This Hallowed Hall

Almost every music lover in the Toronto area—and many beyond—has a favourite Massey Hall memory, whether it’s sitting in the front row looking up at Gordon Lightfoot singing the songs of their youth, or watching Solomon Burke fill the stage with singing, dancing, weeping audience members, or swearing they feel the walls vibrate along with their heart and bones as Aretha Franklin blasts “Ain’t No Way.” For some of us, it might even be the memory of singing “Land of the Silver Birch” onstage in a mass Toronto school choir for May Festival. Lightfoot himself first set foot on the stage of Massey Hall when he was 12 years old, when he won the Kiwanis Boys’ Voices competition.

Massey Hall occupies a unique place in Canadian culture. The stately Victorian edifice was the first—and, for three decades, the only—building in the country designed specifi cally for musical performances. For 123 years it has stood as a tower of culture amid the massive commercial development of downtown Toronto, just off the main thoroughfare of Yonge Street but seemingly miles away from its busy cacophony. Massey Hall was named a heritage site by the city in 1973 and a national historic site in 1981. Over its history it has hosted virtually every major musical artist of virtually every musical stripe, as well as actors, chess players, suff ragettes, preachers, politicians and prizefighters. And it has always maintained its position as the ultimate venue for generations of musicians.

In 1892, Massey bought a parcel of land at the southwest corner of Shuter and Victoria Streets and enlisted Cleveland based Canadian architect Sidney R. Badgley to design the Hall; it was built over the next two years for $150,000 under the supervision of local architect George M. Miller, whose other projects included the Gladstone Hotel and the Massey-Harris factory on King Street West. Massey’s daughter Lillian was instrumental in the decision to design the exterior in the simple neoclassical style, in contrast to the Moorish-revival flourishes inside.

The cornerstone was laid in 1893 by Massey’s grandson Vincent, who later became the first Canadian-born governor general, and the Hall opened in June 1894, with a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The Massey Music Hall, as it was called until 1933, featured stained-glass windows, private boxes and tiered onstage seating; its capacity, currently 2,753, was originally 3,500, but it’s always felt like an intimate venue. Perhaps most important, the hall possessed remarkable acoustics; it was said that a word whispered onstage could be heard at the back of the balcony. The opening of Massey Hallencouraged the blossoming of musical life in Toronto.

In 1895, it hosted the debut performance by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and in 1906 it began presenting concerts by the first version of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; from 1923 until 1982 it served as the TSO’s permanent home. During the first few decades the Hall featured the world’s biggest musical stars, including opera singers Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso (who performed on the exterior fire escape for the overflow crowd), as well as speeches by future British prime minister Winston Churchill, Canadian feminist Nellie McClung, African-American educator Booker T. Washington and suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, readings by German novelist Thomas Mann and British Empire chronicler Rudyard Kipling, and performances by British Shakespearean actor Ellen Terry and Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Renowned Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff performed at Massey Hall no fewer than 10 times, the first in 1899.

In 1931, the brilliant Toronto musician and composer Sir Ernest MacMillan took over as conductor of the TSO, and helped bring both orchestra and hall into the modern era. MacMillan, who had first performed at Massey Hall as a 10-year-old child prodigy, managed to attract renowned guest conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham and Igor Stravinsky to the hall, and introduced conservative Toronto audiences to 20th-century composers including Edward Elgar, Jean Sibelius, George Gershwin and Gustav Holst.

But the Hall’s limitations were becoming increasingly problematic, especially the lack of backstage infrastructure like dressing rooms—especially problematic for the TSO and other large ensembles, who were relegated to the basement before a show. “To get my bass fiddle onto the stage,” one TSO member later told Massey Hall historian William Kilbourn, “I have to take it up three flights of stairs and through four doors.” “We live in a dungeon,” another TSO musician said. In 1917 the adjacent Albert Building had been connected to the main structure to help remedy the situation, but a more major renovation was needed, and in 1933 Toronto architects Mathers and Haldenby were hired to do an overhaul. The improvements included removing seating to create a new Art Deco lobby and entrance area and replacing wooden stairs with stone and steel. And, no doubt to the horror of Hart Massey’s ghost, a bar was installed on the third level.

Meanwhile, the Hall continued to host important musical events.

In 1946, two Canadian icons—Glenn Gould and Oscar Peterson—made their Massey Hall debuts within weeks of each other. But the most famous concert of all was Jazz at Massey Hall in 1953, the one and only time that jazz titans Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell performed together. In the ’60s, the hall featured different musical stars, from Bob Dylan with The Band to Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and the debut of Gordon Lightfoot, who holds the record for the greatest number of performances at Massey by an individual artist (as opposed to an ever-evolving institution like the TSO or the Mendelssohn Choir).

In the ’60s, with the Hall once again in need of repairs and upgrades, there was pressure to sell the land for redevelopment and build a replacement elsewhere. Massey Hall faced competition from new venues like the O’Keefe Centre (later known as the Hummingbird Centre, now the Sony Centre), which is still Canada’s largest soft-seat theatre. In 1972 it was announced that a new concert hall would be part of the massive Metro Hall development on King Street, and historians and activists worried at the prospect of Massey Hall being demolished. Eventually, the decision was made to allow Massey Hall to continue while the TSO moved to that new venue, Roy Thomson Hall, which opened in 1982. The orchestra’s absence by no means diminished the prestige of the original Hall, as the long and impressive list of Massey performers since then extends through the musical genres: U2, Harry Belafonte, Keith Richards, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, the Red Army Chorus, Miles Davis, Céline Dion, Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Tragically Hip, Leonard Cohen, Miriam Makeba, Japan’s Kodo drummers, Stompin’ Tom Connors and literally hundreds more—even Justin Bieber.

In the past couple of years, the Live at Massey Hall series has also given newer Canadian musicians like Hidden Cameras, Shad, Tanya Tagaq and Owen Pallett the opportunity to play on the hallowed stage. Now, as it embarks on its biggest refurbishment yet, Massey Hall remains the pinnacle of success for musicians, the favourite venue of both audiences and performers and the most beloved musical institution in Canada.