Morawetz always had a great sense of humour. As a young boy he invented an
endless stream of pranks to play on people. As he got older, he always loved
delivering a good joke, inventing elaborate details around a story, and looking
one in the eye with a significant pause before throwing the punch line. Below are
various humorous stories about or authored by Morawetz.
The letter from Sweden
In 1937, the Morawetz brothers took a holiday to a resort in Sweden. On their
arrival, they could not find a hotel near the lake, and not speaking any
Swedish, they were in a bit of a predicament. This did not
deter Oskar Morawetz. He boldly went up to a Swede, and without saying a word,
put his hand above his eyes and looked to the ground as if searching for
something. Apparently his international communication was enough to make himself
understood, and the man directed them to a suitable hotel.
One day while in Sweden, Oskar's two brothers decided to go for a long walk,
but he decided to stay back and write a letter to his cousin Eva Stein. In his
letter, Oskar told of exciting news! There was a big tennis tournament, and his
had reached the semi-finals. In this game, John was
playing against a German. Whenever John scored a point, the German would bellow
in a loud voice: Wotan wird dich bestrafen!, which means Wotan will
punish you! (Wotan is the highest God in German mythology, and as Oskar was
writing his letter right before the war, this was his way of ridiculing the
Nazis). But John won the semi-finals!
Oskar described the elegant setting complete with the latest in technology.
The grounds were surrounded by hedges that were all cut in shapes of the
greatest tennis players. The tennis court was so advanced that they didn’t need
any ball boys. Instead, after each play, big machines jumped to the middle of
the court and cleared it of the balls.
Finally the day of the finals arrived, and it was attended by the Queen of
Sweden herself. First they played the Swedish anthem, and when John came to the
court, they played the Czech national anthem. Oskar continued to describe the
grandiose setting that surrounded John for the big game. Then he ended the
“I suppose you probably want to know who won the finals. Actually, nobody,
because everything you read up until now is a complete invention!”
On their return to Světlá, Frida proudly showed the letter to various guests,
and Oskar derived great pleasure from watching their faces. As they read the 7
pages with wide eyes and incredulous faces, they would exclaim: Incredible! Is
that possible? They really had such machines? Finally when they reached the last
page, their expressions would change to great disappointment and embarrassment
that they had been duped and exclaim: Oh, my goodness!
Shortly before emigrating to Canada, Morawetz was in Santo Domingo for six weeks
in 1940. At that time, there were very few males, particularly whites ones. So Morawetz always seemed to find himself surrounded by
American women with the racial prejudices that were prevalent in those days. He did not
take kindly to all this attention and tried to think of some way to get rid of
One day he said to his entourage of young ladies: "You know, it's a mystery
in our family why I am white. My father is black, my mother is black, and all my
brothers and sisters are black". To which the girls, taken aback asked: "Well,
then, why are you white?" Morawetz, completely deadpan replied: "Actually, I'm
English as a new language
In December 1938, Morawetz was in Paris when the New York Philharmonic made the
long, 10-day journey by boat to France to perform, with conductor Stokowski. The
Duke and Duchess of Windsor were in attendance. At intermission, the backstage
was so crowded that one could hardly move. Oskar pushed his way through the
masses to a clearing where there were no people. Just as he was thinking that
this was odd, flashlights suddenly began popping and as he turned around he bumped
into the Duchess of Windsor.
Years later, at a party in Toronto, Morawetz’s mother urged him to tell her
guests how he had “met” the Duchess of Windsor. As a newcomer to Canada,
Morawetz’s English was still a little primitive, and he eagerly replied: “I not
only met the Duchess, but also the Duck!”
Morawetz eventually mastered the English language, although it
was always heavily accented. He recalls how once some unpleasant person
commented about how he could have done a better job at mastering English,
whereupon Morawetz, who could communicate in six languages (Czech, German,
English, French, Spanish and Italian) replied: "It is better to speak six
languages with an accent, than to speak just one the way you do!"
Bravery vis ŕ vis authority
After his arrival in Canada, Morawetz made it a habit to go for a walk each
evening before bedtime. Today people walk, jog, run, and carry out all sorts of
outdoor activity outdoor at all times of day, but in the 1940s it was
unusual. On one of his evening walks, Morawetz was stopped by a policeman who
demanded: "What are you doing?" to which Morawetz replied earnestly: "I am
walking." The policeman noted Morawetz' accent and asked: "Are you German?"
Morawetz, straight-faced, brazenly responded: "Only my mother is German. My
father is Japanese."
Shortly after arriving in Canada, Morawetz invited a young violinist, Peggy
Moreland, on a date. Since Morawetz did not yet drive, the couple returned from
their outing on a streetcar. As they approached the stop where they were to get
off, Peggy said: “Aren’t you going to ring the bell?” – “You are sitting closer
to the bell,” Morawetz replied, “why don’t you ring it?” Peggy explained that,
in Canada, it was customary for men to perform such little services as a matter
of courtesy, but Morawetz insisted that it was logical for the person closest to
the bell to do the ringing. By the time they had finished arguing the point they
had not only missed Peggy’s stop, but had arrived all the way at the streetcar
Morawetz became good friends with the pianist Rudolf Firkušný. Once they
were walking together in the nearby city of Hamilton, and they passed by a "five
and dime" thrift store. Morawetz said he would like to go inside and take a
look around. Firkušný wondered why, stating that the store will have the same
stock in Toronto, and why waste time looking around this one. Morawetz shrugged:
"you never know," and went inside. Firkušný refused to join him and waited
outside. When Morawetz emerged he asked: "well?", whereupon Morawetz replied
that they have just the kind of paper he needs. Firkušný asked, "so, did you buy
some?" upon which Morawetz sheepishly admitted he had no money!
Morawetz was never very business-minded and usually relied on his brother John
for advice. When Morawetz purchased his house in 1958, John did the bargaining.
Morawetz was moments away from becoming a home-owner, when John made one final
stipulation: "Include the chandelier in the dining room, and we have a deal".
When the woman who owned the house objected that she would have to raise the
price a few hundred dollars, John insisted: "No chandelier, no deal". Morawetz
practically fainted on the spot, but John's demand won Morawetz the house and
Morawetz wanted to buy his first car, but cars were hard to come by shortly
after the war. He heard that an acquaintance of the family wanted to sell his
car for $200, and so Morawetz asked John for advice on how to handle the
situation. John suggested they look in the newspaper at similar cars for
sale, and see what kind of prices are being asked. Finally John suggested to
his brother that he offer their friend $180. "I can't do that", Morawetz objected,
"I can't possibly bargain with someone I know". But John assured him that he was
not bargaining, but making him an offer. So Morawetz boldly called the
acquaintance and made his offer. "Done!" was the reply without a moment's
hesitation. To which Morawetz replied: "Oh, just a second, I'll have to think it
One diversion Morawetz enjoyed was to take a printed article, magazine cover or
some other published item and alter it slightly to provide a humorous take on a
current situation in his life. For example, one year the appointment of a new
dean of the Faculty of Music in Toronto coincided with the election of a new
U.S. president and the cover of Time magazine had a suitably stately headline above
the picture of the new president. Morawetz replaced the photo with one of the
new dean, and presented it to him, presumably to express his approval of the new
One of Morawetz' favourite pastimes was to invent musical quizzes, or collect
musical tidbits from unexpected places. For many years he maintained a
collection of musical excerpts printed in unusual places such as on a paper napkin, a piece of wrapping
paper or a greeting card. His depth of knowledge of the music literature could
have kept panellists at the Saturday Met Opera Quizzes
occupied for years.
He suggested some questions for his sister Sonja to send to the panel of
Saturday Afternoon at the Met. She did, but none of them were ever used.
Possibly they were too difficult! Here are the questions (with links to their
In operatic music, we often find a dramatic climax
underscored by the introduction of a new instrument or group of instruments
(e.g. the use of brass instruments in Don Giovanni when the statue
comes to life). Some composers, however, have created dramatic effects by
temporarily silencing one or more sections of the orchestra. The following
omissions occurs in three familiar 19th century operas:
The entire string
section of the orchestra remains silent for seven consecutive minutes of the
performance. (as a matter of fact, with the exception of 6 bars where the
cellos are heard, the strings do not play for a total of 12 minutes).
After having been used
throughout the opera, the heavy brass instruments (i.e. trumpets, trombones
and tuba) can leave the orchestra pit more than 8 minutes before the final
Seven and a half
consecutive bars are played exclusively by percussion instruments.
Can the experts name the operas and identify the scenes
where these unusual omissions occur?
When Morawetz' daughter, Claudia, was the editor of the Toronto Region
newsletter for Cammac (1995-1998), Morawetz used to help her out by supplying the Musical Quiz section
of the newsletter. Here are some of the questions Morawetz invented, and the
answers that he supplied (click on
the question to view the answer):
- Can you name four composers who wrote exactly nine symphonies?
- Can you name at least three composers who wrote ten or more symphonies?
- Name as many composers as you can who never married? How about who married
more than once?
- Name composers who had immediate family members (parents, children,
spouse, sibling) who were also musicians.
- How many relationships can you name where a marriage linked two composers
together somehow as in-laws?
- There are over 100 operas that have been written whose libretto is based
on a Shakespeare play. Can you name some of the more well-known Shakespearean
- People ask composers: how can you think of new melodies to write? There
is so much music written, how is it possible that all combinations of notes
have not already been used? This may or may not be so, but even the same
combination of notes can be disguised to sound like completely different
melodies because of the tempo, the rhythm, and the harmony accompanying the
How many pieces of music can you think of that begin with the same melody (in
any key, with any rhythm) as the notes below: Morawetz came up with nine.
(Click on the question to view the answers.)
In 1985, Morawetz presented the CBC network with a birthday card (below,
left). In it he proclaimed that J.S. Bach knew that the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation would be formed more than 200 years before its existence, because
the composer had written a fugue in its honour!
||Morawetz also invented words to
accompany the fugue:
C.B.C. AM, C.B.C. FM,
C.B.C. brings music to your home!
Morawetz often entertained his family with anecdotes he brought home from the
music faculty at the University of Toronto, where he taught for almost 40 years.
Here are some samples:
Professor Godfrey Ridout taught History of Music at the Royal
Conservatory of Music. It was always interesting, and sometimes humorous, to see
what students would come up with in the essays they submitted. For one essay,
Professor Ridout asked the students to write about the "Music and Life of
J.S.Bach". An excerpt from one of the student's essays went like this: "Bach was
a very prolific composer. He wrote many passions. He took his passions very
seriously. He had 20 children."
In the early days of the music school at the University of Toronto, the
faculty was quite small. Consequently, performance students could find
themselves being examined by professors whose main instrument was not the same
as their own. Once, an accomplished harpist gave her student recital to an
examining board of professors, none of which included a harpist. One of the
examiners was a pianist, and although he concurred that her recital was superb,
he docked marks, noting on her report that she used too much pedal!
Morawetz was always flabbergasted that young performers who auditioned to
join the faculty could play so beautifully, and yet know so little about music.
Part of the audition included questions which would determine a musician's
knowledge of music. After one prospective student finished playing a Beethoven
sonata, he was asked if he knew how many symphonies Beethoven had written. The
response was: yes, three: the Eroica, the Pastorale, and the Ninth!
In a CBC Fresh Air interview, Morawetz was asked if he is truly an
"absent-minded" professor, as so many of his students reported. His response was
an exemplary admission of his absent-mindedness.
March 6, 1994.
Morawetz admits to a truly absent-minded act.