When I read on CBC news today that my former colleague, Claude Gingras, died this morning at 87 years old, my hands shook.
You will certainly read more detailed biographies of Claude in other media, but I prefer to testify here about what I knew of him, for better or for worse.
We had known things had not been well for some time, because his cancer had returned. I was told that, with his usual stubbornness, he had refused to go to the hospital. “They will kill me,” he said.
Claude began working for La Presse in 1953 as a general journalist. He became the classical music critic shortly thereafter, and would soon become the most feared, and by some, the most hated. Either way, he was the most respected.
We know it: in his apartment at the Carré St-Louis, he had a huge collection of more than 100,000 records, some of which were such rarities he would have sold for nothing in the world, he said.
Throughout his long career, Claude has published hundreds of reviews. He covered everything: major orchestras, chamber music and sometimes the recitals by unknown ensembles and musicians that he helped launch. Some musicians, whom he followed from the beginning, owe him a lot. Not a week went by without his attending at least three concerts. Evenings, weekends, he never stopped.
He reluctantly retired from La Presse in 2015, signing his final article, a review of Elektra at the Opéra de Montréal.
That was following a two-year stint working part-time. He would be seen arriving on a Monday afternoon in the newsroom (where I had an office as an arts writer throughout 2014). He was preparing his column for the next day, his list of concerts for the week, and was still reviewing a concert or two a week. I must confess that I sometimes dreaded his visits, as he would plant himself in front of my desk, and could be ruthless with his commentary on my articles.
Over the years, Claude and I had a courteous relationship, which got a bit cloudy towards the end. For seven years, he was respectful, and his comments were regarding small details that mattered to him.
I will never forget the first time I saw him walk in the office; it must have been in 2009, when I was a freelancer for the Business section. Without a permanent position, I took up residence in a corner of the room where my presence was tolerated.
As I had a music degree, I was entrusted with a few classical music articles. I had an interview with Manon Feubel. A few days later, Claude arrived, with his newspaper folded under his arm, brandish me with the comment, “Aida doesn’t take umlauts on the i! When you put umlauts, it means that the opera is sung in French! ”
A few years later, he phoned me at home. He had liked my review of the OSM concert at the Olympic Park.
“It is as if we at the concert with you,” he said. I was very proud.
And so it was, for seven years, with ups and downs, Claude was my own critic. He had a lot of flaws, but he was the most rigorous journalist I have ever known. He did not let one thing go by. Not a typo, not one inconsistency. He would stand up during a press conference to address faults in a statement, shaming PR staff.
What I learned from him, or rather thanks to him, is to check everything, double-check and cross-check. Making a mistake in my articles became a phobia because I feared Claude’s reprimands. I must also admit: when I was unsure of a factual piece of information, I often went to “googling” Claude’s old articles, to check. I knew that if he had written something, it could be trusted.
In 2015, La Presse management told him it was time to leave. He retired to his house and we never saw him at a concert again. He was rediscovering television, which he had hardly ever watched during his 60-year career. He loved Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. She made him think of his mother.
I have had mixed feelings towards Claude during all these years, and although he made me cry once or twice, I respected him no less. Claude has sometimes told me terrible things that I can not repeat here. But I always told myself “he’s old, we should not blame him”.
Once, after his retirement, I met him on the street. He wore a big hat, and seemed to be in a good mood. He spoke to me as if we had never had the slightest disagreement, and it is this memory that I want to keep.
Regardless of anyone’s thoughts or words regarding him, he loved music and put himself at its service. He was the guardian of a certain tradition. It was his mission in life to demand from the musical world a high standard of quality, representing an endangered species, a brand of music critics that we will no longer see.
It is said that his collection of archives will become a kind of museum. I hope it’s true because Claude was not only the privileged witness of Montreal’s musical life for decades, but also, in his own way, he was a monument.
This article originally appeared in French on Ludwig van Montréal.