RIP Eli Kassner: Legendary Figure Elevated Classical Guitar in Canada and the World

(We were sad to hear of the passing a few days ago of Eli Kassner (1924-2018) who, more than just about anyone, helped establish the classical guitar in Canada. Heather Morand Clark, current president of the Guitar Society of Toronto, which was founded by Kassner in the mid-1950s, sent along this short remembrance.—BJ)

Eli Kassner, described by Leo Brouwer as a “patriarch of the classical guitar,” a teacher and mentor to many international artists and an inspiration to many more, passed away on Thursday August 24, 2018. He was 94 years old.

Born in Vienna in 1924, Eli arrived in Canada in 1951 as an orphan of the Holocaust, with little money and equally little English. Nevertheless, he found work, first in a music store (practicing his guitar in a corner in spare moments), and then as a guitar teacher.

By 1956, he had gathered enough guitar-loving friends to create the Guitar Society of Toronto, and bravely came up with the idea of asking the legendary Andrés Segovia to be its honorary president (Segovia accepted). Eli’s vision and powers of persuasion transformed Canada’s view of classical guitar from a novelty to a serious concert instrument.

He single-handedly convinced the University of Toronto to become the first Canadian university (and one of the first in North America) to offer a comprehensive course of study in classical guitar.  As a teacher and mentor, he shaped the international careers of so many outstanding Canadian and international performers and teachers, and inspired the some of the world’s leading composers to create music that enriches the guitar’s repertoire. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Eli and his beloved wife Ann brought the cream of the guitar world to Toronto in five international festivals, which became the model for guitar festivals around the world.


Eli and Ann were legendary hosts who loved nothing better than to throw a great party, with plenty of good food, wine and, of course, music. Virtually every guitarist who passed through Toronto enjoyed the hospitality of their home at 9 Gibson Avenue.

Eli’s legacy was nationally recognized in 2016, when he was named to the Order of Canada—his country’s highest civilian honor. His remarkable life story is detailed in his biography, Allegro Vivace Con Brio. 

The music scene in Canada and beyond, and the lives of many Canadians, have been made so much richer by Eli’s life and work.

(We’ll leave you with this performance of An Idea, written by Leo Brouwer and dedicated to Eli Kassner, performed by Iliana Matos)