Vancouver audiences were treated to a pair of recent events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007): first, a lecture/concert organized by the composer’s daughter Claudia at the University of British Columbia; and second, a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performance of Morawetz’s late orchestral piece The Railway Station. Morawetz’s story is both edifying and instructive. It is edifying in that he is now acknowledged as one of this country’s finest composers in spite of considerable adversity earlier on.  It is instructive in the sense that his reputation in Canada during his lifetime did not always reflect the status he deserved, even though his music was celebrated abroad by artists of the first rank, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Seiji Ozawa. In fact, he even received a commission from the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Morawetz was honoured with the Order of Ontario (1987) and the Order of Canada (1989), subsequently receiving two Juno Awards for ‘Best Classical Composition’.  He leaves a distinguished recorded legacy.

As Claudia Morawetz explained in her affectionate, well-prepared talk, the young composer was born to a prosperous Czech family in Světlá nad Sázavou on 17 January 1917. His childhood bore the obvious marks of a certain degree of privilege. Although he was expected to take up the reins of the family business, his exceptional musical gifts trumped that career choice. Morawetz studied piano, displayed a preternatural flair for score reading, and came to the attention of important musicians. George Szell recommended him for the assistant conductor’s post with the Prague Opera, but study in Vienna beckoned. It was quite the wrong moment. After the Anschluss in spring 1938, Vienna was no place for a gifted music student of Jewish heritage; the shameful Munich Agreement signed a few months later showed all too clearly what was in store.

Morawetz’s family made their way to Canada, at a time when our country did not exactly welcome European refugees with open arms. After months of anxiety, Morawetz joined them. He spent the early 1940s in formal study at the (then) very staid University of Toronto, where he ultimately completed a doctoral degree. Despite his training, I would argue that he was essentially self-taught in matters of style and substance. His capacity for score reading and his astonishing familiarity with the canonic repertoire, from Bach to Wagner and beyond, gave him his scope and enviable standards of musicianship. 

He was regarded as a fine pianist from his early days and did preserve a link with his Czech compatriots.  In September 1942, The Fort Williams Daily Times reported that ‘music lovers …last night heard a sonata never before played on the continent of America. It was Sonata Eroica Op. 24, by the Czech composer, V. Novak, played by the promising young Czech pianist, Oscar Morawetz’.  He also maintained a long-standing friendship with the legendary pianist Rudolf Firkusny, and his works were performed by conductor Rafael Kubelik.

Morawetz started his teaching career at the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1946, later joining the faculty of his alma mater in 1952, where he stayed until his retirement in 1982. At this point, the so-called ‘Toronto School’ was quite the thing in Canadian music, featuring composers who explored various Modernist styles and who formed the center of English Canada’s small musical infrastructure. Yet, with his emphasis on craft and ‘old school’ musical values, Morawetz didn’t fit in. His own style was established fairly early, and while he developed and grew, there were few new and revolutionary changes in his outlook.  His attitude to composition was thus almost the complete opposite of the nimble bandwagon-jumpers of Canadian music who embraced every “progressive” idiom from the 1950s to the 70s. Anton Webern was a particularly potent influence at that time, followed later by minimalist and postmodern fashions.  But Morawetz stubbornly kept to his own path.

And what a path it proved to be: songs, piano works, chamber music (running to six string quartets and extensive duo sonatas), and orchestral music were all part of a select but sustained harvest of work, produced officially off the side of his desk as he logged decades of university teaching. Composition is what fundamentally drove him, yet the reality is that he became marginalized to a degree at the university and he accrued little power and influence on the wider (though Canada being Canada, still limited) network of prominent composers.

In person, the composer was as witty as he was erudite. By the time I knew him in the mid-70s and early 80s he took a wry, somewhat detached view of the politics of music in his adopted country. On being pressured to provide a (no doubt free) piece celebrating the munificence of the CBC; he declined, saying that J.S. Bach had already done so, and quoted the opening notes—C, B, C—of the C minor fugue in Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Once, during a discussion of harp technique, he uncharacteristically recommended I study the new harp concerto of a Toronto composer which both he and I felt was substandard. “Why, Dr. Morawetz, would I want to look at THAT?” He replied, “Oh, Mr. Duke,” (it was always Mr. Duke though he was nearing retirement age and I was in my 20s), “it shows everything possible that the harp can do and you won’t be even slightly influenced by the actual music.”

There are many, many more tales to be told, but while they define a charming companion and a brilliant teacher, they hardly reflect his full artistic accomplishment.  To represent the diversity of his output and to subliminally illustrate the consistency of his work, the UBC concert started with a major piano work, the Fantasy (1948) which was launched in an early but deeply flawed recording by none other than Glenn Gould (who characteristically ignored Morawetz’s meticulously edited score in favour of his own notions).There were songs with texts by Blake, and a set of duos in the gebrauschmusik mode for flute and bassoon. The musical anchor of this programme was Morawetz’s Fifth String Quartet (1990), which derives from quotations from Mozart’s Requiem, a sombre but striking work, finely crafted and deeply felt.

Many of Morawetz’s finest works explore the darker side of twentieth century life. He wrote for soloists and orchestra on a number of occasions: his Memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King (1968) and From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970), with solo cello and mezzo-soprano, perfectly demonstrate his social and political conscience as well as his prowess in creating particularly moving compositions for soloists with orchestra. Both works have had extensive performance histories in large part because contemporary audiences recognize the vision and sincerity of the music and the man.

The VSO decided to feature a smaller work, The Railway Station (1979) as a centennial tribute. The title refers to a lyric by the nineteenth century poet Archibald Lampman. The Railway Station was commissioned for the National Youth Orchestra, and was first performed by the VSO under the baton of Kazuyoshi Akiyama in 1981. Lampman’s poem is about inner, unknown lives (“What sweet or passionate dreams and dark distresses/What unknown thoughts, what various agonies.”) It’s easy to see how its message appealed, and the piece proved vintage Morawetz: dark, rich orchestral textures in a sort of Canadian Expressionist vein.

Certainly this work and several pieces on the UBC program reaffirmed the stature and quality of Morawetz’s compositions. Yet both events still brought up a perplexing question: Why, in the regular course of events, do we not hear even more from this Canadian master?

© David Gordon Duke 2017


  • Carnival Overture

PSCD-2027-5 (CD, 2002). Kazuhiro Koizumi, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

  • Tribute to W.A. Mozart (String Quartet No. 5)

CMC-8702 (CD, 2002). Orford String Quartet.

  • Overture to a Fairy Tale

PSCD-2027-5 (CD, 2002). Ovation vol. 2. Uri Mayer, Edmonton Symphony.

  • From the Diary of Anne Frank

SMCD-5191 (CD 2001). Judith Forst, mezzo; Mario Bernardi, CBC Vancouver Orchestra.

  • Memorial to Martin Luther King

SMCD-5105 (CD, 1991). Shauna Rolston, cello; Uri Mayer, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

  • Fantasy in D minor

Sony Classical-SMK 52 677 (CD, 1992). Glenn Gould, piano.

  • The Railway Station

CMC-8702 (CD, 2002). John Lubbock. National Youth Orchestra