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Composer

Many people have asked Morawetz:

What inspires you to write a composition?

Although Morawetz himself may not be able to pinpoint the inspiration for a particular composition, he certainly agrees that events in his life have shaped the musical ideas that he produces. Although most compositions were not inspired by a single event, his Memorial to Martin Luther King, one of his best known and most often performed compositions, is one notable exception. For two years after cellist Rostropovich asked him to compose a work for cello and orchestra, Morawetz felt devoid of any ideas and did not write a single note. Then, as Morawetz explains:

"In April of 1968 when I watched on television (three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King) the slow, sad and very moving funeral procession in Atlanta, the idea suddenly struck me to write for Rostropovich a work dedicated to the memory of King. It happened, to be quite accurate, when I saw on the screen King's gravestone with the inscription of his favourite spiritual: "Free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last!" The same day I saw clearly in front of me the form, content and orchestration of my composition."

Normally, however, Morawetz admits that composing is a very disciplined activity. Sometimes some of his best writing occurs after he has forced himself to sit down and compose when he feels least in the mood. He does not have a grand plan of the overall structure of a composition on which he is working. Rather, he tackles each new piece section by section.

 

Another common question posed to Morawetz is:

Why do so many of your compositions have a tragic theme?


Morawetz in his home office,
circa 1970

Indeed, in addition to the above example, Morawetz has written two compositions setting text from the diary of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who perished in the holocaust (From the Diary of Anne Frank and Who Has Allowed Us To Suffer?), a setting of the last words of Christ on the cross (Psalm 22), a piece for violin and piano commemorating the fate in Auschwitz of forty-one orphans in the French village of Izieu (A Child's Cry from Izieu), a poem describing the suffering and humiliation of black people (Prayer for Freedom), as well as many songs with poignant texts.

The closest Morawetz has come to explaining why his music has such sad themes is his response in the January 1978 issue of Fugue magazine:

"The important dramas of life - Shakespeare is a case in point - are tragic in nature. The contemporary idiom is essentially dramatic."


Morawetz, circa 1982.
Photo: Walter Curtin

Morawetz felt that, like a novel which would be very dull if no untoward events occurred throughout the story, a certain amount of tension is required in order for the reader, or listener, to feel any kind of resolution. Morawetz' compositions are filled with contrast in mood and dynamics, in rhythmic quality as well as instrumental colour.  These tragic themes which had some personal meaning to Morawetz in his life add a greater depth to the shape of his compositions.

In view of this, Morawetz has also composed a number of non-tragic and even bright works while still true to his style. These include his early success Carnival Overture, followed by Overture to a Fairy Tale, Railway Station, vocal works such as Souvenirs from Childhood, I Love The Jocund Dance, Piping Down the Valleys Wild and finally his comic operetta Father William. Nonetheless, the bulk of his music is considered dark and sentimental, perhaps reflecting a melancholic streak in his personality.

March 6, 1994. Morawetz answers this question on CBC Fresh Air.

 


Morawetz at his Heintzman piano, 1980

Morawetz has been criticized countless times for his tonal or polytonal style, writing at a time when his avant-garde peers were writing in 12-tone, and experimenting with chance or electronic music. However he never buckled to the pressures of his contemporaries, despite many harsh reviews newspapers gave his compositions for being old-fashioned and sentimental. He felt strongly that one should be true to one's own style, and not follow the latest trends. He was appalled by the gimmicks invented by composers such as beating the back of the violin with the bow, or using a broom to sweep across an instrument. "This is the trouble with most composers today," he told Canadian Composer in March 1982. "They are so terribly afraid to stick to the style which is their own. Suddenly they hear Mr. Xenakis do this and Mr. Stockhausen do that; it reminds me of one lady who sees another in a new hat, and runs quickly out and buys one of her own."

His earlier works such as Carnival Overture, Divertimento for Strings and Overture to a Fairy Tale, which have been performed countless times, have a light, carefree spirit which critics have characterized as his "Slavonic Style". Although Morawetz agrees with this assessment, he prefers to be associated with his later style for which his two great masterpieces, Memorial to Martin Luther King (1968) and From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970) seem to have been a turning point. Independent of how his style evolved over the years, he always maintained that music should have an immediate impact, and should not have to be analyzed in order to be understood. Morawetz wrote music to convey a message, and if this message was imparted with a hint of sentimentality, this form of expression served only to distinguish his own very personal style. In April 1974, he told Canadian Composer magazine:

"I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line. Ever since I was a child, music has meant for me something terribly emotional. Too many people today are afraid to say the word 'emotional' because emotion is romanticism and nowadays, romanticism is just about the worst thing there is. But Bach can be very emotional, so can Purcell, even Ravel."

Hear Morawetz comment about the use of melodic lines.

The paradox of Morawetz' efforts to make his music accessible to the public is that "the avant-garde think I'm terribly old-fashioned, but plenty of people in the audience find my music too modern." Perhaps his music is best labelled as "contemporary romantic".

 

The Mechanics

 

Morawetz began all his compositions by writing pencil sketches on manuscript paper. As he had the enviable ability to read a score and hear the music in his head, he did not need to use the piano to hear what he was writing. Yet he preferred to compose at the piano, finding that the resulting ideas were much more exciting. If he sketched something away from the piano, he would later test out his ideas at the keyboard, and would often change the colour, the rhythm or the harmony to add interest. If he was writing a climactic section which he felt was just not strong enough and perhaps needed an extra note, he would use the piano to try different things that he might never imagine in his head. As he relates to Classical Music Magazine in April/May 1992:

"I can write perfectly without the piano. But I write with it because for some reason - say if I want to get a certain color - the closeness to the keyboard, the closeness to the sound, the actual hitting of the keys, gives me an emotional outlet. And I don't think I could ever get the music away from it. I always found those works I wrote away from the piano, they're okay, there's nothing wrong - but some excitement is missing."

Once an idea started to take shape, Morawetz' sessions at the piano often involved repeating the same two or three bars over and over again.
Click here to listen to Morawetz' explanation.

 

When writing orchestral music, or music for two or more different instruments, he would choose the instrumental colour by using a trick he had developed early on in his composing career: for every combination of instruments in the orchestra (for example, a flute and an oboe, or a violin and a clarinet), he identified at least one passage which another composer had written using that combination of two or more instruments. Then when Morawetz wanted to choose a particular colour for in his own music, he would recall these different excerpts.

Beyond just the notes, Morawetz wanted to be sure that musicians interpreted his music as close to the way he heard it in his mind. To that end, his scores meticulously indicate dynamics, phrase markings, note articulations and tempos. With respect to the latter, over the years Morawetz purchased many different brands and varieties of metronomes, each one, presumably, more accurate than the last. He tested them periodically, by counting the ticks per minute, and they were quickly abandoned if they were even slightly inaccurate. When a work was completed, he could spend several days going over each passage to determine the exact metronome marking at every change of tempo. The composer could often be seen rolling his tongue against his cheek in a rhythmical pattern. This was a dead give-away that he was thinking about some music, and using the tongue to "tap out" the beat!

 

After a composition started to take shape from a sketch, Morawetz would transcribe the music into a more legible form onto manuscript transparency paper. This was a painstaking task, wherein each transparency page could take more than an hour to produce. In the early days, he used an ink pot and quill to write the music. Later he used fine-point black markers. But in either case, he was methodical and fastidious about producing very clear manuscripts. Once a page was completed, he would carefully lay it on his bed to dry with great trepidation, as his children loved to burst into the bedroom and greet him by jumping up onto the bed!

In order to ensure that the bars were exactly evenly spaced across the page, and that the notes within the bar were perfectly spaced according to the beat, Morawetz had a large collection of bristol boards which he placed under the transparencies as he wrote. On each one of these bristol boards, he had drawn evenly-spaced red lines to indicate bar lines, black lines to indicate the beginning of the beat in each of the bars, and green lines to sub-divide the beat. He had prepared many of these bristol boards, depending on the number of bars he wanted on the page, and the time signature of the composition at that point. For example, 9 bars of 8, 6 bars of 3,...

 

Once a manuscript was complete, if it was a composition with instrumental parts, Morawetz made a copy of the manuscript and gave it to a copyist to produce the individual parts. When the copyist had finished, Morawetz spent a long time checking the parts for errors, and "counting bars". This latter undertaking was one that, in later years, he would often do together with his daughter. He would prepare a sheet of paper from the score that indicated, for example, that there were 7 bars before rehearsal number 1, 5 bars before rehearsal number 2,...etc... right to the end of the piece. Then, for each part produced by the copyist, one person would count the bars: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 bars to number 1", and the other person would verify (or reject) that this was the correct number from the master sheet.

Why did Morawetz spend so much time checking and re-checking the copyist's work? His reasoning was that a symphony orchestra might rehearse two or three times for a particular concert. Since Morawetz' piece was not the only composition on the program, he might get an hour or two at most of rehearsal time. If the conductor has to stop once or twice because an instrumentalist is not playing the right notes, only to discover that there is an error in the part, it may waste 5 minutes of rehearsal time, which is not only expensive, but is that much less time devoted to concentrating on his composition.

 

The Publicist

One of the jobs that Morawetz disliked the most about being a composer was that of publicizing himself and his music. Although he was a prolific and very well known composer, he knew that when a conductor is putting together the following season's program, or an artist is preparing a recital, there is so much music literature to choose from that it might not occur to a musician to select a work by Morawetz. He needed to plant the seed that a work by Morawetz might fit very nicely in a program.

Morawetz was one of several composers interviewed for an issue of Canadian Composer magazine wherein the question was asked: What'll it take for a Canadian Composer to make it internationally? Therein Morawetz responds with the unavoidable requirement of a composer to be equally adept at self-publicity as writing good music.

A modest man by nature, Morawetz learned over the years how to become an astute businessman and promoter of his music. He regularly attended concerts, chatting with the musicians backstage afterwards. He was unassuming and at the same time could be very amusing; his vast knowledge of music and encounters with people in the musical community meant that he could put his joy of story-telling into practice by relating an anecdote tailored for each person he met. Because music was his first love, he was always interested in hearing new compositions or works of the great composers that were not played very often. He was less interested in hearing music that he had heard many times before, although he would attend such a concert if an up-and-coming artist was performing whom he wanted to hear.

A more tedious part of the business of self-promotion was letter-writing. Morawetz had a huge correspondence with a great number of musicians. If he felt that a particular composition of his would be suitable in a program, he would put together a package including a list of the artists who had performed the work in the past, newspaper reviews, a copy of the music, and if possible a recording as well. If he was writing to a musician whom he did not know, he would also include some biographical information and write-ups of himself as a composer. All of this material was organized and methodically catalogued in his house for easy access.
Click here for more information about Morawetz' home.

Morawetz' correspondence also extended to important figures outside the musical community. For example, after almost completing his composition, From the Diary of Anne Frank, it occurred to him that he would need permission to use the words from the diary which he had set to music. This led to a long correspondence and several meetings with Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank. In 1978, Morawetz wrote to many American radio stations and Canadian embassies around the world about his composition, Memorial to Martin Luther King, which was then broadcast in 24 countries the following year, to commemorate the 50th birthday of Martin Luther King.

However not all performances were due to Morawetz' hard work as a publicist. As well as the two works mentioned above, his Carnival Overture, Duo for Violin and Piano, Divertimento for Strings, Elegy, Overture to a Fairy Tale, Passacaglia on a Bach Chorale, and many others have had many repeated performances, and are still being performed today. Moreover, his musical connections have led to unexpected and very pleasant surprises: in 1993, Morawetz was commissioned by Sony Classics to transcribe two compositions by Dvořák to be performed in a video-taped all-Dvořák concert in Prague. This commission came on the recommendation of one of the performers, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who himself has given many performances of Morawetz' King composition.

Although Morawetz spent a great deal of time promoting himself as a composer, he was selfless in his determination to help out other musicians. He spent much time writing letters of recommendation for young musicians; he indoctrinated new immigrant musicians in the "North American way" of getting invited to perform, or of attracting students; and he also took the initiative to propose individuals he thought deserved awards of high distinction such as the Order of Canada.

 

The Publisher

Once Morawetz had established himself as a composer, he looked to publishers who would be able to promote the sale and performance of his compositions. In his early years as a composer, he had many of his compositions published by Leeds, Gordon V. Thompson and Ricordi. Although most of the publishing rights for those works were subsequently returned to Morawetz, his Scherzo and Overture to a Fairy Tale are still published and distributed by Boosey & Hawkes today.


Aeneas Music

However in the 1970s, Morawetz became dissatisfied with the publishing industry, and decided to self-publish and distribute his own music. To this end, he created Aeneas Music whose trademark look was a spiral bound copy with coloured front covers sporting simple text identifying the name of the composition. Morawetz, who was completely computer-illiterate, fastidiously created all the cover titles using Letraset.

Although Morawetz sold scores for chamber music and orchestral works through Aeneas Music, he had to handle the rental of orchestral parts separately. This became more of a nuisance than it was worth: the cost of printing and shipping the parts as well as the time he spent preparing the package to be sent, invoicing the orchestra, ensuring all the parts were returned, and inevitably having to "clean up" the marked-up parts which were returned, was hardly worth the rental fee he obtained. Furthermore, if an orchestra member used pen instead of pencil to mark his or her part, it rendered the part useless and a new one had to be printed. On one occasion, a musician could not read the tenor clef, and had written all the notes in by hand. Morawetz was particularly angered once when a major symphony orchestra returned the parts to his From the Diary of Anne Frank, and one part had a map of how to get to someone's home, and another had sketches of naked women. To this end, orchestras will often make stipulation about the parts they rent. When the New York Philharmonic performed Memorial to Martin Luther King, the librarian asked Morawetz to send parts that were either completely unmarked, or that had been used only by first-class orchestras.

Towards the end of his composing career, Morawetz realized that the distribution of his music is probably best left in the hands of those in the business, and began once again to look for a publisher. Today, most of his music can be obtained through the Canadian Music Centre.

 

The Critics

In 1952, Morawetz attended a musical reception in New York. Discussion ensued about the famous music critic of the NY Times, Olin Downs. It was soon evident to Morawetz from the conversation that this man's words held great weight both in the music community and with the general public. Someone at the party rhetorically asked if one would rather have his music praised by Olin Downs and criticized by everyone else, or vice versa. Morawetz was shocked that one man could be so powerful that he could make or break a musician's career.

Early in his career, Morawetz would become very upset when his compositions received bad reviews in the newspapers. But he soon learned to ignore the bad reviews and keep only the good ones, using them to promote his works to musicians for future performances. For example, one of his most highly regarded compositions From the Diary of Anne Frank, which more than thirty years after its première garnered him a Juno award, was thoroughly condemned by the three Toronto major newspapers after its first performance. Since that time, it has been performed in Carnegie Hall, and as far away as Israel and Australia, by prestigious musicians, and has received numerous flattering reviews. Morawetz soon learned to use the critics to his own advantage, ensuring that they were kept informed of major performances and broadcasts of his compositions. This, in turn, led to many feature articles being written about him and his success as a composer.

Perhaps Morawetz' harshest critic was himself. Several compositions never saw a performance, and a few that were premièred, including two which won CAPAC awards (his first string quartet, and his Sonata Tragica) he removed from circulation. The success or failure of a composition may have influenced his decision as to what type of works he would compose in the future. For example, in 1950 he wrote the film score for the movie Forbidden Journey, which turned out to be a box office failure. This experience may explain why Morawetz never composed a full-length opera. When asked this question, he would reply:

"Why should I spend close to a year of my life writing something which, because of great production costs, might only be performed once, when I could write three or four compositions in the same time that might secure many repeated performances."

 

Morawetz also eventually insisted on providing his own translations for his vocal works, providing he knew the target language well enough. In his From the Diary of Anne Frank, the phrase: "Oh, God, why should I have all I could wish for..." is composed so that the high emphasis note is sung on the word "God". One translator had chosen the words so that this important note was sung on the word "Oh". Aghast by translators who would sacrifice the meaning and intent of a phrase in order to retain as pure a translation as possible, Morawetz provided his own Czech and German translations to this vocal work. Nonetheless, Morawetz was intrigued by translations of other composers' vocal works, and was particularly impressed by the translation of one passage in Benjamin Britten's opera Albert Herring, where the translator took liberties with the words in order to maintain the rhyming lines in the German translation:

Throw it high,
throw it low,
Through it right to Jericho
Was translated into German as: Werf in hoch,
werf in tief
Werf in bis nach Tel Aviv

In the true artistic sense, Morawetz was also somewhat of a perfectionist. He attended many rehearsals and performances of his compositions, particularly if they were premières, sometimes travelling great distances to do so. He would spend as much time as possible rehearsing with the musicians, giving pointers about how he wanted particular passages interpreted. Often the advice was reciprocated whereby the artists suggested ways a section might be more easily played, or better interpreted. If the piece was for orchestra, Morawetz would meet with the conductor (as well as any soloist the piece called for) and work with them before the full orchestral rehearsal. Ever-conscious of the high cost of each minute of an orchestra rehearsal, he was very discerning about which comments were worth interrupting a rehearsal for.

Following a performance, Morawetz often incorporated changes discussed during rehearsals before publishing, or reprinting the composition. Particularly in his later years, he spent almost as much time revising his works as writing new compositions. Revisions involved anything from note or dynamic changes, to reworking all the tempo markings, for which he had acquired a significant collection of metronomes over his lifetime. Some revisions involved rewriting whole passages of music, and occasionally the work was so altered it was retitled as a new composition. For example, his oft-played Duo for Violin and Piano was originally titled Rondo for Violin and Piano and ten years after this renaming, he revised the work once again. Although Morawetz spent substantial time on revisions, he was still very prolific with new material, producing on average two to three compositions per year for his 50-year composing career, even while he maintained a full teaching load as a music professor.