Oskar Morawetz

Composer and pianist
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The Independent Online

Oskar Morawetz, composer, pianist and teacher: born Svetlá nad Sázavou, Austro-Hungarian Empire 17 January 1917; married 1958 Ruth Spafford Shipman (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1984); died Toronto, Ontario 13 June 2007.

A Jewish Czech refugee from Nazism, Oskar Morawetz became a composer of international stature with a substantial body of powerful and individual works to his credit.

He came from a privileged background; although his father, Richard Morawetz, a textile manufacturer in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lost much of his extensive land-holdings in Svetlá nad Sázavou in the post-war reforms of 1918, he did manage to hold on to one estate containing the castle where Oskar had been born the previous year, a building so huge that less than half of its over 70 rooms were furnished. The Morawetz family had sat out the First World War there, enduring bitter cold during the winters; after 1920 it was used as a summer residence only. The winters were then spent in the Sudeten foothills, before a family move to Prague in 1927.

Oskar had begun piano lessons at the age of six; in Prague he was able to study at the Conservatoire. At 16 he gave his first public recital, in his native Svetlá. But after graduating from high school in 1935 he suffered a nervous breakdown and, temporarily unwilling to touch the piano, respectfully observed his father's wish that he should start a career in forestry.

But with the rise of anti-Semitism, it seemed sage to acquire a more portable skill and so, in the autumn of 1937, Oskar again took up music. He was 19 when he auditioned for the conductor Georg Szell, who disparaged his pianistic ambitions and recommended him instead for a position as assistant conductor at the Prague opera, an offer Morawetz turned down. Instead, he went to Vienna, studying the piano with the Russian pianist and composer Julius Isserlis. Soon after the Anschluss, which he watched from his cousin's balcony, he was stopped in the street by a Gestapo officer and given an unprompted dressing-down. He returned to Czechoslovakia the next day.

The 1938 Munich agreement that gave Hitler the Sudetenland made Czech Jewry very nervous. Oskar was sent to study music in Paris, where he took occasional lessons with the pianist Lazare Lévy. With the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Richard Morawetz managed to use his political connections to obtain exit visas to Canada, via England, for himself and his wife. Turning down the opportunity of joining them, still in Paris when war broke out Oskar found himself, as a Czech, technically an enemy alien.

An attempt to escape via Spain and Portugal failed and he returned to Paris; a second attempt, lubricated by bribes, got him as far as Trieste and there, for the next few months, he was stuck. Eventually, he acquired the paperwork to fly to the Canary Islands, where he boarded a ship to Santo Domingo. From there, in June 1940, he was able finally to rejoin his family in Canada.

He enrolled at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto soon after his arrival and began composing only because it was required of him as part of his course-work. His 1945 composition, the Carnival Overture, launched him as a composer, thanks to its lively Slavic rhythms. After its premiere at the hands of Sir Ernest MacMillan, the Carnival Overture was taken up by conductors of the standing of Sir Adrian Boult, Rafael Kubelík and Walter Susskind and secured Morawetz an international reputation.

His teaching career began in 1946, when he joined the staff of the Conservatory, switching to the University of Toronto in 1952. He was the archetypical absent-minded professor, his hair often unkempt or his shirt hanging out; on one occasion he put on a second tie, forgetting that he was already wearing one. He was a gifted teacher, much appreciated by his students, who enjoyed the jokes that spiced his classes and were frequently astonished by the capacity of his musical memory.

To begin with, he was still a student himself: in 1953 he was awarded a doctorate in music, composing his First Symphony as part of the procedure. Although he continued to appear as a solo recitalist or accompanist, composing gradually pushed his piano-playing to the side. A methodical worker, he would force himself to sit at his writing desk even when he didn't feel in the mood.

One of his best-known works, the moving Memorial to Martin Luther King for cello, winds and percussion, had a more spontaneous origin. In 1967 Morawetz had met the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who asked him for something "different, unusual". Inspiration eluded Morawetz, he recalled, until,

In April of 1968 when I watched on television (three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King) the slow, sad and very moving funeral procession in Atlanta, the idea suddenly struck me to write for Rostropovich a work dedicated to the memory of King. It happened, to be quite accurate, when I saw on the screen King's gravestone with the inscription of his favourite spiritual: "Free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last!" The same day I saw clearly in front of me the form, content and orchestration of my composition.

Though he wrote plenty of cheerful music (his songs include a setting of Blake's "I Love the Jocund Dance"), Morawetz felt that "The important dramas of life – Shakespeare is a case in point – are tragic in nature. The contemporary idiom is essentially dramatic." He responded with such works as the setting of Psalm XXII, inspired by Auschwitz, the choral Prayer for Freedom (1994), based on anti-slavery poetry, and the widely performed From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970) for mezzo soprano and orchestra. But he also honoured the traditional abstract forms, writing six string quartets, among many other chamber pieces, and concertos for piano, clarinet and harp.

From the 1950s onwards he became one of Canada's most successful composers, attracting a shower of prizes and receiving performances around the globe from the world's leading musicians. His home life, by contrast, was less happy: his marriage began to break down and in 1984 he and his wife divorced.

Morawetz's old age was ill-starred, too: the stress of a trip to Prague in 1995 provoked another breakdown, leading to the clinical depression which ended his composing. A bad fall in 2001 occasioned brain damage, whereupon Parkinson's disease set in.

Martin Anderson