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
"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
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,
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 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.
Morawetz, circa 1982.
Photo: Walter Curtin
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
March 6, 1994.
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 &
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
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.
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
|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