Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Songs of Oskar Morawetz

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Songs of Oskar Morawetz

Article excerpt


Oskar Morawetz is one of Canada's most beloved and frequently performed composers, having written music for orchestra, chamber groups, piano, and voice. Born in Svetla nad Sazavou in Czechoslovakia, January 17, 1917, he studied piano and theory in Prague and, following the Nazi takeover of his country in 1938, studied in Vienna and Paris, always staying one step ahead of the invading Nazis. At an early age he developed an ability to sight-read orchestral scores and at nineteen was recommended by George Szell for the assistant conductor's post with the Prague Opera. In 1940, he left Europe for Canada and settled in Toronto, where he remained until his passing on June 13, 2007.

His orchestral compositions have been programmed in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia by nearly 120 orchestras and by such outstanding conductors as Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Rafael Kubelik, Kurt Masur, Gunther Herbig, Andrew Davis, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Charles Mackerras, William Steinberg, and many prominent Canadian conductors. Among his most highly regarded works are his Piano Concerto and Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion, both premiered by Mehta; his Memorial to Martin Luther King and From the Diary of Anne Frank for soprano and orchestra have been performed on four continents.

His style absorbs, in his own distinctly personal way, several trends of the twentieth century, but he was never attracted to serial music or the latest avant garde chance or electronic music styles. Musicologists and critics usually stress the melodic and rhythmic vitality of his music, sincerity of expression, his sense for building up powerful, dramatic climaxes, and his colorful and imaginative orchestration. Morawetz taught music theory and composition from 1946 to 1982 at the University of Toronto, and many of his pupils are now active composers in their own right.1


Dr. Morawetz's songs (almost thirty in number) are well known to Canadian singers for their dramatic scope, lyric phrases, driving rhythms, and lofty texts. Many of his songs, such as "When we two parted," "Mother I cannot mind my wheel," "Mad Song," "Cradle Song," "Elegy," "Grenadier," "The chimney-sweeper," and "Psalm 22," feature poetry that offers a view of the psychological core of the character. These songs beg the singer to jump headlong into the situation and portray the reality of human experience to the audience.

Other songs are descriptive in nature, such as "From a Railway Carriage" of Souvenirs from Childhood, "To the Ottawa River," and "Little Lamb." The mysteries and joys of love are explored in "I love the jocund dance" and the four songs in the cycle Sonnets From the Portuguese. Refreshing innocence and happiness are expressed in "Escape at Bedtime" and "Foreign Children" from Souvenirs of Childhood and "Piping Down the Valleys Wild." Morawetz chose dramatic narrative texts reminiscent of the ballads of Loewe and Schubert for "The Weaver" and "Land of Dreams."

Morawetz's interest in singers was piqued at an early age. "At the age of ten my family sent me to Prague to go to school there ... when I came to Prague and heard Traviata and Aida and Wagner, right away I became crazy about opera. I said to my parents, 'Please give me the complete piano scores of these operas.' By the time I was thirteen I had played nearly all the Wagner operas and knew big parts of them by memory."2 It is interesting to note that Morawetz did not write a single opera during the span of his career, but chose instead to concentrate on smaller forms when writing for the voice.

Comparison to Contemporaries

Morawetz's music may be described as Romantic in comparison to some of his contemporaries. He made no attempt to conform to the "new vocalism" style of writing which was coming to the forefront with Luciano Berio's Sequenza and Cathy Berberian's Stripsody.3 Canadian composers such as Harry Somers (Voiceplay, written for Berberian, 1971), Micheline Coulombe-St. …

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