Hidden genius: a gifted Chilean pianist added pure gold to the Canadian music scene.
The definitive refutation of that witty and handy but deeply cynical and ultimately inaccurate aphorism "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" has come to us in John Beckwith's new book, In Search of Alberto Guerrero. In this articulate, scrupulous, loving portrait of one who could, and did, and taught, and all not just well but extraordinarily well, and who passed on his skills to a surprising number of notable disciples, Beckwith sets out to collate and confirm all that is known about Guerrero, the charismatic yet mysterious musician who spent the first 32 years of his life in Chile and the last 41 in Canada, with almost no cross-pollination between the two parts. Myths arose about Guerrero, both in Chile and in Canada, but documentation remained sparse and his largest footprints tended to vanish.
He appears to have been an important composer of operettas or zarzuelas in his native country, and their productions and successes are reported, but no scores have survived. His contemporaries among Chilean musicians have lauded his extraordinary trailblazing performances as a pianist and chamber musician, and have testified to his early powers as a guru from whom the leading Chilean composers of the day sought advice and direction. But no recordings of his performances of the new repertoire he introduced to his country (Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky) have come to light, nor any others either; and his published writings seem quite to have disappeared, along with his scores.
Guerrero moved to Canada in 1918, endorsed by the discerning Hambourg family, to teach in their conservatory (distinct from the Toronto Conservatory, which later became the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto) and to play in the Hambourg Trio with violinist Jan and cellist Boris. On the Tuesday of his arrival, Guerrero played in a Beethoven trio with them and on Wednesday he obliged with a solo recital of major pieces by Liszt, Chopin and Debussy. Thus he immediately "played himself into the hearts of a Toronto audience" and "at once left no doubt as to his being in the very front rank of virtuoso pianists."
Guerrero thus was enmeshed straightaway in a busy life of performing and teaching in Toronto, which did not abate in 1922 when he joined the Toronto Conservatory. Thoroughly and happily occupied by performing and teaching, he appears completely to have abandoned composition and, with it, almost all contact with his former life in Chile. Yet here, as there, he made no recordings. He also published virtually no writings (although a superb essay on "The Discrepancy between Performance and Technique" has been rescued by Beckwith from the Royal Conservatory's Monthly Bulletin of October 1950, and printed in full as Appendix One of this book); he seemed to erase his footprints in Canada as he made them. Asked for a brief biographical notice for publicity purposes near the end of his career in Canada, he responded laconically: "I have no story." This, in spite of lavish evidence to the contrary, but evidence that, in the seemingly deliberate absence of recordings and publications, can be found only in extant old printed programs and the documented careers of his better-known pupils.
Guerrero produced such stellar pianists as William Aide, Ray Dudley, Glenn Gould, Paul Helmer, Pierrette Lepage and Arthur Ozolins. He was also a principal guide and guru to a number of piano pupils destined instead to become primarily composers, including Beckwith himself, Bruce Mather, Oskar Morawetz and R. Murray Schafer.
Nor did those select few of his pupils (save Ozolins, who has limited himself to a career as a virtuoso pianist) stay within their pigeon holes. Gould, our most illustrious pianist and Schafer, our pre-eminent composer, became almost equally known as brilliant polemicists. Aide, at Mount Allison, Acadia, Manitoba, Western Ontario and Toronto universities, and Dudley at Indiana, Cincinnati and Southern California, became perpetuators of Guerrero's piano-teaching principles. Helmer became a fearless performer of new music (as Guerrero had championed Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg and Stravinsky), an extraordinary partner of noted singers and instrumentalists, and a questing musicologist. Lepage and her composer-pianist-husband Mather formed a two-piano team dedicated to the performance of vanguard music, and both, like their mentor, became exceptional teachers.
Beckwith himself and yet another distinguished Guerrero pupil, Helmut Blume, expanded their careers as musical polymaths to serve as deans of two foremost university music schools: Beckwith at Toronto, Blume at McGill. Two other Guerrero pupils--Stuart Hamilton and Gerald Moore--turned their keyboard skills to particular account as coach-partners of singers, some of great renown: Moore notably with Victoria de los Angeles, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Hamilton with several generations of Canadians including Lois Marshall and Maureen Forrester. Hamilton also founded and for many years directed Toronto's ground-breaking Opera in Concert, dedicated to acquainting Canadians with all those operas they never hear in staged productions.
The list goes on; and of all those aforementioned Guerrero pupils, only two failed to acknowledge their teacher as the musical influence that freed them into their richly productive futures: Gerald Moore, who in his autobiographical writings makes no mention of Guerrero, and Glenn Gould, who, like Oedipus, seemed fated to efface his (in this case, musical) father. Gould once told Stuart Hamilton that Guerrero had taught him nothing. To which Hamilton replied, "Don't be silly, Glenn. Watching you play is exactly like having a lesson with Guerrero!" (Beckwith quotes Hamilton a bit more soberly but this is how I remember him saying it.)
But as you read the book, you are constantly made aware that while there have been a number of great piano teachers in Canada (Yvonne Hubert in Montreal, Mona Bates in Toronto, Lubka Kolessa in Ottawa and Toronto, John Melnyk in Winnipeg, Lyell Gustin in Saskatoon, Kum-Sing Lee in Vancouver, to name only a handful), few of them have matched Guerrero's peculiar ability to use a piano lesson as a means of sending a pupil into the larger world of music, beyond specific piano techniques and piano literature, and of helping a pupil discover for himself or herself a musical destiny outside of piano playing.
Remarkably, Guerrero never divulged the sources of his own training. Some have said he had early lessons from his mother and his older brother, Daniel. But he allowed all his studies to go unremarked. Neither do we know, nor could Beckwith discover, who taught his mother and brother. Thus, this highly sophisticated and accomplished performer-teacher allowed us to assume he was self-taught--just what his most famous pupil Glenn Gould allowed us to assume about himself. Gould, of course, was too late in his attempts to obscure the evidence to the contrary, although Guerrero seemed willing to let him. Guerrero appears to have decided much earlier in his own career to cover many of his tracks.
Beckwith, for his part, in the introduction to his book, has no difficulty acknowledging his debt to Guerrero: "He was the most powerful influence in my musical education," he writes. (This from a musician who also studied with one of the world's most celebrated teachers, Nadia Boulanger.) And in chapter five, Lessons, in which Beckwith describes candidly his own time with Guerrero, he adds: "To say my lessons opened a whole new world would be understating the case."
Beckwith also makes clear from the outset the duality of his approach to his subject: "If the story has two parts" (the Chilean and the Canadian, with the curious, nearly inexplicable schism separating them), "my narration itself takes two tones--part objective research and part personal memoir. This is probably inevitable: I knew Guerrero personally, but only during his last years."
And the more his book has revealed about Guerrero, the more Beckwith has realized there remains much still to be learned. "[Guerrero's] motives in abandoning composition, in avoiding documentation of his major literary projects or recordings of his principal performances, above all in 'burning his bridges' by leaving Chile for faraway Canada, remain elusive ... While the various open questions about Guerrero's career may have formed the goal of my study, I realize I have attained definitive answers only in partial and tentative ways." What this modest if accurate disclaimer does not give is a fair idea of the book's fascinating picture of the unfurling of musical life in the Toronto of Guerrero's time (1918-1959) and of the deeply influential part this wise and graceful artist-teacher played in what came from him and after him.
In fact, like much distinguished biographical writing, Beckwith's readable, resonant and lovely book opens more doors than it closes. In everything from the welcome and specific details of the music Guerrero played (including a 1937 performance, under Stravinsky and much to the composer's liking, of the exacting piano part in Petrouchka) to early and later comments on how he played (e.g., a sober assessment of his Bach playing by a young Northrop Frye in Saturday Night: "the reading of the ornaments was careful and authoritative") to Beckwith's own lucid observations of how he taught, there are pertinent insights into the kind of artist, teacher and person Guerrero was. For instance, when Beckwith was learning the (15 two-part) Inventions and the (15 three-part) Sinfonias of Bach "we would probe questions of tempo, touch, and especially ornamentation. Soon Guerrero had me comparing editions and reading the literature on style and performing practice. When I played the cycle in public several times, he suggested I should learn the Goldberg Variations, and to do so under his guidance was truly inspiring. It made me recognize that the source of his insistence on attention to voice-leading in any music--a Chopin waltz, a Brahms Intermezzo, the inner textures of a Debussy Prelude--was Bach." Beckwith also gives us, almost as asides, Guerrero's ironic reactions to others' musical perceptions. When a society matron suggested that Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was "just like Gilbert and Sullivan!" Guerrero thought (Beckwith tells us) she was "missing the poignant touches that are the deep foil to the farce."
Beckwith reminds us that Guerrero is one of several Toronto musicians (Ernest MacMillan, Viggo Kihl, Healey Willan, and Boris and Borina Hambourg) who appear under fictitious names in Robertson Davies's last novel, The Cunning Man. Davies denied that his characters were based on actual people, but he gave himself away on the Guerrero character by saying in the novel "he played Scarlatti like an angel," "[a] turn of phrase," writes Beckwith, "[that] appeared in a review of Guerrero's concert in Peterborough, Ontario, in the late 1940s; the reviewer was Robertson Davies."
On page 113 of Beckwith's book there is what he calls "a characteristic and quite animated" portrait of Guerrero by the noted photographer John Steele. Guerrero, his instinct for self-effacement on high alert, rejected the photo, writes Beckwith, "saying it made him look 'like some French actor', and selected a more conventional pose." Steele, however, retained the reject and won a prize with it in a national exhibition the following year. It appears to great advantage here, the facial expression explaining with a kind of deep and humane amusement some of the reason why this uncommon man had so much to impart to some of our most productive and intelligent musicians, their audiences and their inheritors. The whole book is essential and illuminating reading for anyone who cares about these musicians and about this period of our musical history. The extremely useful index will help establish it as a vital research resource, although in the way of most indexes there are small glitches--for instance, I could find no reference to Robertson Davies on page 119, nor any to Northrop Frye on page 1, doubtless accidents of printing or proofing--but nothing to dim the acute pleasure of reading this significant and touching addition to our musical awareness.
Ken Winters has been a music critic since 1956. He was one of the founding triumvirate of editors of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.