Paul Helmer

Paul Helmer. Pianist, musicologist, b Kirkland Lake, Ont, 18 Oct 1938; Artist Diploma (Toronto) 1958, BA (Toronto) 1966, MA (Columbia) 1968, PhD (Columbia) 1975.

Helmer, Paul

Paul Helmer. Pianist, musicologist, b Kirkland Lake, Ont, 18 Oct 1938; Artist Diploma (Toronto) 1958, BA (Toronto) 1966, MA (Columbia) 1968, PhD (Columbia) 1975. Helmer studied piano with Alberto Guerrero and Béla Böszörmeny-Nagy in Toronto, and made his debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at 15. Winning the Eaton Graduating Scholarship (1958) from the University of Toronto and the Ravel Medal (1958) from the French government, he took advanced piano studies 1958-61 in Stuttgart, Berlin, and Vienna, and placed second in the 1959 International Competition for Musical Performers in Geneva. He was resident musician 1962-4 at the University of New Brunswick before returning to studies at the University of Toronto and Columbia University, New York, where he later completed a PH D thesis, 'European pastoral calls and their possible influence on western liturgical chant.' He then taught at McGill University 1972-2002.

During an extensive solo career Helmer appeared with major Canadian orchestras and on radio and TV, performing in the Canadian premieres of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie (1964) and Boulez' Structures for Piano, Book II (1966, with Bruce Mather), and in the premieres of John Weinzweig'sPiano Concerto (1966) and Istvan Anhalt's La Tourangelle (1975). In 1977 he gave the North American premiere of Ivan Wyschnegradsky's Premier Fragment Symphonique, Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires.

As a chamber musician, Paul Helmer appeared with the Orford String Quartet, the Tudor Singers of Montreal, the Elmer Iseler Singers, and the Festival Wind Soloists. Helmer appeared frequently as accompanist to such artists as Cathy Berberian, Victor Braun, Angèle Dubeau, Rivka Golani, and Moshe Hammer. He was the official accompanist for the 1975 and 1991 Montreal International Music Competitions and for the 1988 National Youth Choir. In 1981 he performed the complete works for solo piano by Maurice Ravel in Montreal and Toronto, a series of concerts that was subsequently broadcast on CBC radio. In later years he continued to perform occasionally as soloist or accompanist, his repertoire ranging from Beethoven's piano sonatas to electroacoustic works. He also contributed to recordings of works by Wyschnegradsky (1994) and John Winiarz (1995). In 1995 Helmer performed the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas at McGill University to overflow audiences. He also toured Japan with cellist Vladimir Orlov.

As a musicologist, Paul Helmer was a respected authority on Western liturgical chant but also pursued interests in the piano music of Ravel and 19th-century salon music. He mounted dramatic and musical productions to display the results of his academic work, including a performance of The Mass of St James of Compostela as a liturgical service, presented with incense, costumes, and slides. The production was broadcast by the CBC on Palm Sunday, 1987. His edition of the work was published in 1988, and issued on CD in 1992 as Missa Sancti Iacobi. His additional research topics and publications included the emigration of European musicians to Canada 1937-55, and a 1997 edition of Le Premier et Le Secont Livre de Fauvel.

Paul Helmer is the brother of violist Terence Helmer, a member 1965-86 of the Orford String Quartet.


Further Reading

  • Mulliette, Maida. 'Paul Helmer, commuting pianist,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 8 Mar 1958

    Helmer, Paul, ed. Le premier et le secont livre de Fauvel (Ottawa 1997)