Like many of his contemporaries, Jean Papineau-Couture (1916-2000) had a multi-faceted career. He began his musical training at a very young age as a pianist. While studying piano with Léo-Pol Morin he also studied composition with Gabriel Cusson, before switching from performance to composition. In 1940, with the help of a grant from the government of Quebec, he went to the USA to continue his education. First he studied composition with Quincy Porter and piano with Beveridge Webster at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Then, in the following year, he joined the class of the celebrated French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music, also in Boston. Under her tutelage he perfected his mastery of counterpoint. As well, she introduced him to Igor Stravinsky. This was a decisive encounter, for Stravinsky was to have considerable influence on the young composer’s later music.
When he returned to Quebec in 1945, Jean Papineau-Couture began his involvement — which grew throughout his career — in setting up and running the institutions now considered fundamental to maintaining the vitality of the local and national music scenes. He promoted the music of young Canadian composers by helping found the Canadian League of Composers (CLC) in Toronto in 1951, and its concert-organizing affiliate, the Society of Canadian Music (1954-1968). He served successively as President of the CLC, of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), and of the Canadian Music Council, before becoming dean of the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal (1968-1973). He was also a founding member of the Canadian Music Centre and director of its Montreal office (1973-1980).
During his lifetime, he was awarded many decorations and honors by federal and provincial governments.
Jean Papineau-Couture’s style changed considerably over the course of his career. At first he was influenced by the French composers of the early 20th century, and the neo-classical esthetic of his first works evokes both Poulenc’s mischievousness and Stravinsky’s rhythmicity. During the 1950s, Papineau-Couture kept his distance from serialism, the new trend to which several composers were turning, preferring to enlarge his harmonic vocabulary chromatically by using all the 12 semitones available in an octave, but without systematizing their use. Fascinated by the properties of sound, he delved into the theories of German composer Paul Hindemith. Modernism manifested itself in his later work by his use of extended techniques of playing each instrument. These coloristic explorations allowed the composer to vary his motifs using parameters other than harmony and rhythm. His works grew more and more spare in mood.