Canadian Masters and their Works
Biography by Cécile Huot
“My arrival at the Met turned out to be the most important period of my career, both in longevity and accomplishments. I first entered there when I was barely 21 and left fully mature, 33 years later. Throughout my tenure, I helped many artists hone their craft, and was encouraged to develop my own, thanks to the invaluable assistance of those whose cultures and human values impressed me as much as their personalities.
Wilfrid Pelletier (1896-1982) was born in Montreal into a family of amateur musicians, all of whom sang or played an instrument. Early in life, he showed promise as a pianist. Barely a teen, a friend of his recommended him for a job as accompanist to the Montreal Opera Company (1910-1913). This experience would lead him to a brilliant and lengthy career at New York’s Metropolitan Opera from 1917 to 1950, and a host of guest appearances elsewhere. Not long after his arrival in that city, he would be earning his living full-time as a musician. Over the course of those productive 33 years, he would work with all of the major performers of the Metropolitan’s noted opera house such as Caruso, Gigli, Farrar, Peerce, and Grace Moore. Eventually, he would pick up the baton of the Metropolitan Orchestra, then head out on tour under the guise of his friend and mentor, Arturo Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors of the era. Both men would remain life-long friends until the latter’s death death in 1957. Pelletier introduced the “Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air Series,” a radio talent search for new voices. He was also held in high esteem by his colleagues, especially for his vast knowledge of the French and Italian repertoires.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s classical music community was rapidly evolving, a decisive step being the establishment of a full-time professional orchestra, the Montreal Symphonic Concert Society, and forerunner of the current Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. The musicians were granted official status via a charter of rights and obligations, the latter binding them to rehearsals, the former ensuring paid rehearsals. In 1935, one year after all of the preceding, Pelletier organized symphonic matinees for young listeners, much to the delight of local audiences. Their popularity led other orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic to introduce similar series. Pelletier’s matinees similarly served as a window of opportunity for new talent.
Maestro Pelletier was not only a good teacher, but a gifted one as well, and this enabled him to acquire a special status within the Canadian classical music community. The matinee series, for instance, had a twofold objective: 1) to consolidate a symphony orchestra in the city while ensuring its vitality; 2) to promote the idea of creating a state funded conservatory. Pelletier would thus be active on this front with several others, among them Athanase David, the instigator of the legislation for a Quebec Conservatory of music and theatre. In 1943, headed by Omer Létourneau, a second conservatory was founded in Québec City with seven others to follow soon thereafter in the rest of the province. Teaching and training were key vocations in Pelletier’s life. In between his duties at the Met and those back home in Quebec, he made a point to invite soloists in each discipline for the purpose of giving master classes to the teaching personnel in the employ of these newly-created conservatories. In 1951, Pelletier would assume conducting duties of the Quebec City Symphony Orchestra until 1966.
Inquistive by nature, Mr. Pelletier was equally innovative in his program choices; for starters, he gave the Canadian premiere performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1940, then Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges in 1950 and Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher in 1953. Known internationally as well, he was regularly invited to lead opera orchestras on both sides of the border and in Europe, earning numerous prizes and distinctions along the way. It stands to reason that any individual of such personal stature and much heralded artistic accomplishments would be granted legendary status. However, one must not forget that other artists and tireless promoters of the cause worked closely with him to achieve that special place for professionally played classical music in Canada. He whole-heartedly associated his name and reputation to the cause, and endeavoured constantly towards the fulfillment of this noble mission.
Wilfrid Pelletier worked with the very best vocal talents from Quebec, most notably Raoul Jobin and Richard Verreau. The two following excerpts demonstrate the Maestro’s dual abilities as conductor and accompanist. In that later role, he achieved an enviable reputation as a rehearsal pianist and was often asked to do so. Eleanor Steber (1916-1990), a one-time winner of the Metropolitain Opera audition competition, shines here in an excerpt from La Traviata. Pelletier said of her in his Mémoires: “A highly gifted artist and interpreter of song, Steber received much praise in her time by specialists and fans of Strauss, Mozart and Verdi.”
Excerpt : “Ah, fors' è lui…” & “Sempre libera” Act 1
The Québec-born tenor Richard Verreau (1926-2005) studied with both Jobin and Gigli. In 1960, he recorded a number of great opera arias with Wilfred Pelletier and the Turin Symphony Orchestra. However, M. Verreau held an old tape of an audition he did in New York in 1954 before none other than Arturo Toscanini. The singer passed on this tape to his friend Nicolas Dejardins of the Conservatory. This institution proceeded to restore, at its own expense, the sound of this forgotten tape. Three arias were included in that original recording, two by Verdi, one by Flotow, all of which were first issued on a CD accompanying the singer’s biography Richard Verreau, Chanter plus beau, published in 2000 by Éditions Lescop. The piano accompanist in the Flotow piece, included herein, is M. Pelletier himself.
Trust pour la préservation de l'audiovisuel du Canada