He began to formally study conducting with Reginald Stewart at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. In 1937 he completed the Bachelor degree in music at the University of Toronto where the Faculty consisted of the dean, Ernest MACMILLAN, and two lecturers, Leo SMITH and Healey WILLAN. Weinzweig organized and conducted the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra, whose first concert took place in 1935, as well as writing concert reviews in the university newspaper, The Varsity.
When Howard Hanson, the head of the Eastman School of Music, was in Toronto to conduct, he gave Weinzweig encouragement on his compositional efforts. In 1937 Weinzweig began graduate studies at Eastman in Rochester, New York, where his main composition teacher was Bernard Rogers. Creating an impressive array of orchestral works during that year, Weinzweig was thrilled to have his Suite for Orchestra performed and broadcast on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1938 as the first Canadian work to be performed at the Annual American Symposium. Having discovered the music of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg while at Eastman, Weinzweig wrote the first Canadian work based on the 12-tone technique in 1938. He also was thrilled to discover while at Eastman the rhythmic potency and masterful orchestration of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Because he was determined to establish his own identity as a composer, he felt that he must return to the land of his birth.
Back in Toronto, he began to teach composition privately and then at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. At the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION Samuel Hersenhoren put together 52 Canadian Snapshots programs in 1940, each of which featured the music of a different Canadian. He was particularly impressed with Weinzweig's compositions and was instrumental in having Weinzweig create the first original music for radio drama in Canada. In the process of preparing over 100 orchestral/chamber scores for use on radio during the next three years Weinzweig was often called upon to relate Canada's history, landscape, and the experiences of its peoples in music. This he did by combining folk tunes relevant to the characters involved and the historical situation with elements of Canada's national anthem or musical material pertinent to the story. The resultant music was in an idiom heavily influenced by 12-tone technique and the rhythmic devices of Stravinsky and Bartòk.
By 1941 Weinzweig was also preparing film scores for the NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA. For North West Frontier, which dealt with life in the Northwest Territories, Weinzweig studied the musical expressions of the First Nations group known as DENE in order to develop a suitable musical expression for the score. Other NFB films for which Weinzweig wrote scores included Turner Valley, about the discovery of oil, The Great Canadian Shield, and one on the life of the painter Tom THOMSON.
His study of Canada's landscapes and the musical expressions of its people are reflected in a number of his concert works produced in the 1940s and 1950s such as the organ composition Improvisation on an Indian Tune (1942), Our Canada (1943) for orchestra, To the lands over yonder (1945) for choir, Edge of the World (1946) for orchestra, and the ballet score Red Ear of Corn (1949), the first Canadian score commissioned for the Canadian Ballet Festival. The latter was a blending of material of IROQUOIS origin and French-Canadian fiddling and folk song idioms to appropriately tell the story of the origin of occasional red cobs of corn instead of yellow in Québec. The story involves the first Iroquois maiden to be converted to Christianity. She had been forcibly engaged to the chief of her tribe and in his anger he stabbed her. Where her blood spilled onto the ground red ears of corn would occasionally appear among the crop. In addition to showing that a Canadian composer could write in large forms and for major ensembles such as orchestras, Weinzweig in these works that incorporated folk-music materials, revealed the potential of using small melodic and rhythmic gestures from folk melodies rather than just making an accompaniment for them. This Bartòkian technique has been absorbed by subsequent generations of Canadian composers and has remained a vital approach to the present day.
In the 1940s young musicians who wanted to obtain the skills to become composers began to hear about Weinzweig and became his students. Teaching at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto, 1939-43 and 1945-60, Weinzweig introduced rhythmic vitality, motivic organization, and other concepts of 20th-century composition to his pupils. His aim in teaching was always to show and guide students in obtaining compositional tools, but he encouraged each one to find his or her own voice.
For his own creative efforts he decided to concentrate on concert works rather than continue to place most of his creative energy into ephemeral incidental music for radio and film. By the mid-1940s he had evolved his own usage of the 12-tone technique for ordering his pitch materials. This approach incorporated a gradual appearance of the 12 tones in the row as a long, flowing melody through the "go-back-and-add-one" principle. Small motives from the chosen row might be used often as ostinatos in other parts of the texture, but the row is rarely used to create chordal formations as in the Violin Sonata (1941) and the String Quartet No. 2 (1946). In the 12 Divertimenti which Weinzweig composed between 1946 and 1998, the development of his distinctive approaches to pitch organization and rhythm can be clearly traced. Each Divertimento is usually scored for a solo wind instrument with a small chamber ensemble. The first one for flute obtained the highest medal awarded at the 1948 Olympics for Chamber Music category. With this series, the core of his compositional output, Weinzweig has provided intriguing works for instruments that have little solo repertoire and has also presented these instruments in a hitherto unknown light.
One of the reasons why Weinzweig decided to use chamber ensembles rather than full orchestra for most of his post-1950 compositions was because of the difficulty of getting performances in Canada, although works by Weinzweig had received some performances in New York, Prague and England (former students such as Harry SOMERS and Samuel Dolin were complaining about similar problems for their works). Weinzweig had been considering for some time the need within Canada for composers to band together to work for more performances of their compositions and to fully establish the idea of composer as a viable profession. By 1951 Weinzweig had established the Canadian League of Composers (CLComp), which presented their first concert, a program of works by Weinzweig, on 16 May 1951. One critic wrote that he had no idea that music of this quality was being created in Canada.
In 1952 Weinzweig was appointed to the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, where, until his retirement in 1978, he taught several generations of students, many of whom have become in their own right leading composers and teachers of music within Canada and abroad. During the years 1951-57 and 1959-63 he served as president of CLComp, rapidly expanding its membership to be representative of the whole country and forging important links with the Francophone community of Québec. Unlike the situation of composers' associations in many countries, the criterion for membership in CLComp was based on one's professional standing and attitude to compositional endeavours, not on stylistic approach. In 1957 Weinzweig prepared a brief for the Fowler Commission on Broadcasting and with John BECKWITH prepared a brief to the CANADA COUNCIL for the Arts. The latter resulted in the formation in 1959 of the CANADIAN MUSIC CENTRE, a library and informational centre for the dissemination and promotion of Canadian concert, operatic, educational and church music.
Although administrative duties and teaching restricted Weinzweig's own compositional activity, he continued to produce distinctive Canadian music. In the early 1960s his compositions incorporated rhythmic elements from JAZZ and swing. Clarity of texture, economy of material, rhythmic energy, short melodic outbursts contrasting with long flowing lines, and harmonies with some tonal orientation remain hallmarks of his style whether in the imaginative 15 Pieces for Harp (1983) or a choral work such as Hockey Night in Canada (1985).
Weinzweig's continuing lobbying in the 1990s to promote Canadian music led in part to the initiation of two important CD series, Canadian Composers Portraits and Ovation. Among the many honours he received was the appointment as Officer of the ORDER OF CANADA (1974), the Order of Ontario (1988), and the Canadian Music Council Medal (1978). In 1981 the Canadian League of Composers named him 'president emeritus,' and he was the first composer to ever receive the Molson Prize. Similarly he was the first composer to receive the Roy Thomson Hall Award in 1991. Subsequent awards were the Toronto Arts Award for music (1998) and the Life Achievement Award from SOCAN (2004).
Author ELAINE KEILLOR
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Music Centre
Search the extensive CMC website for Canadian composer biographies and interviews, music scores, online newsletters, audio clips, podcasts, and more. Check out "CentreStreams" to listen to online archived recordings featuring outstanding Canadian composers.
John Weinzweig fonds
An archival guide to the John Weinzweig fonds from Library and Archives Canada.
A profile of celebrated Canadian composer John Weinzweig. Includes a selected listing of his works. From "The Living Composers Website."
The 12-Tone Row
A brief introduction to 12-tone music, including audio clips. Part of "The Music Chamber," an extensive student website about chamber music.
John Weinzweig, 'Dean of Canadian Composers,' Dies at 93
An obituary for composer John Weinzweig from the website "PlaybillArts."
An extensive collection of audio clips from recordings featuring the National Arts Centre Orchestra performing works by noteworthy Canadian and international composers. Click on a composer's name on the right side menu to access specific works. See also composer biographies and the interactive timeline of historical milestones in classical music. From artsalive.ca and the Virtual Museum of Canada.