Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music

By Wolters-Fredlund, Benita | Notes, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music


Wolters-Fredlund, Benita, Notes


NORTH AMERICAN COMPOSERS Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music. Edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011. [xiii, 402 p. ISBN 9781554582563. $50.] Music examples, illustrations, works list, discography, bibliography, index, compact disc.

This collection of essays about John Weinzweig, one of Canada's most respected and influential twentieth-century composers, offers a vivid description of a man whose music and life might best be understood through their surprising contradictions: a young, activist outsider who came to occupy iconic status in Canada's art music establishment in his senior years; Canada's "first serialist" who advocated musical progress and innovation but continued to use twelve-tone techniques decades after they were out of fashion; and a musical style that balanced the harshness and warmth, seriousness and playfulness inherent in the man. This paradoxical portrait of Canada's "dean of composers" emerges in fifteen chapters written by Canadian composers, theorists, musicologists, and performers, many of whom, as the preface explains, had a personal connection of some kind with Weinzweig. The book, which draws extensively on archival materials, reaffirms several familiar narratives about Weinzweig while offering revisions and alterations of the same. The importance of serialism in Weinzweig's composing, teaching and reputation is a well-known thread weaved through several chapters, as is his pioneering spirit (both in composing and organizing), his tireless lobbying on behalf of Canadian composers, and his sarcastic humor (although his nickname for Tor - onto Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan-"Lord Largo"-was a new one on me). Less commonly examined threads that also crisscross through this appraisal of Weinzweig's career are the nonserial influences on his style, the importance of his Jewish heritage in his activities and music, and his belief that artistic endeavors are and should be a kind of political or social action. These storylines play out in a varied collection of chapters organized under the headings "Biographical Themes," "The Composer," and "The Legacy."

Of the three chapter groupings, the most prominent is "The Composer," which may be due to the fact that six of the twelve authors are composers or theorists, including the editors. The five chapters under the heading "The Composer" investigate Weinz weig's use of serialism ("The First Canadian Serialist," by theorist Catherine Nolan); his instrumentation (" 'Naked and Unashamed': The Instrumental Practice," by composer Clark Ross); his use of texts ("Works with Texts," by Beckwith); the influence of jazz on his style (" 'Jazz Swing' and 'Jazz Blues,' " by Beckwith); and his twelve Divertimenti (" 'The Story of my Life': The Divertimento Series," by composer/theorist James K. Wright). In addition, musicologist Elaine Keillor's chapter "Music for Radio and Film" is heavily analytical (indeed, why this exploration of the development of Weinzweig's craft is included under "Biographical Themes" is something of a mystery), and flutist Robert Aitken's "How to Play Weinzweig," (under "The Legacy") offers specific suggestions about phrasing and rhythm that bring us into the nitty-gritty of Weinzweig's scores; I include both in this group as well. Because these seven chapters provide detailed score analysis (often making reference to set theory), they may not be as accessible to the general reader as the preface suggests. But they do provide the most comprehensive treatment of Weinzweig's music since Elaine Keillor's monograph ( John Weinz - weig and His Music: The Radical Romantic of Canada [Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994]), and probe specific works and genres in more detail than was feasible for her comprehensive overview.

These close studies of Weinzweig's pieces will help counteract a common condition among Canadian musicians, scholars, and classical music aficionados: they know the composer by his reputation as the father of musical modernism in Canada, but, aside from a few often-performed works (such as his prize-winning Divertimento no. …

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