Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Remembering Oskar Morawetz

The New York media have paid scant attention to the passing of the Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who died this month at 90. One of Canada’s few internationally known composers, Morawetz wrote in an accessibly melodic style and disputed the notion that contemporary classical music needed to be abstruse, famously saying “I can’t agree with these people who say you have to listen to a work ten to fifteen times to understand it; if I don’t like a piece of food, I don’t eat it ten more times to persuade myself that I do.”

The most widely known recording of Morawetz’s music is undoubtedly Glenn Gould’s recording of his dynamic, urban, and humorous Fantasy for piano on Sony/ BMG. The Fantasy is very Czech in spirit, recalling the writings of Karel Čapek or Jaroslav Hašek. And Gould’s recording is very enjoyable, although Morawetz carped at the liberties in tempo and dynamics Gould took, causing the pianist to exclaim: “The trouble with you, Oskar, is you don’t understand your own music!”

Morawetz composed a meditative concerto for harp (an instrument that rarely seems pensive) available on CBC Records, and a rambunctious Carnival Overture in the tradition of Dvorák, available on Naxos, and a deft, angular clarinet sonata (sensitively played by the virtuoso soloist Joaquin Valdepeñas) on CD from Musica Viva. Morawetz also wrote more somber works inspired by historical figures such as Anne Frank and Martin Luther King; these are frequently performed, although they lack the appealing lightness of his other compositions. Prone to severe depression, Morawetz composed sprightly works with an element of triumph over his natural low spirits, born of a lifetime of historical and personal struggle. A longtime bachelor, he embarked at the age of 40 on a miserable marriage lasting a quarter-century, through which he continued to compose. Only the death of his mother ten years ago at the age of 103 silenced him.

Lest Canada feel too proprietary about his achievements, it is useful to recall that Morawetz was almost refused admission as a refugee. Canada’s wartime director of immigration, Frederick Charles Blair, blocked the entry of all but a paltry 5,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 (by comparison, Mexico accepted around 20,000 escapees from Hitler and the U.S. around 140,000). When asked how many imperiled Jews Canada should offer refuge to, Blair notoriously replied, “None is too many.” Still, Morawetz was finally allowed to join his family in Toronto in June 1940.

An apt memorial tribute to Oskar Morawetz would be the long-overdue transfer to CD of a brilliant recording on Capitol Records of his Piano Concerto No. 1 by the Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (led by another Czech-born refugee, Walter Susskind). Morawetz (a trained pianist) made his own recordings of piano pieces like Scherzo and Scherzino, which would also be well worth transferring to CD. CBC Records, which has kept a quantity of other Morawetz CD’s in print, should consider releasing these valuable documents of his talent.


Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.