesses musicales of Canada (1969-1972), he was inducted into the Order of Canada as an Officer in 1981, and into the Ordre national du Québec (also as an Officer) in 1990. In 1980 he founded his own publishing company, Les Éditions Clermont Pépin to publish his compositions. Pépin’s second wife was the noted violinist Mildred Goodman, a member of the Montreal Symphony for many years.

Concert Program Notes

Clermont Pépin: Born in St-Georges-de-Beauce, Quebec, May 15, 1926; died in Montreal, September 2, 2006

Clermont Pépin composed his Second Symphony in the latter half of 1957 and heard it premiered on December 22 by the Orchestra of the Little Symphonies of Montreal, for whom it was written, conducted by Roland Leduc. The composer writes: [original French below]

“The overall form of the symphony differs from classical form in that in place of the conventional opening allegro movement, the symphony begins with a toccata. The word must be understood here in its general sense of underscoring the percussive nature of the music. The second movement is a chorale whose character, mournful and serene by turns, serves as a contrast to the excitable first movement. The finale is an atonal fugue whose subject is in a constant state of flux.”

It is interesting to note that, despite the thoroughly modern (for 1957) sound of this symphony, all three movements bear titles of musical genres common to the Baroque period (late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries). The toccata aspect of the first movement is found in the regular, rapidly pulsing eighth notes (beginning in the seventh measure), which travel relentlessly throughout the orchestra, often passing from one section or range to another. Pépin’s use of the toccata is somewhat free in that he interjects passages where the regularly pulsing eighths are temporarily abandoned and, most unusually, superimposes lyrical lines that ride over the pulsing toccata element.

The term “chorale” likewise is used freely. The opening and closing sections do bear relation to the kind of chorales Bach wrote, not in terms of harmonic practice but in the sense that all the lines move to the same slow, stately metrical pattern. As in the toccata movement, Pépin from time to time superimposes a lyrical element over the chorale material, initially with a solo violin, near the end a clarinet, then flute. Of the three movements, the final fugue adheres most closely to the Baroque model. Yet here too Pépin introduces a uniquely twentieth-century element: an extended episode for percussion alone. To a classical orchestra composed of just pairs of winds plus strings, Pépin has added enough percussion instruments to create an entire fugal episode that closely approximates what the full orchestra has previously presented: 5 wood blocks, 5 temple blocks, 2 bongos, 2 tom-toms, gong, triangle, cymbals, Chinese cymbal, bell, tambourine, snare drum, military drum, bass drum, 5 timpani, xylophone and marimba.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1957

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The House of Commons unanimously adopts the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act, providing for a public hospitalization plan funded by the federal and provincial governments.
  • John Diefenbaker becomes Canada's 13th prime minister.
  • Lester B. Pearson becomes the first Canadian ever to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The St. Lawrence Seaway opens.
  • Queen Elizabeth II opens the Canadian parliament, the first monarch to do so.
  • The Treaty of Rome establishes the European Economic Community (EEC).
  • Egypt re-opens the Suez Canal to all shipping.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • The U.S.S.R. launches Sputnik-I, a man-made satellite, inaugurating the space age.
  • Canada and the United States sign the NORAD agreement to provide aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and defense for the two countries.
  • The Hamilton Watch Company introduces the first electric watch.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • The House of Commons passes the Canada Council Act “to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in the arts, humanities and social sciences.”
  • Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is founded in Montreal by Ludmilla Chiriaeff.
  • Literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye publishes his Anatomy of Criticism, generally regarded as one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century.
  • Cornelius Krieghoff's Merrymaking (1860) attains celebrity status when the press announces its sale to Lord Beaverbrook for a surprising $25,000.
  • Artist William Ronald arranges for the powerful New York art critic Clement Greenberg to visit some members of Painters Eleven in Toronto. Ronald becomes one of the youngest members of the stable of artists attached to New York’s Kootz Gallery.
  • Elvis Presley makes his Canadian debut at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.

Music Connection

Symphonie No. 2, like much of Clermont Pépin's other work uses modern musical language such as complex rhythms and atonal material, within traditional forms. Like the symphonies of the late 1700’s, Pépin’s composition shares the characteristics of three movements and fast-slow-fast tempo. The three-movements make use of different Baroque forms. The opening movement, Toccata, has running, virtuosic passages. The second movement, Chorale, is a slow-moving harmonization of a tonal shifting hymn-like them. The final movement is an atonal fugue with a shifting melodic theme. Each structure provides Pépin with a container to explore his shifting harmonic and complex rhythmic language.

Learn more