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Three Pieces for Orchestra (1961)


November 2, 5 and 6, 2016

During his life, it was customary to consider Jean Papineau-Couture the dean of contemporary composers in Québec. Born in 1916, he in effect preceded by a decade or more the generation of those who would propel Canadian and Québec repertoires onto international music stages. Grandson of Guillaume Couture, one of the pioneers of Canadian music, Jean Papineau-Couture took a very early interest in the music of modern French composers. He was at first a student of Quebecers Gabriel Cusson and Léo-Pol Morin, before traveling to the United States, early in the 1940s, to study with Nadia Boulanger. Through her he met Igor Stravinsky, who would have a decisive influence on his work.

In Canada, Jean Papineau-Couture dedicated his career to championing Canadian music. In collaborating with composers in English Canada, gathered in Toronto around composer John Weinzweig, he contributed to the establishment of a good number of institutions that today are vital to the musical life of the country. We have only to think of the founding of the Canadian League of Composers or that of the Canadian Music Centre, or else the creation of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ): Papineau-Couture played an important role in all of these. He was even, from 1968 to 1973, dean of the recently created Université de Montréal Faculty of Music. Over the years he earned numerous awards and distinctions, including the ranks of Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec and Companion of the Order of Canada.

Jean Papineau-Couture’s music underwent many transformations over time. His works, first shaped by the influence of Stravinsky and modern French composers, moved from a neoclassicism to a playfulness approaching that of Francis Poulenc’s to a more concentrated esthetic, where the harmony notably reflects more contemporary considerations.

These Three Pieces for Orchestra were commissioned from Papineau-Couture by the Saskatoon Cosmopolitan Club, and the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra presented the premiere under the direction of the composer himself on November 25, 1962. The work is dedicated to the composer Murray Adaskin, who at the time was teaching at the University of Saskatchewan.

The three pieces in the work are a prelude, a chorale and a perpetual motion. The transparency of the prelude and its regular beat reflect a thinking still marked by neoclassicism. The texture is fine at first, then grows denser and denser, and this piece is based on multiple repetitions of musical patterns, constantly varied by instrumental color. The chorale, meanwhile, enlists only winds. The brass are dominant, and their offering is punctuated by the regular intervention from the woodwinds. The perpetual motion, finally, is characterized above all by its highly rhythmic element and by the accumulation of repeated motifs in all the voices. That accumulation lies at the source of the energy that fuels the perpetual motion.

Papineau-Couture’s notes on Three Pieces:

“The Three Pieces for Orchestra were finished on November 25, 1961.

“The work consists of three contrasting movements. The first, at a moderate pace, features a rather flowing melodic line over harmonies that are static in character, often based on an ostinato of two alternating notes.

“The second is a very slow ‘Chorale’ for wind instruments alone. In the second part of this “Chorale,” there are numerous entries in canon.

“The third piece is a sort of perpetual motion in the form of a rondo. It is the fastest and brightest of the three movements.

“The entire work uses the total-chromatic technique.”

– Notes by Jean Papineau-Couture, stored in the archives of the Canadian Music Centre in Montréal.


Listen to Jean Papineau-Couture talk about his formative years.


Jean Papineau-Couture, Centrediscs, 1999.

Canadian Composers Portraits: Jean Papineau-Couture, Centrediscs, 2 discs,



BAIL MILOT, Louise. Jean Papineau-Couture: La vie, la carrière, l’œuvre. Lasalle, Hurtubise HMH, 1986.