John Weinzweig, Canada's dean of classical composing, dies

Canadian classical music composer John Weinzweig died Thursday night in a Toronto hospital. He was 93.

Canadian classical music composer John Weinzweig died Thursday night in a Toronto hospital. He was 93.

Weinzweig had been in poor health for some time.

Often called the "dean of Canadian classical composing,"Weinzweig was considered a pioneer in introducing contemporary techniques to classical music, and getting audiences to accept them.

A founder of the Canadian League of Composers, he was a champion of Canadian classical music throughout his lifetime.

Friend and former student David Jaeger described him as a teacher,composer and political activist with a "big personality."

"He is identified as the person who created the profession of composing in this country," Jaeger said in an interview with CBC Arts Online.

"He had a great love of music, he was proud of his accomplishments and he often, without thinking twice about it, spoke for the whole profession."

Weinzweig attempted to instill a sense of professionalism in his students of composing, and paved the way for the next generation of Canadian composers, Jaeger recalled.

Weinzweig was the eldest child of Polish-Jewish immigrants living in Toronto and was born March 11, 1913.

As a child he learned to play mandolin, violin, tuba, tenor saxophone and bass, but at age 19 he decided to become a composer.

He attended the University of Toronto and, while studying conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music, he founded and conducted the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Composer Howard Hanson suggested he enrol at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. There he studied composition under Bernard Rogers and began to adopt the 12-tone method of composition that would be a mark of his creative thinking.

"He heard the music and was so moved by it, he wanted to find out more about it," said Elaine Keillor, a biographer who wrote about Weinzweig's life and legacy in John Weinzweig: The Radical Romantic.

He joined the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto in 1939 as a teacher and became a professor of music at U of T in 1952. He was an influential teacher, and many of his students went on to prominent careers.

At the same time, he was trying to make his mark as a composer.

He drew hostile reactions from audiences and Canada's reigning musical establishment over his use of the modern serial technique, Keillor said. It took years of work to overcome that hostility, she said.

While popular composers often are just basing their work on a pre-existing model, Weinzweig wanted to create a new and original way of expression, she said.

"Just listening to Beethoven and Mozart is not going to speak to what's happening here and now,"she said.

In 1941, he began composing background music for radio dramas for the CBC and, in 1942, he composed a film score for the National Film Board.

He continued to compose for stage, screen and radio throughout his career, an innovation that helped listeners accept a more radical style for contemporary classical music.

In 1951, he and several of his students formed the Canadian League of Composers and he became its first president. The league advocates for more opportunities for publication and performance of work by Canadian composers.

"Prior to his work creating these kinds of sounds, people thought of composing as something you did in your spare time," Keillor said,remembering Weinzweig's years of activism for the profession.

"He lobbied government to accept the fact that creation is important to the cultural life of the country."

He contributed to the creation of the Canadian Music Centre, which helps spread work by Canadians, and served on the boards of performing rights agencies, first the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association and later SOCAN.

Weinzweig had success with his Divertimento No. 1 for flute and strings and composed a series of Divertimento pieces for other instruments. He is also know for his 1967 Harp Concerto and for 1983's 15 Pieces for Harp.

His music was known for its clarity of texture, economy of material, rhythmic energy and short melodic outbursts contrasted with long flowing lines.

Weinzweig was an Officer of the Order of Canada. Among his many honours are the Molson Prize, the Roy Thomson Hall Award and the Toronto Arts Award.

He is survived by his wife, Helen, and two sons, Daniel and Paul.