Wilfrid Pelletier | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Wilfrid Pelletier

(Joseph Louis) Wilfrid (sometimes spelled Wilfred) Pelletier.

Pelletier, Wilfrid

(Joseph Louis) Wilfrid (sometimes spelled Wilfred) Pelletier. Conductor, pianist, administrator, b Montreal 20 Jun 1896, d New York 9 Apr 1982; honorary D MUS (Montreal) 1936, honorary D MUS (Laval) 1952, honorary D MUS (Alberta) 1953, honorary D MUS (New York College of Music) 1959, honorary D LITT (Hobart College, NY) 1960, honorary doctorate (Ottawa) 1966, honorary D MUS (McGill) 1968, honorary doctorate (University of Quebec) 1978. His first contact with music was through the concert band conducted by his father, a baker by trade. He studied piano, solfège, and harmony with Mme François Héraly 1904-14. He was just 12 when he began his musical career as a percussionist - his brother Albert had introduced him to percussion - in the St-Pierre-Apôtre parish temperance band and in a movie house. In 1910 he became the pianist for the orchestra of the National Theatre, the best-known establishment of its kind at that time. Also in 1910 he made a decision that directly affected his future. Having attended a performance of Mignon at His Majesty's Theatre in Montreal, he decided then and there to concentrate his activities on opera. The following summer Henri Delcellier, the conductor of the Dominion Park concert band in which Pelletier was percussionist, offered him the job of rehearsal pianist with the Montreal Opera Company, of which Delcellier was the chorus master. The experience was short-lived, however, since the company's financial difficulties brought about its dissolution in 1913. In his disappointment Pelletier decided to leave Canada for the USA and Europe. The opportunity to do so was provided by the Prix d'Europe competition for which he prepared by studying harmony and composition with Alexis Contant and performance with Alfred La Liberté. He was unsuccessful in the 1914 competition but won the prize in 1915.

Despite the fact that World War I was raging in Europe, he went to Paris in the autumn of 1916 with his young wife, Berthe Jeannotte, the sister of Albert Clerk-Jeannotte. His teachers there were Isidor Philipp (piano), Marcel Samuel-Rousseau (harmony), Charles-Marie Widor (composition), and Camille Bellaigue (opera repertoire). Because of the war, however, he was forced to leave France at the end of June 1917. In view of the relative insecurity of the musical field in his own country, he decided to try his luck in the USA. There he met the conductor Pierre Monteux, who introduced him into the musical and operatic circles of New York, where he took up residence. He soon was offered a position as rehearsal pianist for French repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, which provided him with the undreamed-of and enriching experience of working with Caruso, Farrar, Rothier, Grace Moore, and many other famous singers. Also during this time he joined the touring company of the famous Italian baritone Antonio Scotti as assistant to the conductors Gennaro Papi and Carlo Peroni. It was on one of these tours, on 21 May 1920 in Memphis, Tenn, that Pelletier first conducted a complete opera: Il Trovatore. In 1922 he became assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and was engaged by the Ravinia Park Opera Company of Chicago for its summer season and by the San Francisco Opera. On 19 Feb 1922 he conducted for the first time one of the Sunday Concerts at the Metropolitan; two years later he became the artistic director for this series. On 28 Feb 1929 he became one of the Metropolitan's regular conductors, a position he held until 1950. In 1936 he conceived the idea for and became the director of the 'Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air,' a radio competition which sought to discover talented young singers. During his early years with the Metropolitan he established a firm friendship with Arturo Toscanini, who later invited him on several occasions to conduct his NBC Symphony Orchestra.

It was during Pelletier's association with the Metropolitan that the Béique and David families and Jean Lallemand decided to try to establish a symphony orchestra in Montreal and attempted to interest him in the project. After some initial reluctance, which his father overcame by appealing to his national pride and feelings of gratitude towards Quebec, Pelletier threw his whole energy into the venture. The project came to fruition in 1934, and soon Pelletier became the first artistic director of the SCSM orchestra (MSO). The orchestra gave its first concert in January 1935, and later that year one of Pelletier's most cherished ideas was realized: the Matinées symphoniques pour la jeunesse were inaugurated 16 Nov 1935. (The Young People's concerts for the English-speaking members of the CSM's audience were inaugurated 22 Oct 1947.) He was greatly encouraged by the interest aroused by the MSO and planned another large-scale project, the Montreal Festivals; he conducted its inaugural program, the St Matthew Passion, in June 1936 in the chapel of the Collège St-Laurent. (Years later he also conducted its final program, Haydn's The Seasons, in the Grande Salle of the PDA in August 1965.)

Through his work with the MSO and the Montreal Festivals, Pelletier was painfully aware of the dearth of first-rate native instrumentalists and saw the need for a conservatory - a Quebec version of the European institution - where the finest teachers from all parts of the world would impart their knowledge free of charge. Through the understanding and capable support of Hector Perrier, who was at that time provincial secretary of Quebec, courses were begun at the CMM on 1 Mar 1943. Pelletier was appointed its director and held the post until 1961.

In June 1951 Pelletier accepted the position of artistic director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and maintained his connection with the orchestra for 15 years. In addition to all these activities, he conducted the Canadian premieres of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (Montreal Festivals, 1940; also on CBC TV, 1956), Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Montreal Festivals, 1953), and Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges (CBC TV, 1950). His abiding interest in young people led him to conduct the Children's Concerts of the New York Philharmonic 1952-7 as well as the tours and working sessions of the NYO 1960-1. In 1961 he accepted the post of director of the music service of the MACQ. On 21 Sep 1963 he shared the podium with Zubin Mehta, conducting the MSO in the inaugural concert of the PDA in Montreal. In 1964 he was appointed board member of the Régie de la PDA, and in 1966 the largest of the PDA's three halls was named after him. In 1966 he became one of the founding members of the SMCQ and 1967-9 was national president of JMC. On 17 Jan 1971 he conducted the inaugural concert of Quebec City's Grand Théâtre.

Pelletier was made a Knight of the Order of the King of Denmark in 1946, a Companion of St Michael and St George in 1946, and a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1947. He was awarded the Canada Council Medal in 1962 and the Bene Merenti de Patria silver medal by the St-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal in 1964, and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968. He received the Diplôme d'honneur from the CCA in 1970, and the prize of the Concert Society of the Jewish People's Schools and Peretz Schools, awarded each year to an outstanding Canadian in the world of art, in 1971. He also received the Canadian Music Council Medal in 1975.

Pelletier's discography consists mainly of 78-rpm recordings of operatic excerpts; in these he conducts the orchestras accompanying such famous singers as Rose Bampton, Richard Crooks, Beniamino Gigli, Igor Gorin, Giovanni Martinelli, James Melton, Grace Moore, Jan Peerce, Bidú Sayão, Gladys Swarthout, Lawrence Tibbett, and Leonard Warren. In the early 1920s he also recorded piano reductions of works by Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, Offenbach, and Wolf-Ferrari on Ampico piano rolls. As part of a two-piano team with Arthur Loesser, under the direction of Arthur Bodanzky, he made a second series of recordings of a similar nature, for the most part consisting of overtures by Mendelssohn, Rossini, Wagner, and Weber. These recordings are listed in Roll Back the Years. In the 1940s Wilfrid Pelletier conducted a series of 78-rpm albums devoted to abridged versions of popular operas such as Aida, La Bohème, Carmen, Faust, I Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, Tannhäuser, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra. These recordings were made by singers from the Metropolitan Opera, including the Canadians Raoul Jobin and Joan Peebles, at the request of the National Committee for Music Appreciation in New York and released on the World's Greatest Operas label. Many were later reissued on LP on the Camden and then the Parade labels. Complete details concerning these recordings, as well as ones made with Tibbett, Moore, Jobin, and others, including session dates and various reissues can be found in F.P. Fellers' The Metropolitan Opera on Record (Westport, Conn 1984). One of Pelletier's rare compositions, 'In the Dark, in the Dew,' 'sung by Mme Marie [ie, Maria] Jeritza,' was published by Boston Music in 1923.

As an opera conductor Pelletier was highly esteemed for his profound understanding of the French and Italian repertoire; as a symphony conductor he was perhaps more controversial. He was, nevertheless, the dominant figure in the establishment of a structured musical life in Quebec. Through his determination, his powers of persuasion, and his faith in young musicians and in the future of music in Canada, he succeeded in removing obstacles, overcoming prejudices, and co-ordinating the various musical activities of Quebec in such a way that they have been able to survive numerous set-backs and serious crises.

Pelletier's first marriage ended in divorce. In 1925 he married again, to the US singer Queena Mario, from whom he was later divorced. In 1937 he married the dramatic soprano Rose Bampton (b Lakewood, Ohio 28 November 1907, d Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 21 August 2007). Two sons, Camille and François, were born of his first marriage. He retired in the early 1970s in New York City. In 1972 he published a volume of memoirs, Une symphonie inachevée... He also wrote articles for magazines, including Vie musicale, of whose board he was the head 1965-7. His personal papers were deposited in the ANQ in Montreal in 1973; the collection was subsequently transferred to the BN du Q. In about 1958 his name was given to a boulevard in Ville d'Anjou (Montreal), where a primary school also bears his name. In addition, the music school of the Sisters of Ste-Anne in Montreal was named after him in 1965. In 1984, a bronze bust, sculpted by Arto Tchakmaktchian, was placed in the foyer of the large hall of the PDA named after Pelletier.

Despite the fact that he had not conducted for a number of years, Wilfrid Pelletier made an exceptional appearance 30 Aug 1978, when he conducted one number during a concert in his honour held in the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal. Pelletier, who was then over 80, was assisted to the podium, where he was to conduct 'Va pensiero' from Verdi's Nabucco. Roger Lemelin described the event in La Presse 1 Sep 1978: 'At first his trembling baton seemed unsure of the beat, but all at once the rhythm of the music seemed to take over. Visibly moved, the great conductor straightened his back, turned to face the audience, and led them in singing the glorious music.'

Wilfrid Pelletier was interred in Wayne, near Philadelphia.

The Wilfrid Pelletier Foundation, established in 1983, awards senior grants to holders of the premier prix of the Conservatoire de musique du Québec.


'La développement de la musique dans le Québec,' CMCouncil Conference report (Ottawa 1966)

Une symphonie inachevée... (Montreal 1972)

'Orchestras,' Music in Canada

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