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Overview

Oskar Morawetz was born in Světlá nad Sázavou in Czechoslovakia on 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 the ability to sight-read orchestral scores and at the age of 19 he was recommended by George Szell for the assistant conductor's post with the Prague Opera. In 1940 he left Europe for Canada and since that time he has established himself as one of Canada's leading and most frequently performed composers.

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, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Charles Mackerras, William Steinberg and many prominent Canadian conductors. Many internationally acclaimed soloists have performed and recorded his compositions including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianists Glenn Gould, Rudolf Firkušný and Anton Kuerti, Metropolitan Opera singers Jon Vickers, Maureen Forrester, Victor Braun, Louis Quilico, Judith Forst and Ben Heppner, and many principal wind players of the best orchestras in the U.S.A. and Canada who have commissioned and premičred his works.

His style absorbs, in his own distinctly personal way, several trends of the 20th century. However he was never attached to serial music or the latest avant-garde styles such as chance or electronic music. Musicologists and critics usually stress the melodic and rhythmic vitality of his music, sincerity and depth of expression, his sense for building up powerful, dramatic climaxes, and his unusually colourful and imaginative orchestration. Stylistically, he is a self-avowed traditionalist: "Ever since I was a child, music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line."

Among his most highly regarded works are his Piano Concerto and Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion both premičred by Mehta. His Memorial to Martin Luther King was broadcast by radio stations in 24 countries in 1979 in honour of King's 50th birthday, and by nearly 250 stations in the USA in 1987 in a special performance by Kurt Masur and the Cleveland Orchestra. This composition as well as his From the Diary of Anne Frank, which conductor Karel Ancerl described after its Carnegie Hall premičre as "one of the most moving compositions he had conducted during the last two decades", have both been performed on four continents.

Morawetz has received numerous awards for his compositions. His String Quartet No. 1 and Sonata Tragica were both given a CAPAC award. His Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra was the award winning composition in the nation-wide competition sponsored by the Montreal symphony (1962). His Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion was chosen as the winning composition of Critics' Award at the International Competition for Contemporary Music in Cava dei Tirreni, Italy (1966). In 1971, From the Diary of Anne Frank received a special award from the J.I. Segal Fund for Jewish Culture in Canada in Montreal for "the most important contribution to Jewish culture and music in Canada." This composition won a Juno Award for "Best Classical Composition" in 2001. His Concerto for Harp and Orchestra also won a Juno award in 1989.

On three occasions, Morawetz was awarded a Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship (1960, 1967, 1974) for his contribution to Canadian music. In 1987, Morawetz was the first composer in Canada to receive the Order of Ontario honouring citizens "who have demonstrated excellence and achievement of the highest degree and distinction", and in 1989 he received the Order of Canada for his "outstanding achievements and service". SOCAN also honoured Morawetz in 1994 with the Jan V. Matejcek Concert Music Award, which recognizes a composer with "an unsurpassed number of performances of a vast variety of works executed by world renowned conductors and performers". In 1999, SOCAN once again honoured Morawetz with its highest honour, the Wm. Harold Moon Award for bringing international recognition to Canada through his work. Morawetz was also awarded an honorary diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music (1998), and the Golden Jubilee Medal (2002).

A great number of his works have been recorded on disc by Columbia, RCA Victor, EMI, Sony Classical, the Canadian Music Centre (Centrediscs), and the CBC. In 1984 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation issued an anthology of Morawetz's music on seven records. In 2002 the Canadian Music Centre, produced Canadian Composers Portraits, a documentary and music CD set on the pioneering composers to Canadian music.

Morawetz began teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1946, and in 1952 was appointed to the University of Toronto where he was professor of composition until his retirement in 1982.