Kenneth Gilbert | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Kenneth Gilbert

Kenneth Gilbert, OC, RSC,  harpsichordist, organist, musicologist, teacher (born 16 December 1931 in Montreal, QC; died 15 April 2020 in Quebec City, QC). Hon D MUS (McGill) 1981. 

Kenneth Gilbert studied with Conrad Letendre (organ) and, at the CMM, with Yvonne Hubert (piano) and Gabriel Cusson (harmony and counterpoint). Gilbert won the 1953 Prix d'Europe for organ and studied for two years in Europe with Nadia Boulanger (composition), Gaston Litaize and Maurice Duruflé (organ), and Sylvie Spicket and Ruggero Gerlin (harpsichord). Though he was on leave 1953-5 for these studies, he remained officially the organist and music director 1952-67 at Queen Mary Rd United Church, Montreal. In 1955 he gave a recital of Canadian organ music for the RTF (Radio France). Back in Canada he designed and in 1959 supervised the installation at Queen Mary Rd of the first major modern tracker organ in Canada. This instrument (built by R. von Beckerath of Hamburg) and Gilbert's performances on it strongly influenced subsequent organ building practice in Canada. The society Ars Organi, in the formation of which Gilbert played a leading role, also influenced organ performance standards in eastern Canada.

While in Paris (1965) on a Quebec government grant, doing research on Couperin in preparation for a CBC series (and subsequent RCI recording, released on Harmonia Mundi in France, RCA in England, Music Heritage in the USA, and other labels in Italy and Japan) of the composer's complete works for harpsichord, Gilbert suggested that a new edition would be appropriate to honour the Couperin tercentenary (1968). Heugel agreed to publish Gilbert's four volumes of the edition as part of its early-music series, Le Pupitre (1969-72). This edition excited much admiration for its scholarly approach, posited on a scrupulous re-examination of the original engraved scores. Following the international success of the Couperin edition, Gilbert began the monumental task of preparing a new edition (from existing editions) of the 555 sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. 11 volumes were published by Heugel (1971-84). The research was subsidized in part by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Canada Council. Gilbert also prepared a fasimile edition of the complete harpsichord works of Couperin (Broude 1973) and edited the complete harpsichord works of d'Anglebert (Heugel 1975). Moreover, he has prepared new editions of Bach's Goldberg Variations (Salabert 1979), Frescobaldi's first and second books of toccatas (Zanibon 1979, 1980) and Rameau's complete harpsichord works (Heugel 1979). In 1980, he began to prepare a re-issue of Couperin's complete works for L'Oiseau-Lyre (Monaco). With Élizabeth Gallat-Morin, he produced a annotated edition of the Livre d'orgue de Montréal published in three volumes at the Éditions Jacques Ostiguy (1985, 1987, 1988).

Reflecting his editorial interests, Gilbert's performance after 1965 has been devoted almost completely to harpsichord playing. In 1968, he gave his first recital in London and undertook an international career. He has become widely admired for his concerts, broadcasts, and recordings. Stephen Plaistow in Gramophone (May 1973) said: 'Kenneth Gilbert's achievement... is to rescue the music from a small circle of connoisseurs and to make it... universally enjoyable. He does so by harnessing the discipline of scholarship to his flair for performing the music... Not since Thurston Dart... has there been such a fruitful coincidence of the scholar's mind and the performer's fingers in this field'. He has been a soloist several times with the Chicago SO and has performed with the MSO, the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, the TSO, the NACO, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. In 1967, with Robert Koff in Montreal, he played all the Bach violin and harpsichord sonatas. A resident of France in the 1970s, he has given recitals there (and in Germany, England, and Switzerland) and a series of joint recitals with the violinist Robert Kohnen for Radio France.

Gilbert has taught 1957-74 at the CMM, 1964-72 at McGill University, 1969-76 at Laval University, and, as guest professor, 1971-4 at the Royal Flemish Cons in Antwerp. He has given master classes in several European cities in many universities in the USA including Berkeley, Michigan, Florida and Birmingham. In 1988, he began to teach at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. That year, he became professor of harpsichord at the Cons de Paris, the first Canadian to hold such a post. Each summer, he is a guest professor at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy. He was artist-in-residence 1969-70 at the University of Ottawa and also has taught summer courses at the Vleeshuis museum in Antwerp 1971-82 and in Haarlem, Holland (1973-). His pupils have included Hubert Bédard, Martha Brickman, Hélène Dugal, John Grew, Martha Hagen, Jos van Immerseel, Hwaeja Lee, Lucien Poirier, Réjean Poirier, Wayne Riddell, Scott Ross, and John Whitelaw. Gilbert was a judge in 1975 for the Concours international de clavecin, Paris, and in 1978 for the CBC Talent Festival, Ottawa. The Canadian Music Council named him Artist of the Year in 1978. He received the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée 1981. In 1986, he was named officer of the Order of Canada, and in 1988 was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. He is an honorary member of the RAM, and Officier de l'Ordre des arts et lettres de France.


  • Kenneth Gilbert, 'Les Livres de clavecin de François Couperin,' R de musicologie, 2, 1972
  • 'Le clavecin français et la registration,' L'Interprétation de la musique francaise au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris 1974)
  • 'Le Livre d'orgue de Montréal : un premier regard sur la musique,' L'Orgue à notre époque, Donald Mackey ed (Montreal 1982)

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