Oskar Morawetz | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Oskar Morawetz

Oskar Morawetz developed at an early age an ability to sight-read orchestral scores at the piano, and at 19 was recommended by George Szell for the assistant conductor's post with the Prague Opera, a post he turned down.

Morawetz, Oskar

Oskar Morawetz. Composer, teacher, pianist, b Svetla nad Sazavou, Czechoslovakia, 17 Jan 1917; naturalized Canadian 1946; d Toronto 13 Jun 2007; B MUS (Toronto) 1944, D MUS (Toronto) 1953, hon dip (RCM) 1998. Morawetz studied with Karel Hoffmeister (piano) and Jaroslav Kricka (theory) in Prague and Julius Isserlis (piano) in Vienna.

Oskar Morawetz developed at an early age an ability to sight-read orchestral scores at the piano, and at 19 was recommended by George Szell for the assistant conductor's post with the Prague Opera, a post he turned down. After the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, Morawetz applied for a Canadian visa, which was granted after several refusals. After brief periods of residence in Vienna and Paris, leaving each just ahead of Nazi invading forces, he fled Europe and arrived in June 1940 in Toronto, where he continued his studies with Alberto Guerrero (piano) and Leo Smith (harmony). As a composer, however, Morawetz was essentially self-taught.

Morawetz taught music theory and composition 1946-52 at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and from 1952 until his retirement in 1982 as professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. His pupils included Tomas Dusatko, Walter Kemp, Muriel Kilby, Larysa Kuzmenko, Edward Laufer, Bruce Mather and Srul Irving Glick. Teaching was a vocation; even after retiring he continued to teach for several years. Morawetz performed on the piano frequently after his arrival in Canada, but the number of his performances diminished as his composition career grew. He gave his last concert as a pianist 28 Mar 1992 in Toronto.


Oskar Morawetz did not set out to be a composer. At the end of his bachelor's degree, however, he was given the choice of writing a paper or a composition. He chose the latter and wrote the piece that earned him notice by winning the Canadian Performing Rights Society (CAPAC) award: the String Quartet No. 1 in 1945. He wrote his first orchestral work, Carnival Overture (1945), immediately after graduating; expecting nothing to come of it, he showed it to Sir Ernest MacMillan, who promptly programmed it in a concert in Montreal. Other honours followed: Morawetz's Sonata Tragica for piano won his second CAPAC award in 1946; his Piano Concerto was awarded first prize in a competition sponsored by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1962, and was premiered in 1963 under Zubin Mehta with Anton Kuerti as soloist; and his Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion, first performed under Mehta in 1966, won the Critics' Award at the 1966 International Competition for Contemporary Music at Cava dei Tirreni, Italy.

Morawetz's oeuvre extends over a wide range, although the core of his work was his orchestral compositions. The only major form he did not undertake during his career was opera, thinking any such work unlikely of getting further performances. Among his many commissioned compositions were the Second Symphony (1959), which was the first work commissioned for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts); Memorial for Martin Luther King (1968), originally written for the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich but premiered by Zara Nelsova and the Montreal Symphony in 1975); A Child's Garden of Verses and 'Psalm 22' (both for Maureen Forrester); Concerto for Brass Quintet and Chamber Orchestra (for the New York Brass Quintet); Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra (for the Guelph Spring Festival); and Five Fantasies for String Quartet and Tribute to W.A. Mozart (both for the Orford String Quartet). Morawetz continued composing after his retirement, completing solo works for almost every major orchestral instrument. He also completed a bassoon concerto in 1993 and two arrangements of Dvorak pieces, the Slavonic Dance No. 8 in E minor and the Humoresque in G-flat major, at the behest of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Morawetz also left a revision of the bassoon concerto and several fragments of unfinished works.

Morawetz was one of the most performed Canadian composers. His orchestral compositions have been programmed by over 120 orchestras in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia by such conductors as Ančerl, Boult, Conlon, Andrew Davis, Dutoit, Herbig, Kubelik, Mackerras, Masur, Mehta, Ozawa, Segal, Steinberg, Susskind, and all prominent Canadian conductors. In the 1989 CBC competition 17 of the 50 quarter-finalists chose compositions by Morawetz for their obligatory Canadian work, altogether a total of 12 different works. He commented later in an interview: 'This was one of the happiest weeks in my life: after all, the young and most gifted artists will decide whose music will be played when we are not around any more.'

Numerous recordings of Morawetz's pieces exist on such labels as Columbia, RCA Victor, EMI, Centrediscs and CBC. The CBC issued a seven-disc anthology of his music in 1984, and Centrediscs issued a double CD in 2002 containing representative pieces and a documentary on the composer.

Style - General

Morawetz was at once a clear thinker, mindful of form and technique, and an emotional, romantically oriented artist with great power of imagination. Glick described him as a "very direct man" who "doesn't take into account the subtlety of manipulation." In his creative process, a sound artistic instinct and skilfulness join forces in striking a balance between conveying specific expressive, even programmatic, contents and the shaping of design and proportions. Although a master of technique, he never indulged in technical display or novelty for its own sake. With Morawetz, technique served the expressive intent: it was a means of integrating all elements, including the emotional expression, in an always original, artistic whole. He was known for being a perfectionist, attending rehearsals of his pieces, being meticulous about score and part preparation, and having a clear idea of what results he wanted.

Morawetz reacted in his distinctly individual way to several trends in 20th-century music and succeeded in integrating them into his personal style. He rejected serial techniques and avant-garde experiments such as electronic or chance music, and developed his style exploring the harmonic, expressive, and colouristic possibilities of expanded tonality and polytonality, which only occasionally resulted in atonality. He said of his predilections that "ever since I was a child, music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line." His melodic thinking was motivically generated, yet produced lines of great lyricism as well as dramatic power. Morawetz varied his ideas by using motivic transformation, changes of texture, and, in his large works, a polyphonic combination of the main themes in the climactic section. His rhythm ranged from vivacious Slavic rhythms to complex patterns with frequent metric changes. The most outstanding quality of his music, noticed and praised by audiences as well as critics, was its immediate emotional appeal.

Orchestral Writing

The early works - in sharp contrast to the dramatic and often tragic nature of his later style - were characterized by an optimistic, joyful tone, while revealing some of the characteristics of his mature style: a great sense for orchestration and a mastery of contrapuntal writing. Several of these works became part of the standard repertoire, beginning with one of his earliest compositions, the bright Carnival Overture. This piece, with its Slavic strains reminiscent of Morawetz's homeland, has been performed over 200 times. The Divertimento for Strings (1948/1954) and the Overture to a Fairy Tale (1957) successfully combined elements of the composer's native culture with impressionistic colours.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 manifested formal concentration and Morawetz's usual excellent piano writing. The Passacaglia on a Bach Chorale (1964), dedicated to the memory of J.F. Kennedy, integrated Bach's harmonic and contrapuntal language with Morawetz's dynamic emotional climaxes. His use of the contrasts between sections of the orchestra in his Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion (1965) highlighted his interest in exploring orchestral colour.

Perhaps his most-performed orchestral composition is the Memorial to Martin Luther King (1968) for solo cello and orchestra. In pitting the cello against an orchestra of winds, piano, and percussion, Morawetz complied with Rostropovich's request for an 'unusual orchestration.' The composition, written shortly after King's death, pictures the last two days of King's life and culminates with a funeral march based on King's favourite spiritual, 'Free at last!' A sombre, solemn atmosphere is created by the polyphonic treatment of the spiritual and the antiphonal orchestration. After the 1987 performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under Kurt Masur, the critic Robert Finn wrote in the Cleveland New Dealer: 'It is a passionate and imaginative work, concise in design and heartfelt in expression, a genuine and strong statement of grief and protest.' The work has been performed by many well-known cellists in addition to Nelsova, including Yo-Yo Ma, Shauna Rolston, and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi; it is also seen by many as the end of Morawetz's first stylistic period, after which his music took on a darker, more introspective character.

The Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra (1975) is notable mainly for the interesting and novel treatment of the harp for which the composer invented several imaginative effects. The Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra was commissioned by Julian Milkis and received its first public performance in Leningrad in 1990 by the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra; it was also telecast on Soviet TV.

Of his works for voice and orchestra, From the Diary of Anne Frank, premiered in 1970 by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and soprano Lois Marshall enjoyed the most success (despite poor initial reviews). It has been performed in many countries including the US, Czechoslovakia, Israel, and Australia. Anne Frank's fear for the survival of her school friend supplied the poignant, emotionally high-pitched text of the work, which ranges from moods of tenderness through religious fervour to outbursts of pain and despair.


Songs for voice and piano had an important place in Morawetz's creative life. His songs display a sensitive treatment of the words, enhanced by an idiomatic piano writing reflecting the various moods of the text. One of many singers attracted to Morawetz's songs, Dorothy Maynor introduced them 1949-54 to audiences in the US, Canada, and Australia. In Canada, baritone James Milligan also performed Morawetz's songs in 1956, and later recorded them. Of the song cycles, the most successful were Sonnets from the Portuguese (1956/1980), to texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the dramatic The Weaver for high voice, clarinet and piano, to texts by Canadian poet Archibald Lampman. These songs were commissioned by the CBC for its 50th anniversary, and premiered by Mark DuBois in London's Wigmore Hall.

Another work of great dramatic impact was Psalm 22 ("Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?"), 1979, premiered in 1980 by Maureen Forrester with the composer at the piano. The work was later orchestrated at Forrester's request and this version was premiered with the Toronto Symphony under Andrew Davis in 1983. The composer chose the biblical text for its relevance to the suffering inflicted by the Nazi regime during World War II.

Chamber and Piano Music

Spanning over four decades, Morawetz's chamber works encompass music for a wide assortment of instruments. The early Duo for Violin and Piano - with its dramatic content and technical display - soon became one of the most performed works in the Canadian repertoire. Of the five works for string quartet, the most played is the intense String Quartet No. 2, which demonstrates Morawetz's contrapuntal skill as well as his fondness for experimental colours. The work was premiered by the Parlow String Quartet and later performed by the Orford Quartet in Canada, the US, and Europe. The Sonata for Viola and Harp was commissioned by Rivka Golani and Judy Loman.

Morawetz was commissioned by principal wind players of major orchestras to compose music for their instruments. This resulted in seven sonatas for various wind instruments, written for flutist Jeanne Baxtresser (1980) and bassoonist David Carroll (1981), both in the New York Philharmonic; hornist Eugene Rittich (of the Toronto Symphony), tuba player Scott Irvine (Canadian Opera Company orchestra), and trumpeter David Hickman (1985). The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1980) was performed in Canada, the US, and Europe by James Campbell, Joaquin Valdepeñas, and Julian Milkis, and in the Soviet Union by Vladimir Sokolov, principal clarinet of the Moscow Philharmonic. The Sonata for Oboe and Piano was played in several cities in the US by John Mack, principal oboe of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Morawetz also had numerous piano works to his credit. The exuberant Scherzo (1953) was premiered by Firkušný; the contrapuntal, sonata-like Fantasy in D (1948) was introduced by Glenn Gould; and the colourful Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata (1956) and Suite for Piano were both premiered by Anton Kuerti, who played the latter during his tours in Canada and Germany.

Awards and Tributes

In addition to the awards previously mentioned, Morawetz was honoured for From the Diary of Anne Frank by the Segal Fund in Montreal in 1971, as well as receiving a Juno award for best classical composition in 2002. It was the second Juno he received, the first being for Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra in 1989.

He was often recognized for outstanding achievements. In 1960, 1967, and 1974 Morawetz was awarded Canada Council senior arts fellowships for his contribution to Canadian music. In 1987 Morawetz became the first composer to receive the Order of Ontario, and in 1988 he was named a member of the Order of Canada. He earned SOCAN's Jan V. Matejcek Concert Music Award in 1994. SOCAN conferred on him its William Harold Moon Award in 1999. Other awards included a tribute from the University of Toronto, the Canada 125 Medal (1992) and the Golden Jubilee Medal (2002). His name was given to buildings and a scholarship. He was a member of the Canadian League of Composers and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. Archival versions of his compositions are held at Library and Archives Canada.

Selected Compositions

Includes discographic information


'Thoughts on Memorial to Martin Luther King,' Toronto Symphony News, vol 40, no. 6, 1979-80


Carnival Overture. 1945. Full orch. Leeds 1970. RCI 41 (TSO)/CBC SM-5039 (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

Serenade for Strings. 1948 (rev 1954 as Divertimento for Strings). (Divertimento) Summit 1959. (Serenade) RCI 5 (J.-M. Beaudet)

2 Symphonies (1953, 1959). Ms. (No. 2) CBC SM-4/CBC SM-104 (TSO)

Overture to a Fairy Tale. 1957. Chamb orch. B&H 1959. RCI 180/6-ACM 16 (CBC Symphony Orchestra)/CBC SM-308 (CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra)/CBC SM-5069 (Edmonton Symphony Orchestra)

Passacaglia on a Bach Chorale. 1964. Leeds 1965

Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion. 1965. Leeds 1967. RCI 292 (Deslauriers conductor)

The Railway Station, symphonic poem. 1979. Full orch. Aeneas. 6-ACM 16 (NYO)

Soloists with Orchestra

Elegy 'I Am So Tired' (A. Wilkinson). 1954, rev 1987. V, orch (piano). Aeneas 1987. (See also Voice)

'Land of Dreams' and 'I Love the Jocund Dance' (Blake). 1954, 1960. V, orch (piano). Aeneas 1987. (See also Voice)

Piano Concerto No. 1. 1962. Leeds 1966. RCI 213A/Pathé SPAM-680231/Cap SW-6123/6-ACM 16 (Kuerti)

Concerto for Brass Quintet and Chamber Orchestra. 1967. Leeds 1975

Memorial to Martin Luther King. 1968, rev 1973. Vc, orch. Aeneas 1984. RCI 213A/RCI 601/6-ACM 16 (Nelsova)/CBC SMCD-5105 (Rolston, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra)

From the Diary of Anne Frank (A. Frank). 1970. V, orch. Aeneas 1973. RCI 601/6-ACM 16 (Marshall)/CBC Records 5191 (J. Forst, CBC Vancouver Orchestra). 2000.

A Child's Garden of Verses (R.L. Stevenson). 1972. Alto (mezzo), orch. Ms

Fantasy for Violin and Chamber Orchestra. 1974. Ms

Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra. 1975. Aeneas. 2-CBC SMCD 5086 (Baril harp, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra)

'Psalm 22.' 1983. V, orch (piano). Aeneas 1984 (See also Voice)

Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. 1989. Aeneas 1989. 1990. Melodiya (CD) (Milkis clarinet, Leningrad Chamb Orchestra, Steinlucht conductor)

Bassoon Concerto. 1993/revised 1994 (unfinished)

Slavonic Dance No. 8 in E minor (Dvorák), arranged for vn, vc and orchestra. 1993

Humoresque in G-flat (Dvorák), arranged for vn, vc and orchestra. 1993


3 String Quartets (1944, 1955, 1959). Aeneas (No. 2). (No. 2) RCI 550/6-ACM 16 (Orford String Quartet)

Rondo for Violin and Piano. 1946 (rev 1947 as Duo for Violin and Piano) Ricordi 1961 (Duo). (Rondo) RCI 9 (Kash)/(Duo) RCI 124/6-ACM 16 (Pratz violin)/RCI 244/CBC EXPO-16 (Pach)/CBC SM-28/CBC SM-135 (Hidy violin)/1988. Capella CB-101 (CD) (Cleveland Duo)

Sonata No. 1. 1956. Vn, piano. Ms. RCI 194 (Pratz violin)

Trio. 1960. Fl, oboe, harpsichord (piano). Ms. RCI 219/RCA CCS-1013 (Baroque Trio of Montreal)

2 Fantasies for Cello and Piano (originally Sonata). 1962 (rev 1970). Aeneas 1984. (No. 1) CBC SM-305/6-ACM 16 (V. Orloff)

Two Preludes for Violin and Piano. 1965, rev 1972 (rev 1983 as Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano). Ms. (Preludes) Masters of the Bow MBS-2002 (Bress)

Sonata for Brass Quintet (originally titled Three Improvisations for Brass Quintet). 1977. Aeneas 1980. Music Gallery Edns MGE-34 (Composers' Brass Group)

Five Fantasies for String Quartet. 1978. Ms

Sonata for Horn and Piano. 1978. Aeneas 1980. 6-ACM 16 (Rittich horn, Parr piano)

Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. 1980. Aeneas 1981. CBC Musica Viva MV-1016 (Valdepeñas clarinet, Parr piano)

Sonata for Flute and Piano. 1980. Aeneas 1980. 6-ACM 16 (Baxtresser fl, Coop piano)

Sonata for Oboe and Piano. 1980. Aeneas 1980

Sonata for Bassoon and Piano. 1981. Aeneas 1982

Four Duets for Flute and Bassoon. 1983. Aeneas 1986

Sonata for Tuba and Piano. 1983. Aeneas 1984

Sonata for Trumpet and Piano. 1985. Aeneas. (1991). EBS 6022 (CD) (Schultz trumpet, Rowe piano)

Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano. 1985. Aeneas

Sonata for Viola and Harp. 1986. Aeneas

Tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 1990. Ms


Ballade for Piano. 1946 (rev 1982). Aeneas 1983. Centrediscs CMC-1684 (Foreman)

Scherzo. 1947. B&H 1958. 1953. RCI 121 (Morawetz)/1968. CBC SM-65 (J. Coop)/CBC SM-118/6-ACM 16 (Henig)

Fantasy in D. 1948. Aeneas. RCI 120/Col Master 32-11-0046 (Gould)

Fantasy on a Hebrew Theme. 1951. Ms. RCI 133 (Goldblatt)

Scherzino. 1953. FH 1955. RCI 121/6-ACM 16 (Morawetz)/RCI 397 (J. Holtzman)

Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata. 1956. Leeds 1968. CBC SM-182 (tape)/6-ACM 16 (Savard)

Ten Preludes for Piano. ca 1961. FH 1966 (No. 1 and 9). (No. 9) CBC SM-65 (J. Coop)

Suite for Piano. 1968. Leeds 1971. CBC SM-187 (Kubálek)/RCI 496/6-ACM 16 (Hewitt)

Fantasy for Piano. 1972. Ms. CBC SM-279 (Taussig)

Four Contrasting Moods. 1986. Aeneas 1990


'Keep Us Free' (E.J. Pratt). 1950. SATB, orch (piano or organ). Gordon V. Thompson 1952 (piano score)

Two Contrasting Moods (A. Lampman). 1966. SATB. Ms

Crucifixion (Negro spiritual). 1968. SATB. Leeds 1971

Who Has Allowed Us to Suffer? (A. Frank). 1970. SATB. Aeneas 1972. Centrediscs CMC-0281/RCI 564/6-ACM 16 (Elmer Iseler Singers)

Five Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák. 1981. SATB. Aeneas

Dido's Lament (transcr from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). 1983. SATB. Ms


'The Chimney Sweeper' and 'Mad Song' (Blake). 1946. Leeds 1961, 1962, Aeneas. RCI 121/6-ACM 16 (Milligan)/('Chimney Sweeper') CBC EXPO-22 (L. Quilico)

Elegy (A. Wilkinson). 1946. V, piano. Leeds 1961. RCI 121/6-ACM 16 (Milligan, Morawetz piano)/CBC SM-180 (Vickers). (See also Soloists with orchestra.)

'Grenadier' (Housman). 1946. Bar, piano. Leeds 1962, Aeneas. RCI 121/6-ACM 16 (Milligan)/CBC SM-42 (M. Brown)

'Piping Down the Valleys Wild' (Blake). 1946. Gordon V. Thompson 1953. CBC SM-8/6-ACM 16 (Zarou)/CBC SM-180/Centrediscs CMC-2185 (Vickers)

'I Love the Jocund Dance' and 'Land of Dreams' (Blake). 1948. V, piano. Gordon V. Thompson 1953. CBC SM-8/('Dreams') 6-ACM 16 (Zarou, Morawetz piano)/Centrediscs CMC-2185 (Vickers)/('Jocund') 6-ACM 16 (R. Butler, Morawetz piano)/('Dreams') World WRC1-4342 (Greer, Brough piano). (See also Soloists with orchestra.)

'To the Ottawa River' (A. Lampman). 1948. Leeds 1962, Aeneas. RCI 121/6-ACM 16 (Milligan)

'When We Two Parted' (Byron). 1949, rev 1983. Aeneas 1953. 6-ACM 16 (R. Butler, Morawetz piano)

Sonnets from the Portuguese (E.B. Browning). 1956, rev 1980. Sop, piano. Ms. 6-ACM 16 (R. Butler, Morawetz piano)/Centrediscs CMC-CD-3589 (J. Kolomyjec soprano, R. Kortgaard piano)

'CradleSong' (Blake). V, piano. Leeds 1962, Aeneas

'Father William' (Lewis Carroll). 1973. Aeneas. RCI 391 (Ascher Duo)

'Psalm 22' (Bible). 1979. V, piano. Aeneas. Centrediscs CMC-CD-3589 (Pedrotti bar, Ralls piano). (See also Soloists with orchestra.)

Souvenirs from Childhood (R.L. Stevenson). 1984. V, piano. Aeneas. Centrediscs CMC-CD-3589 (Pedrotti bar, Ralls piano)

The Weaver (Lampman). 1985. V, clarinet, piano. Aeneas. Centrediscs CMC-CD-3589 (DuBois tenor, Valdepeñas clarinet, Parr piano)

Additional Selected Discography

Please refer to List of Selected Works for more discographic information

Canadian Composers Portraits. Various artists. 2002. Centrediscs CMCCD 8702

Ovation Volume 2. Various artists. 2002. CBC Records 2027-5

Morawetz, Bruch, Fauré, Dvorák, Bliss. Uri Mayer conductor, Shauna Rolston cello, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. 2001. CBC Records 5105

From The Diary Of Anne Frank. Mario Bernardi conductor, Judith Forst mezzo, CBC Vancouver Orchestra. 2000. CBC Records 5191

Duos. Christopher Millard bassoon, Rena Sharon piano. 1998. Summit Classical (UPC) 099402224923

Canadian Art Songs. Jon Vickers baritone, Richard Woitach piano. 1998. Centrediscs (ASIN) B00000DG0R

Late Romantics. Georg Tintner conductor, Symphony Nova Scotia. 1997. CBC Records 5167

Dvorak in Prague: A Celebration. Seiji Ozawa conductor, Itzhak Perlman violin, Yo-Yo Ma cello. 1993. Sony Classical SK 46687

Canadian And Russian Overtures. Uri Mayer conductor, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. 1993. CBC Records (UPC) 723721188320

Presenting . . . Joaquin Valdepeñas, Clarinet. Valdepeñas clarinet, Patricia Parr piano. 1993. Musica Viva (UPC) 723721143329

Morawetz, Tchaikovsky, Kodály, Dvorák. Kazuhiro Koisumi conductor, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. 1993. CBC Records (UPC) 723721185824

The Lyrical Art Of Mark Pedrotti - Stephen Ralls. Mark Pedrotti voice, Stephen Ralls piano. 1992. Musica Viva (UPC) 723721647124

Glenn Gould Edition - Glenn Gould Plays Contemporary Music. Gould piano. 1992. Sony Classical 52677

Oskar Morawetz: Vocal Works. Various artists. 1989. Centrediscs 3589

Further Reading