Your cart is empty.

In Search of Alberto Guerrero

Edited by John Beckwith
Subjects Biography & Autobiography, Music, History, Canadian History
Hide Details
Paperback : 9781554584420, 180 pages, April 2015
Hardcover : 9780889204966, 180 pages, April 2011


Excerpt from Chapter 4, In Search of Alberto Guerrero by John Beckwith

“A Great Piano Town”: The Five Piano Ensemble

The Swiss-born pianist and teacher Pierre Souvairan, a leading figure in the Toronto musical scene starting in the mid-1950s, used to say that the city as he found it when he arrived was a “great piano town. “ Before, during, and after World War II, Toronto offered a notable roster of senior piano instructors. At the Toronto Conservatory of Music, along with Guerrero, were Margaret Miller Brown, B. Hayunga Carman, Reginald Godden, Viggo Kihl, Weldon Kilburn, Lubka Kolessa, Ernest Seitz, and Paul Wells--Mona Bates ran a highly successful independent studio. All had distinguished credentials and produced outstanding pupils; several (particularly Godden, Kolessa, and Seitz) were, like Guerrero, active on the concert stage and in broadcasting. Pianists outnumbered other instrumentalists several times over in conservatory enrolments, and the city's reputation as a centre of piano manufacture, while starting to decline in favour of the radio and the phonograph, was still formidable (Heintzman and Mason & Risch, the two major firms, lasted into the early 1950s). The leading international piano soloists all included Toronto in their tour itineraries (Vladimir Horowitz made virtually annual appearances in Massey Hall during my student years, for example).

A curious phenomenon was the popularity of multiple piano concerts. Piano duo teams were of course common, not just in Toronto, with their arrangements from all areas of music literature. But how many cities in that era managed to cultivate both a five-piano ensemble and a ten-piano ensemble? Guerrero's long-time association with the former, in a period when he was also mounting intimate performances of off-beat solo repertoire, is a striking parallel to his emphasis on zarzuela composition simultaneously with his groundbreaking new-music efforts in Chile years before: producing music for wide popular appeal and for connoisseurs did not represent an either-or choice for him; both were desirable and important.

The Five Piano Ensemble made its inaugural appearance in 1926, and lasted until at least 1940. The Ten Piano group came into existence in 1931 under Mona Bates's direction, seemingly as a rival effort. Both teams had strong support from Toronto piano dealers, the former from Heintzman and Company and the latter from the T. Eaton Company, local representatives of Steinway and Sons. The appearance of a large assemblage of grand pianos on stage was arresting, the locales were huge (Massey Hall, Varsity Arena, and even the city's largest sports venue, Maple Leaf Gardens), and the repertoire of the Five Piano group featured spectacular arrangements of popular piano favorites such as Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat, and of orchestral standbys such as Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz and Chabrier's España: it was all well calculated to help sell instruments. A lengthy magazine article describes one of the first concerts and includes a striking photo of the group.

This event took place at Massey Hall on 27 April 1927. The performers were Nora Drewett de Kresz, Reginald Stewart, Viggo Kihl, Ernest Seitz, and Guerrero; Ernest MacMillan conducted. As became standard programming procedure, a series of arrangements was interspersed with solos by individual members. In this all-Chopin program, the arrangements included the two most popular Polonaises--in A-flat, Opus 53, and in A (“Military”), Opus 40, no. 1--and Guerrero's solos were the Impromptu in F-sharp, no. 2, Opus 36, and the “Black Key” Etude in G-flat, Opus 10, no. 5. For a concert in the same hall on 2 November 1927, the arrangements (should one rather call them projections?) were again all of piano originals, the only quasi-exception being Paganini's La chasse (originally arranged--for one piano only--by Liszt); solo offerings included Rachmaninov's Prelude in g, Debussy's Minstrels, Chopin's Waltz in e, op. posth. , and A Mountain Brook by the then-novel composer Cyril Scott. For Schumann's Carnaval, a reviewer noted,”[the five pianists] opened in unison, and also gave the closing march in majestic unison, and took turns in playing the other short sketches. “ Later concerts were not conducted.

At Varsity Arena on 22 October 1928, Scott Malcolm and Reginald Godden replaced Kihl and Drewett, and the program included La campanella (Paganini-Liszt) and the Chabrier. At Massey Hall on 23 November the same year, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 15 and the ballet music from Rosamunde by Schubert were the featured group numbers. After their 15 March 1929 concert, which included Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, and Strauss's Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, a reviewer stated that the ensemble “has now become an institution in Toronto, and a popular one judging by the enthusiasm of the large crowds which attend its concerts. “ After the group's concert of 22 November the same year, the Conservatory Quarterly Review noted that “the Five Piano Ensemble . . . has evidently come to stay,” and quoted a Globe review of the event: “Repetitions, recalls and encores were past counting. The. . . synchronizing was extraordinary throughout. “

In Eaton Auditorium on 5 May 1932, four members of the ensemble (Guerrero, Nora Drewett, Scott Malcolm, and Viggo Kihl) joined a small string orchestra in a performance of the Vivaldi-Bach Concerto in a for four keyboards and strings; the conductor was Géza de Kresz.

The same four, joined by Godden, appeared in Maple Leaf Gardens, on 27 November 1935, with a larger component of transcriptions in their program: the Beautiful Blue Danube again, Tchaikovsky's “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, two Liszt pieces, and a five-keyboard version of Cyril Scott's arrangement of the Invention in F Major by J. S. Bach. As composed by Bach, this glittering little piece lasts about thirty seconds in performance; one imagines it on this occasion as the inflation of an inflation. (Less than a week previously, Guerrero had played the complete cycle of Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias in a recital at Malloney's. Somehow he managed to compartmentalize his opposing roles as Bach purist and multi-piano team member. )

The ensemble had given another concert in the Gardens on 24 April the same year, and in 1936 they were again heard twice, in Varsity Arena, the dates being 5 May and 9 November. On 5 May and 8 September 1938 they appeared at Varsity Arena, both times with the Toronto Philharmonic, the orchestra of the summer Promenade Concerts. The conductor, Reginald Stewart, was a member of the ensemble. On 5 May he led a performance of the Vivaldi-Bach Concerto in a, with his colleagues Godden, Malcolm, Seitz, and Guerrero, and then joined them in a group without orchestra (the Bach-Scott Invention in F, Liszt's arrangement of Schubert's “Hark, Hark, the Lark,” and Stravinsky's “Danse infernale”). At the 8 September concert, the Ensemble replaced an indisposed guest soloist on two days' notice, and offered two pianos-only groups, highlighted by the Mendelssohn Scherzo and Weber's Invitation to the Dance. A further concert in Massey Hall took place on 24 November 1939. For an engagement in London, Ontario, on 14 February 1940, the ensemble members were again Godden, Guerrero, Malcolm, Seitz, and Stewart, and the program included arrangements of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d, the “Polovtzian dances” from Prince Igor by Borodin, and Debussy's orchestral Nocturne no. 2 (Fêtes). This is the latest date for which I have located documentation.

Guerrero was the one constant member of the ensemble throughout its approximately thirteen-year existence, which may indicate that he played a leadership or organizational role. The scores of the ensemble's arrangements have not so far come to light, if in fact they were ever notated. Intriguing questions remain: who was the arranger? Was the repertoire selected and arranged by some mutual process, or did Guerrero or one of the others make assignments? And was MacMillan involved at the start in arranging for the ensemble as well as conducting it? The ensemble and its brief popularity amount to an underexplored episode in the music annals of Toronto, in which Alberto Guerrero was closely involved.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
In Search of Alberto Guerrero by John Beckwith

List of Illustrations



Chapter 1: Chile / Canada — Beginnings in La Serena — Young Pianist, Young Composer — A Composer for the Stage — Two Composer-Associates — Writings

Chapter 2: A Wedding, a Tour — New York and Back: A Farewell — Why?

Chapter 3: Toronto: The Hambourgs — El cónsul — Personal Crises — Toronto: The Late 1920s and Early ‘30s — The TCM — Performances

Chapter 4: The Andison Concerts; Malloney’s — Friendships — “A Great Piano Town”: The Five Piano Ensemble — The 1940s

Chapter 5: Lessons — Changes — Glenn Gould — A Letter — The Final Public Recital

Chapter 6: The 1950s — A Funeral — “Boswell” — Legacy

Appendix 1: Alberto Guerrero, “The Discrepancy between Performance and Technique”

Appendix 2: Boyd Neel, “Alberto Guerrero”

Appendix 3: Reunion: Participants

Appendix 4: Excerpts from the Prgoram Note for the Symposium “Remembering Alberto Guerrero,” Toronto, 25 October 1990 (by John Beckwith)





In Search of Alberto Guerrero is the first full biography of the influential Chilean-Canadian pianist and teacher (1886-1959), describing Guerrero’s long career as virtuoso recitalist, chamber music collaborator, concerto soloist, and teacher. Written by composer John Beckwith, who was a student of Guerrero, the book blends research and memoir to piece together the life of a man who once insisted he had no story.

Guerrero was part of the intellectual scene that introduced Chileans to Debussy, Ravel, Cyril Scott, Scriabin, and Schoenberg. He and his brother played an active role in founding the Sociedad Bach in Santiago. In 1918 Guerrero moved to Toronto, making the Hambourg Conservatory, and later the Toronto (now Royal) Conservatory, his new base. He soon became one of Canada’s most active pianists. In what was then a novel activity, he played regular radio recitals from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s. He was also deeply engaged with issues in piano pedagogy, and worked with young talents including Canada’s much-acclaimed Glenn Gould. But unlike the shadowy role Guerrero is assigned in Gould biographies, here he is given proper credit for his technical and aesthetic influence on the young Gould and on other notable musicians and composers.

Guerrero left few written records, and documentation of his work by others is incomplete and often erroneous. Aiming for a fuller and more accurate account of this remarkably influential and well-loved man, Beckwith’s In Search of Alberto Guerrero gives an insider’s story of the Canadian classical music scene in mid-twentieth-century Toronto, and pays homage to the influential musician William Aide has called an “unsung progenitor. ”


  • One of the 100 Best Books of 2011 cited by New Zealand Listener


``John Beckwith's recent book on the pianist Alberto Guerrero is a compelling narrative about a fascinating figure on the Canadian, especially Toronto, musical scene for more than forty years of the last century (1918-1959). In Search of Alberto Guerrero also confirms Beckwith's own reputation as one of the most widely respected researchers on Canadian music history today. It it not just Beckwith's impeccable scholarship that makes his work distinctive, but as Beverley Diamond has written, Beckwith's `insistence that we look carefully at social realities' as a means of understanding culture is also a pervasive aspect of his work, one that facilitates interpreting music in broad contexts, and one that engages reflexive modes of thinking and writing about music. (Diamond 1995, 273). A decided strength of Beckwith's book is that he presents multiple narratives, weaving into the Guerrero story historical and contemporary perspectives, local voices, and importantly, his own voice, as a former piano student of Guerrero. ''

- Gordon E. Smith, Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music, 26/1, 2005

``[A] 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 . .. to early and later comments on how he played . .. to Beckwith's own lucid observatons of how he taught, there are pertinent insights into the kind of artist, teacher and person Guerrero was. ... 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. ''

- Ken Winters, Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 14, No. 7, September 2006

``We come away with a new awareness of Guerrero's unique and important role in the development of music in Canada and understand why it deserves recognition. ... It is testimony to Beckwith's labours that he has illuminated the life and work of this hidden man to the extent that he has. In this elegantly produced book we have ample evidence to support William Aide's claim that Guerrero `cultivated a whole generation of musicians,' and was `the unsung progenitor of our nation's musical culture. '''

- John Mayo, Institute for Canadian Music Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, September 2006

``Beckwith paints a compelling portrait of a vital and remarkable musician. The book is highly readable and filled with details of interest. It re-establishes Guerrero's reputation as one of the country's finest and most influential artists of his day. In Search of Alberto Guerrero is an outstanding addition to Canadian music history. ''

- David Rogosin, CAML Review (Canadian Association of Music Libraries), Vol. 34, No. 3, November 2006

``Beckwith sets out what he knows of the Guerrero story very well, and the part of the book that is his `personal memoir,' as he calls it, will remain permanently valid whatever new facts emerge. ''

- Peter Williams, The Musical Times, Winter 2006

``In this magnificent book John Beckwith uncovers the story of the great pianist and pedagogue Alberto Guerrero. He stresses the important and too often forgotten influence Guerrero had on such prominent Toronto musicians as Gerald Moore, Oscar Morawetz, Helmut Blume, R. Murray Schafer, and Bruce Mather. Beckwith's account spotlights the importance of Guerrero's artistic and personal contribution to music in Toronto and Canada. ''

- Marie-Therese Lefebvre, Universite de Montreal, author of Rodolphe Mathieu:L'emergence du statut professionnel de compositeur au Quebec,18910-1962 (2005)

``Beckwith has produced a thoroughly engrossing biography of this brilliant pianist and important teacher . .. Beckwith's knowledge of music in this country as a historian, composer, critic, professor emeritus and former dean of the Faculty of Music at U of T is unmatched. Here he has produced a fascinating, well-documented portrait of Guerrero, establishing his lasting place in Canadian music. ''

- Pamela Margles, WholeNote, September 2006

``The Canadian composer and pianist John Beckwith. ..exposes thoroughly and with investigative clarity the sources concerning Guerrero's career and achievement. ... Chileans seem to have forgotten the extent of [Guerrero'] musical contribution, his life, and his valuable legacy, as can also be observed of many of his contemporaries. ... [But] the important investigations which John Beckwith has dedicated to Guerrero's life story yield a detailed account covering his first thirty years in Chile and his later eminence as a brilliant teacher at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. ''

- Revista Musical Chilena, 2009

``[O]nly now, with the publication of John Beckwith's book, has the case for Guerrero finally been made in a truly comprehensive and compelling way. ... It is no longer possible to take Gould's dismissive (and self-serving) comments about Guerrero at face value. The book is well documented, though Beckwith admits that parts of Guerrero's story will probably always remain obscure. ... Questions linger: Why did Guerrero chose to leave Chile for good and resettle in Toronto? Why did he largely abandon composition in Toronto? In cases like these, Beckwith augments the sketchy documentary record with intelligent speculation. He acknowledges a certain `partial and tentative' quality to his portrait of Guerrero, but the reader is never in doubt that to the extent this is true the sources, not the author, are to blame. ... `If the story has two parts [Chile and Canada],' Beckwith writes, `my narration itself takes two tones--part objective research and part personal memoir. ' In Search of Alberto Guerrero is indeed an admirable synthesis of the scholarly and the subjective, in the service of rehabilitating the reputation of a notable musician who has been too long obscure. ''

- Kevin Bazzana, GlennGould website, March 2007

``As a social chronicle of the musical life of Toronto in the first half of the 20th century, [In Search of Alberto Guerrero] constitutes an invaluable document. ... Beckwith . .. has done a superb job of bringing this period of artistic awakening to iconographic life and of paying long-overdue tribute to one of its prime pianistic `movers and shakers,' resisting whatever nostalgia he must feel in raking up a past in which he himself shared so fully and lived to play so leading a role, both as composer, educator, and now as author. ''

- Malcolm Troup, Piano Journal

``In this engaging account, Beckwith tells the intriguing story of a man who once declared, `I have no story. '... Beckwith really did have to search for Guerrero, and did so with scrupulous documentation. ... The story of Beckwith's search adds another layer of richness to the story of Alberto Guerrero, a remarkable musician and a well-loved teacher. ''

- The Music Times, Vol. 1 #5, September-October 2007

```I have no story,' Guerrero once retorted when he was asked for biographical information for publicity purposes. Well, he does have a story, and a fascinating one at that. Thankfully, Beckwith has now told that tale, with exquisite passion and detail. ''

- Rick MacMillan, Opus, Winter 2006-07

``A fascinating account of an extraordinary and influential musical personality who left an indelible mark on Canadian musical life. ''

- Anton Kuerti, pianist