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Jan. 1992, v.4, n.1. Newsletter of the Canadian Music Centre's Ontario Region by Daralis Collins
Reprinted with permission

Happy Birthday Oskar!

On January 17th this year, Oskar Morawetz celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday, a landmark occasion that will see his internationally acclaimed output performed across the country and broadcast over the national airwaves with ever greater frequency in the coming months. No higher regard can be paid a composer than the programming and performance of his works, and Morawetz has had his pieces interpreted on almost every continent by some of the world's most outstanding musicians. The extensive and varied repertoire he has created over the past half century, a repertoire strengthened by a constantly growing discography, is testimony to a prolific imagination and skillfully developed craft which has, over the years, been rewarded and recognized with many prizes and important tributes.

His success as a composer and performer belies his early inadequate and uninspiring music instruction and his frustrated attempts at composition. "I always wanted to become a composer, even a third-rate one, much more than a first-class performer," recalls Morawetz, who was not able to devote himself to studying music full-time until he came to Canada as a young man. Once here, he pursued formal instruction in theory and piano in earnest and continued his autodidactic study of the vast European musical legacy.

Teaching commitments followed Morawetz' studies and he says "I had so many students that I was exhausted by the time I came home - I wrote one work a year. It was not what you would call becoming a composer." Yet, become a composer he did and soon began to win recognition for his efforts from the music community and realize performances of his works by well-known artists, a lucky combination for one for whom "composing is one of the greatest pleasures I can think of."

About his early works, Morawetz says he tried to write in the style of the early 20th century slavonic composers, naming Dvorak and Tchaikovsky as two artists of whose music he was, and still is, very fond. Citing his Carnival Overture and Divertimento for Strings as examples of his youthful and happier style, Morawetz then describes his gradual change of temperament that began with full realization of the horrifying consequences of the Holocaust, and his move to adopting more tragic themes, "I am very emotional in my works - I can speak better in things that are emotional and dramatic. A work that is an emotional experience for me is still the greatest pleasure I can get from music and the word 'emotion' means many different directions."

Morawetz does not look for intense, climactic moments in prolonged, deafening outpourings of sound, but rather concentrates on placement of various contrasting colours and textures to effect and express his moods. He is highly critical of his own works and has taken countless scores out of circulation. Of his very early pieces that are still regularly performed, he finds many spots that he now thinks could be written much more effectively. With later works, he limits himself to revising tempo markings and dynamics. Morawetz maintains that when composing, one of the most difficult aspects to gage successfully is intensity, whether it is of duration, dynamic, tempo or texture.

While constantly enlarging his vocabulary, Morawetz's style has not changed radically and to do so, especially at his age, he believes would be insincere and unsuccessful. Unlike many of his colleagues, Morawetz has not delved deeply into his native folklore and landscape environment, either Czech or Canadian, for inspiration and ideas. Yet there is something in poetry that does speak to him and spur him on. "When I look at some of my early songs, compared to some of my early instrumental works - many of which I discarded - they don't embarrass me, even if the language is different, because I think the words gave me certain colours, rhythms and ideas which pure instrumental music cannot. If I compare Mad Song to numerous instrumental works I wrote at the same time, it is really on a considerably higher level - colours that I was never singing [sic] about when I wrote instrumental music." But, he is quick to add "I write with much greater enthusiasm when a great artist asks me to write something than if I am writing just because I want to compose and then have to seek out a performer. If I know that someone is looking for a piece and I hear his voice and style, that is a great inspiration."

Retired now from teaching, Morawetz continues to write, challenging the performers and exciting his audiences.