A modest Leonard Cohen accepted the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize at a star-studded gala tribute in Toronto on Monday night, before promptly donating the cash to the Canada Council for the Arts.

"The truth is without the help and encouragement of the Canada Council, I would never have written The Favourite Game or The Spice Box of Earth," Cohen said, referencing early writing scholarships received from the council that helped him launch his career.

"I am profoundly grateful."

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Leonard Cohen acknowledges the audience after receiving the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize in Toronto on Monday night. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The 77-year-old poet and Canadian music icon hushed the crowd of friends, family and fans offering him a standing ovation at the Massey Hall gala. He also offered a bit of reassurance to the slate of musicians — including his singer-songwriter son, Adam — set to offer musical tributes.

"I'm going to make these remarks mercifully short because I want to hear the music … if there is any anxiety about performing in front of me, please let it dissolve completely. I go into bouts of child-like ecstasy … when I hear anyone cover my songs," he said.

Musicians who took the stage included Toronto's Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor, while spoken tributes came from the likes of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, actor Alan Rickman and author Michael Ondaatje.

Earlier Monday, the younger Cohen told CBC that though he had always admired his father, he hadn't "demonstrated his influence on me and celebrated him outwardly until late in my life."

Cohen's son says 'thank you for the music'

On Monday night, he offered a touching homage with his father's songs, performing Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye and leading a closing singalong of So Long, Marianne.

"I welled up when my father was speaking. I'm so honoured to be part of this honour," Adam Cohen said.

"Thank you for the music. Thank you dad."

Described by some as the Nobel Prize of the Arts, the award is presented biennially to "an individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts." The prize includes a corresponding $15,000 protégé honour, with the recipient chosen by the winner. Cohen selected the music education program Sistema Toronto as his co-winner.

The Montreal troubadour joins an esteemed list of previous Gould Prize laureates, including:

  • Jazz great Oscar Peterson.
  • Cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
  • Conductor and music educator Jose Antonio Abreu.
  • Composer R. Murray Schafer.