Canadian composer, fiddler Oliver Schroer dies at 52

Canadian fiddle player and composer Oliver Schroer, who successfully combined folk music traditions with elaborate classical arrangements, has died at age 52.

Canadian fiddle player and composer Oliver Schroer, who successfully combined folk music traditions with elaborate classical arrangements, has died at age 52.

Schroer died Thursday at a Toronto hospital of leukemia.

Schroer was best known for Camino, the composition he created while taking the famous 1,000 kilometre Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, and for his solo album, Hymns and Hers.

But he also played with artists such as Bruce Cockburn, James Keelaghan, Loreena McKennitt, Sylvia Tyson, violinist Anne Lindsay and bands such as Great Big Sea and Spirit of the West.

He created instrumental versions of folk and traditional songs from Asian, the Baltics and Scandinavia and somehow worked the fiddle into avant-garde contemporary orchestral music.

Guitarist Liona Boyd, who has known Schroer since they both were children, said his musical tastes were "very eclectic, different."

"He didn't want to stay on the traditional camino, the traditional path," she told CBC News. "He wanted to do his own thing. And through his experimental sounds and his different compositions, he reached out to communities and he had students that adored him."

Boyd said her own mother and Schroer's were best friends and the two families shared a farm near Markdale, Ont., called La Solitude.

"I remember him as a little boy," she said, adding that they met when he was seven and she was 13. 

"He was playing the recorder. That was my first instrument and everybody in the family played some musical instrument. He had a very formal German classical education. It's amazing how he's expanded. He played such a wide variety of music."

Schroer played French horn and studied violin as a child and graduated from Grey Highlands Secondary School in Flesherton, Ont.

But he dropped out of university to busk in the subways of Toronto and then took up fiddle music, despite his classical training.

His first album was Jigz Up, recorded in 1993, but he produced or performed on over 100 albums of new traditional, acoustic and popular music.

His remarkable Camino was recorded at churches found along the pilgrimage trail, which he walked with his wife in 2004.

Boyd and Schroer collaborated on a recording earlier this year that involved Croatian folk tunes with Schroer on fiddle and Boyd on guitar, playing Let's Go to the Mountains and Give to Me.

"I am so honoured and I'm thrilled that somehow our music will connect us and that his music will live on in my new album," she said.

"He improvised along with my guitar playing and my voice. He really is an extraordinarily soulful player."

A teacher and mentor

Schroer was also influential as a teacher and mentor, especially in Smithers, B.C., where he taught young people to fiddle.

He developed The Twisted String, a series of squads of young fiddlers and other musicians and both wrote music for and recorded with these young musicians.

Schroer composed more than 1,000 pieces of music, the most recent in the days before he died.

He had been battling leukemia for 16 months and doctors had warned him earlier this year that he was terminally ill.

But while his friends hoped for miracles, he had come to terms with dying, Boyd said.

When they were last together he had told her, "No, No I'm expecting it. I've had an amazing life and I'm ready," she said.

In his blog, which he sent to many fans as well as friends, Schroer wrote recently:

"Sometimes, I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that…. move to Tasmania. (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don't get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours."

Schroer gave his final concert, titled Oliver's Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet, on June 5.

Schroer is survived by his wife Elena, mother Irene, sister Martina, and brothers Andreas and Ansgar.

An Oliver Schroer Tribute Concert will be re-broadcast July 9 on Canada Live on CBC Radio 2.