In Úpice, Morawetz took piano lessons from a French woman called Mme. Feron.
This teacher was the one who, in a rather comical way, discovered that Morawetz had perfect pitch. At one of his piano lessons,
she wanted to impress
him. "Now, I will turn away from the piano," she said, "and you play any note on
the piano, and I will tell you which note it is". So the young Morawetz
obediently played a few notes, and the teacher correctly identified the pitch.
Turning around to see Morawetz' reaction, she noticed that he did not seem
impressed. "Do you not find this amazing?" but Morawetz failed to see what was
so extraordinary, and answered: "I don't see what is so amazing. If you show me
something that is blue, I will tell you it is blue; something that is red, and I
will say it is red. So if you play the note D, I will tell you it
is a D, and the same for any other note". Mme. Feron asked Morawetz to repeat
the exercise, and was surprised when he had no problem identifying any of the
pitches. She then had to explain to Morawetz what perfect pitch was, and that
not many people could do what he could.
In 1927 at the age of 10, Morawetz moved to Prague and soon started piano lessons with
the head of the conservatory, Prof.
Hoffmeister and theory with composer Jaroslav Křička at the Prague Conservatoire.
Professor Hoffmeister was fond of the Czech composers Suk and Novák, but
disliked the music of any of the "modern" composers such as Bartok or
Hindemith. He was a friend of Antonin Dvořák, and often told Morawetz stories
about the great composer. Once Hoffmeister asked Dvořák where he gets his musical
ideas? Dvořák responded that he's all "dried up" and cannot think of anything
more, but two days later he would finish writing a symphony.
Professor Hoffmeister assigned Morawetz challenging pieces to play. He did
not make his student practise week after week until a piece was perfect, instead
exposing him to a large amount of music. This suited Morawetz' desire to learn
as much music as possible. At home, he practised on
a Blüthner grand piano.
Morawetz' first love of music was opera, more than chamber music or keyboard
music, even though he was studying piano. On his 13th birthday, young Morawetz received, as a present from his parents,
the orchestral score of Wagner's
Tannhäuser. Although at that time he
knew little about musical theory, he learned from books how to read different
clefs and to transpose the different wind instruments to concert pitch. Soon he
became so fascinated by the different orchestral colours and developed such a
facility in reading scores that he began to study more and more opera scores anywhere
he could - in streetcars, buses, even in school during lessons of botany,
geology, and other "unnecessary" school subjects.
In the music centre of Prague, Morawetz finally heard his first live opera, Carl Maria von Weber's
Der Freischutz. He went to Bayreuth twice in successive years and saw
Tannhäuser, conducted by Toscanini, and Parsifal in
1931, and the Ring of Nibelungen the following year. His mother, who was
a great music-lover but not musically trained, accompanied him on one trip,
during which Morawetz coached her on all the motifs in the Ring, all the
way from Prague to Bayreuth! He quickly became
enamoured with opera largely, as he claims, because "there was action with the
music". He began playing through the operas, starting with Verdi's La
Traviata, then the Wagner operas. By the time
he was 13 years old, he had played nearly all the Wagner operas and knew all the
major sections by heart.
The Světlá Theatre
At the age of 16, Morawetz gave his first piano recital in his native town,
Světlá. The concert took place at the Světlá Theatre, which was the
town's main center for movies & theatre. Morawetz played
Love Song. This was the first of many times that Morawetz would play
this piano piece in public.
At the age of 19, a nervous Morawetz was presented to conductor George Szell.
This first meeting was not encouraging. He started by asking Morawetz to
sight-read something by Strauss, a none-too-easy task for even the best
sight-reader. After asking Morawetz what he
wanted to do in music, he quickly added: "Don't tell me you want to become a
pianist, because it's too late." Morawetz loved playing the piano, was a good
sight-reader, had perfect pitch, and always dreamed of becoming a pianist. He
was angered by these words and only admitted to himself later that they were
probably true: he was already 23 when he arrived in Canada, too old to make a
mark among the hundreds of other good pianists in the world. As the maestro had
been informed that Morawetz had perfect pitch, he went to a nearby table and
knocked hard with his knuckles and asked Morawetz, "what pitch is that?" A
baffled Morawetz could not reply. This discouraging encounter did not prevent
Szell from recommending Morawetz for an assistant conductor position with the
Prague Opera. At that time, if you wanted to become a conductor, you started out
by coaching singers and playing the piano. However Morawetz' love was for the
piano and he declined the offer, wishing only to continue his piano studies.
Morawetz' father was a businessman, the owner of a large textile factory who
planned that his eldest son Herbert would take over the business. For his less
business-minded son, his plan was that Oskar should take over the management of the large property in Světlá.
The thinking was
that music is fine for enjoyment, but that you can't make a decent living being
a musician. This did not appeal to Morawetz, but due to the deep respect
he and his siblings had for their parents, he never contradicted
this decision and began studies in forestry management. However
Morawetz' father saw how much music meant to his son, and conceded that he could
continue studying music for a little while longer.
At the age of 20, Morawetz went to study piano in Vienna with Julius
Isserlis. This was his dream, living in the centre of the musical world,
attending concerts and operas, and hearing the great up and coming musicians. It
was here that he first heard the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm
Furtwängler. However this
dream was short-lived when Nazi Germany occupied Austria in March 1938. Morawetz
fled home to Czechoslovakia.
In December, he went to Paris. He worked partly with the pianist Lazare Lévy,
but studied mostly on his own, enjoying the cultural life of the city. But his
studies were again interrupted with the outbreak of World War II. After a harrowing
escape from Europe,
Morawetz finally arrived in Canada in June of 1940.
One anecdote remains from Morawetz' stay in Paris. After the war, Morawetz
contacted his uncle Oswald who had emigrated to England. He asked his uncle if,
the next time he made a visit to Paris, he could look up the landlady with whom
he had stayed while living in Paris before the war, and ask her if by any chance
she still had the music scores that he had left behind. On Oswald's next visit
to Paris, he met Morawetz' past landlady and asked about the scores. The
landlady pointed into the room Morawetz had rented and said: "Les voilŕ! There
they are, under the bed, where he left them. With six years of dust on them!"
University of Toronto
Now that everything was lost in the "old world", it was decided
that he should continue his music studies in Toronto and Morawetz enrolled at
the Royal Conservatory of Music. Even after beginning his studies, he still had the notion that he would some day become a pianist. He
studied piano with Albert Guerrero and theory with Leo Smith. But mostly he was
self-taught. In the 1940s, one could study independently and then just show up
to sit for exams.
Morawetz never thought of becoming a composer, and
actually started composing quite late in life. He made a few attempts at
writing some pieces, but his knowledge of music was so great that he was very
critical of how inferior his own attempts were compared to the works of the
great masters. Somehow it never occurred to him that even the renowned composers
must have learned by initially producing inconsequential pieces.
B.Mus. degree, 1944
D.Mus. degree, 1953
Part of the studies for the music degree included composition. As an
exercise, Morawetz would attempt to write little fugues, one per week. But he
got very frustrated not only at the quality of his early pieces, but also at how
slow he was to produce them. However he persevered, and after the 40th or
50th fugue he began to find it easier and faster to compose. He soon realized
that composing is not just inspiration, but a great part technique.
As part of the
requirements to complete his Bachelor's degree, he had the choice of writing a
musicologist essay, or of producing an original composition. Morawetz opted for
the latter and composed his String Quartet No. 1, which won a special
prize in a nationwide competition sponsored by CAPAC. He was awarded his
B.Mus. from the University of Toronto in 1944.
This first composition was followed by a piano work, his Sonata Tragica,
which once again won a CAPAC prize.
Morawetz was not happy with either of these early works, and had them removed
from circulation. However, his next composition, the orchestral piece
Carnival Overture, was not only a huge success, but is one of Morawetz' most
played works even today. It was premičred by Sir Ernest MacMillan, whom Morawetz
admired as one of the greatest musicians he had ever met. It has also
been performed by conductors Sir Adrian Boult, Rafael Kubelik, Walter Susskind,
Franz Paul Decker, and many others, and has been recorded many times. With
this success behind him, Morawetz knew that he would make a career as a
In 1946 Morawetz joined the teaching faculty at the Royal Conservatory of
Music, and in that year composed a number of songs, a piano work and a violin &
piano work. (This latter work was revised a year later and renamed Duo for
Violin and Piano, which has since been performed and recorded by numerous
artists.) Although Morawetz would have been happy with a career as a composer
and his teaching post at the Conservatory, his father advised him to continue
his studies and work towards a doctorate degree. In 1952, he joined the faculty
of music at the University of Toronto, and in 1953 was awarded his Doctorate of
Music, for which he composed his Symphony #1.