John Weinzweig

'Dean of Canadian composers'
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The Independent Online

John Jacob Weinzweig, composer, teacher and administrator: born Toronto, Ontario 11 March 1913; OC 1974; married (two sons); died Toronto 24 August 2006.

John Weinzweig was for decades a tireless crusader on behalf of his fellow composers and of modern music in Canada. The "dean of Canadian classical composing", he was, in 1951, the first President of the Canadian League of Composers.

With the industry typical of immigrant families - he was the first-born of a Polish-Jewish couple - as soon as Weinstein started to study music, he threw himself into the activity whole-heartedly, later recalling:

Between the ages of 14 and 19, I studied the piano, mandolin, tuba, double bass and tenor saxophone, as well as harmony. I played and conducted school orchestras, dance bands, weddings, lodge meetings and on electioneering trucks for a range of fees between two dollars and a promise. I played The Pirates of Penzance. I played "Santa Lucia", "Poet and Peasant", "The Blue Danube", "St Louis Blues", Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt, Chopin Waltzes, and "Tiger Rag" . . . At age 19 I got serious and decided to become a composer.

His time at the University of Toronto (1934-37) showed the same energy: no mere passive absorber of knowledge, Weinzweig founded and conducted the university symphony orchestra. His principal teachers there were the Balham-born Healey Willan for counterpoint and fugue, Leo Smith for harmony and Sir Ernest MacMillan for orchestration; he also took private conducting lessons from Reginald Stewart.

The American composer and teacher Howard Hanson then invited him to enrol in the master's programme of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, upstate New York, where he came under the tutelage of Bernard Rogers - his first formal lessons in composition. Eastman was far more open to new music than Toronto had been, and it was there that Weinzweig came into contact with 12-note technique, chiefly in the works of Schoenberg and Berg, and it formed the basis of his style. The rhythmic virility of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was another potent influence.

As the first Canadian composer to adopt an explicitly modernist style, he must have expected to encounter difficulties and, back in Toronto from 1938, both musicians and audiences objected to what he was writing. A first commission from CBC in 1941 for incidental music for a radio play and in 1942 from the National Film Board of Canada for a film score allowed him to put his music before a wide public without raising its hackles. Between then and 1951 he was to compose around a hundred radio and film scores, using them as a crucible to refine his technique.

Weinzweig's flow of mature compositions - one commentator noting their "clarity of texture, economy of material, rhythmic energy, and tight motivic organisation" - had begun as soon as he returned to Canada from Eastman, interrupted only by a period of service as a military bandmaster in the Royal Canadian Air Force (1943-45). A piano piece, Spasmodia, introduced serialism to Canadian music, and before long more ambitious structures began to follow: a first piano suite (1939), symphony (1940) a violin sonata (1941). A number of concertos are dotted through his late output, among them works for cello (1951-54), piano (1966) and harp (1967; he liked writing for harp).

But Weinzweig, who preferred to write on a smaller scale, had his own take on concerto form, producing a series of Divertimenti, 12 in all, composed between 1946 and 1998, short works for solo instrument(s) and strings (or small instrumental ensemble), woodwinds dominating his choice of soloist.

Given his background (his father had been jailed in Poland as a political activist), it's hardly surprising that Weinzweig was alert to the plight to refugees and other minority groups. Many of his film scores were written for government documentaries intended to familiarise their audiences with the new waves of immigrants coming to Canada - or, indeed, the peoples who had been living there to begin with - and his music often used elements from the music of the people in question.

That humanist concern was reflected in his concert works, too, in the orchestral Dummiyah/Silence (1969), commemorating the Holocaust. Wine of Peace (1957), a set of songs for soprano and orchestra, is dedicated, rather optimistically, "to the United Nations, where the dreams of mankind for peace on earth become a reality", and "Prisoner of Conscience", one of seven Choral Pieces (1985-86), to Amnesty International.

Although he never formally collaborated with his wife, the novelist and short-story writer Helen Weinzweig, her succinct prose style and laconic approach had its effect on his output, and the dry humour in much of his music became especially apparent in a number of quasi-theatrical pieces, launched in 1970 with a solo-percussion piece, Around the Stage in 25 Minutes During Which a Variety of Instruments Are Struck.

Weinzweig's deeply influential teaching career began in 1939, when Ernest MacMillan, Principal of the Royal Conservatory, asked him to join the staff to teach composition and orchestration. He remained there until 1952, when he was appointed to a chair at the University of Toronto. In the 26 years he was to spend there - he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1978 - he expanded the department to allow graduate studies in composition, and, between the two posts, saw many of the more important names of the succeeding generations of Canadian composers pass through his hands: Murray Adaskin, Samuel Dolin, Harry Freeman, Phil Nimmons and Harry Somers in the 1940s, John Beckwith, Srul Irving Glick and R. Murray Schaefer in the 1950s, Robert Aitken and Brian Cherney in the 1960s, Tomas Dusatko and David Jaeger in the 1970s.

Weinzweig's many official commitments (he served a second term as President of the Canadian League of Composers, 1959-63, as well as being President of Capac, the Composers', Authors' and Publishers' Association of Canada, 1973-75, and in 1959 was one of the instigators of the Canadian Music Centre) took their toll on his writing; when retirement allowed him to shake them off, his output blossomed and he remained productive into old age.

Hailing his 60th birthday in 1973, when Weinzweig still had three decades of compositions to come, Richard Henninger said:

Weinzweig broke the ground for the rest of us by putting sounds inspired by Berg and Stravinsky before radio and concert audiences at a time when such sounds were sure to meet resistance. By introducing contemporary techniques to a few sympathetic colleagues and students, he generated a small group of like-minded composers which became the foundation of the variety and quality found in Canadian music today.

Martin Anderson