BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 20 June 1896
DIED: New York, New York • 9 April 1982
Children’s piano competitions can be wearisome, when ten year olds struggle through obligatory Chopin waltzes. Wilfrid Pelletier, however, did not allow his attention to wander, and a fellow jury member was once astonished to see Pelletier with tears streaming down his cheeks as one boy played.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, emotion sweeping through him at the great sounds produced by small hands. He understood that the future of music rested in developing the skills of the young, and his life was devoted to that end.Pelletier obviously remembered his own begin¬ nings in music.
His father, a baker, conducted an amateur band, and family members played all instruments, conducted, and taught each other. Pelletier was the percussionist at first, but he eventu¬ ally graduated to the piano. At the age of fourteen, he decided, after seeing his first opera, that he had found his medium.
In 1915, with the Great War under way, Pelletier won the Quebec government’s Prix d’Europe that let him go to Paris to study.The fighting in the trenches, the sound of the guns echoing on the Champs Elysee, made living difficult for the young student, but he nonetheless learned at the feet of great teachers.
In 1917 he returned to North America, hired by the Montreal Opera Company as assistant conductor and then in the same role by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This was a supreme opportunity to work with the likes of Caruso and Toscanini, and Pelletier began to build a reputa¬ tion.
He conducted widely throughout the United States, led the Met’s Sunday night concerts, and did radio work for NBC; there he established the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, which discovered many great talents. He retained his connection with the Metropolitan, where he was known to all as “Pelly,” until 1950.
In the midst of the Great Depression, against his better judgment (“You owe it to Quebec,” his father insisted), he allowed himself to be summoned to Montreal to organize Les Concerts symphoniques, the forerunner of the present Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
It did not take him—and the local musical public—long to become enthusiastic, and in the same year of 1935 he launched young peoples symphony concerts; the next year, he inaugurated the Montreal Festivals. In the midst of the despair of the economic down¬ turn, Pelletier had established his native city as a musical centre.
Parochial musical nationalists argued that local teachers could do the work, but Pelletier held his ground and faced them down. The flowering of Canadian music was the result.He remained at the head of the conservatory until 1961 and acted as director of the province’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs until 1970.
What was needed now, he realized, were good local instrumentalists and singers.In 1942 he seized the opportunity to meet this need when the provincial government asked him to establish a provincial Conservatoire de la musique et d’art dramatique. The inten¬ tion, in Pelletier’s mind, was to bring in the best teachers in the world to train a new generation of Quebec and Canadian artists without tuition costs.
During the same period, he led the Quebec Symphony, conducted the Canadian premiere of a number of operas, made large-scale television productions, and shared the podium with conductor Zubin Mehta at the inaugural concert in Montreal’s Place des Arts in 1963, an event that put the seal on Montreal’s standing then as the country’s greatest city.
In 1966 the largest hall in the Place des Arts was named after him, and in 1968, to his great pleasure, he became national president of Jeunesses musicales du Canada, the continuing foundation for Canada’s superb youth orchestras.Pelletier’s standing in the world of Canadian and interna¬ tional opera was notable.
But his major contribution to his homeland was in greatly enhancing musical life in Quebec and Canada. His insistence on high standards, his interest in and concern for the training ofyoung musicians, and his coordinating efforts as an administrator were outstanding.
In September 1978, to great ovation, the aged Pelletier appeared at a concert in his honour in Montreal and conducted a piece from Verdi’s Nabucco. Initially hesitant as he was, as La Presse reported, “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.”