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Hétu, Jacquesfree

  • René Champigny

(b Trois-Rivières, Aug 8, 1938; d Saint-Hippolyte, PQ, Feb 9, 2010). Canadian composer. In 1956 Hétu entered the School of Music of the University of Ottawa. From 1956 to 1961 he attended the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal (Montreal) where he studied with, among others, jean papineau-couture and clermont pépin. In 1959 he attended the summer camp, with lukas foss, at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. Finishing his studies in 1961 at the Conservatoire de musique, he received three diplomas (Prizes in composition, counterpoint, and harmony). The same year, he won the Prix d’Europe, an annual scholarship for young promising musicians granted by the Académie de musique du Québec, and an award from the Canada Council for the Arts. This award enabled him to study with henri dutilleux in Paris from 1961 to 1963 at the École Normale de Musique, where he received the Diplôme d’excellence. At the same time, he attended Olivier Messiaen’s analysis classes at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique.

From 1963 to 1977, Hétu taught analysis and composition at the École de musique de l’Université Laval in Quebec City, where his pupils included denys bouliane (1955). He also taught at the Université de Montréal (1972–3, 1978–9) and at the Université du Québec à Montréal (1979–2000). Hétu was named Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001 and Officier de l’Ordre national du Québec in 2007.

Among his 90 works, 20 are concertos or compositions for soloist(s) and orchestra, and were written specifically for performers such as André Laplante and Robert Silverman (piano), James Campbell (clarinet), Jean Laurendeau (ondes Martenot), Olivier Latry and Rachel Laurin (organ), and Alvaro Pierri (guitar). The last work of this corpus, Variations sur un thème de Mozart pour trois pianos et orchestre (op.79), gives much room to lyricism and dialogue between the three soloists and the orchestra; it was completed in 2009 and performed in May of the same year by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) under the direction of Kent Nagano. At the time of its composition, Hétu was well aware of the gravity of the cancer with which he had been diagnosed. The piece can be seen as a musical testament to this corpus, giving much room to lyricism and dialogue between the three soloists and the orchestra.

His 19 substantial works for orchestra, including five symphonies, also form an impressive part of his catalogue. From the beginning of his career, Hétu had been commissioned to write for major Canadian symphony orchestras. In 1967, the Toronto Symphony sponsored the composition of the symphonic poem L’Apocalypse (op.14) based on St John’s Apocalypse. Antinomie (op.23) was first performed in 1977 by the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra in Ottawa and was then presented twice in Europe, first by the OSM under the direction of Charles Dutoit in 1984, and then by the NAC Orchestra under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman in 1990. Those two works, along with Passacaille (op.17, 1970) and his symphonies, were gradually incorporated into the repertoire of symphony orchestras in Canada. In 1988, Dutoit commissioned Hétu to create a work for the upcoming bicentennial of the French Revolution. The following year, Dutoit conducted the OSM in the first performance of Images de la Révolution (op.44) and later performed the same work with the New York Philharmonic.

Hétu portrayed the imaginary world of the French Canadian poet Émile Nelligan in two works for voice and orchestra, Les Clartés de la nuit (op.20) and Les Abîmes du rêve (op.36), in Les Illusions fanées (op.46) for mixed choir, and in Le Tombeau de Nelligan (op.52) for orchestra. Some of the most sensitive poems of Nelligan provided Hétu with the opportunity to depict musically a wide variety of emotions. Reminiscences of childhood, music, love, death, and reclusive reverie (giving way to schizophrenia) are all elements of Nelligan’s poetry that were evoked by numerous means including spectral chords, long note values, a wide dynamic range, diverse orchestral textures, and long melodic lines that accord with the poetic form, accompanied by short distorted motives. Here, the music of Hétu becomes descriptive of general ideas and states.

Hétu is a composer whose language was well defined from the beginning of his career. He consistently used the octatonic scale, and also briefly explored serialism. In his Variations pour piano (op.8), an early work written in 1964 and notably recorded by Glenn Gould (CBS, 1967), the row is made of two octatonic hexachords. The neo-classical, organic, centric, and melodic style of Hétu, founded on the use of recurrent interval motives throughout his compositions, forms a highly synthetic language. His music displays a palette of harmonic colors elaborated over classified chords within rhythmic stability and octatonic polarity. It is at the same time easily accessible and perfectly original.


(selective list)


Double Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Chamber Orchestra, 1967

Piano Concerto no.1, 1969

Clarinet Concerto, 1983

Trumpet Concerto, 1987

Ondes Martenot Concerto, 1990

Flute Concerto, 1991

Concerto for Guitar and String Orchestra, 1994

Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone, and Strings, 1997

Piano Concerto no.2, 1999

Organ Concerto, 2001

Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano, 2002

Concerto for two Guitars, 2007







  • J. Bourassa-Trépanier: ‘Jacques Hétu’, Compositeurs au Québec, vol.10 (1978), Montréal: Centre de musique canadienne
  • R.M. Knox: A Neo-Romantic’s World: Pitch Organization in Jacques Hétu’s Ballade, op.30 (diss., U. of Rochester, 1988)
  • S. Jean: Le Fonds Jacques-Hétu: répertoire numérique (Ottawa, 1999)
  • F. Fowler: Jacques Hétu’s Suite pour Guitare, Op. 41: an Analysis (MA thesis, Florida State U., 2003)
  • R. Champigny: L’expression de la polarité dans le Concerto pour orgue et orchestre, op.68, de Jacques Hétu (diss., Laval U., Québec, 2007)
  • R. Champigny: ‘The Joy of Composing’, La Scena musicale, vol.13/10 (2008), 8–11
  • C. Gingras: ‘Jacques Hétu, le plus joué de nos compositeurs’, La Presse [Montreal] (11 Feb 2010)
  • C. Huss: ‘Jacques Hétu: le devoir de sincérité’, Le Devoir [Montreal] (30 Oct 2014)
  • I. Brisson: ‘Jacques Hétu’, The Canadian Encyclopedia, <>
  • <> [pubn of Éditions Doberman-Yppan; incl. complete list of works]