The Composers and their Music


Colgrass (1932) was born in Chicago and now lives in Toronto. In this work Colgrass imagines that Mozart has written him a letter encouraging him to write some music to express the beauty of the age, instead of focussing on its misery as so many composers do. The theme is a Mozartian melody which is constantly interrupted in surprising ways – by the orchestra strings, an oompah band, and even an accordion, keeping us as listeners off balance. Two conductors are needed to conduct the piece, adding an element of the unexpected. The piece was first performed in 1976 in New York by the Musica Aeterna Orchestra with Frederic Waldman conducting.

Photo of composer Michael Colgrass

Portrait of composer Michael Colgrass


Morawetz (1917-2007) was born in what is now the Czech Republic and died in Toronto. He escaped to Canada but lost many relations and friends in the Nazi concentration camps. This music for soprano and orchestra dramatises a less well-known part of Anne Frank's diary where Anne thinks about her school friend Lies Goosens who had already been taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis. The words, taken directly from the translation of the diary, express Anne's guilt over being safe while her friend is in danger, and her sorrow for all the Jewish people. Morawetz asked Anne's father for permission to use the words for the composition, leading to a lifelong friendship between the two men.

The first performance was in 1970 with the Toronto Symphony, conducted by Lawrence Leonard, and Canadian soprano Lois Marshall.

Photo of composer Oskar Morawetz

Portrait of composer Oskar Morawetz


Pentland (1912-2000) was born in Winnipeg and died in Vancouver. News is an expression of her horror of war, written at the height of the Cold War, a time of enormous turmoil in the world. The lyrics are derived from actual newscasts and newspaper articles during the 1968-1970 time period, and refer to the arms race, the war in Vietnam, an oil spill, the suppression of the Prague Spring, the rise of black power, the emergence of the ‘drop-out' generation and more. The final reference is to the first moon landing July 20, 1969.

Notice the use of stuttering to suggest the mechanical world of teletype and machine guns, words sung backwards (‘news' becomes ‘swen'), the use of foreign words, fanfares and the innovative technique of having the singer sing with a tape of herself. The work was first performed in 1971 by the NAC Orchestra with conductor Mario Bernardi and soprano Phyllis Mailing.

Photo of composer Barbara Pentland

Portrait of composer Barbara Pentland


André Prévost (1934-2001) was born in Hawkesbury Ontario and died in Montréal, Québec. This joyful piece was written to celebrate the opening of the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a tribute to the founding fathers of Canada who signed the agreement making Canada a nation in Charlottetown a century earlier. Notice the use of brass and percussion fanfares and a long lyrical oboe solo. It was first performed in the Centre by the Halifax Symphony in 1966 with conductor John Fenwick.

Photo of composer André Prévost

Portrait of composer André Prévost


Vivier (1948-1983) was born in Montréal and died very young in Paris, France. The title Wo bist du Licht! comes from German poet Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin's poem "Light, where are you?" In this poem a blind old man remembers the joys of his youth and longs for freedom, perhaps through dying. Vivier combines the words of the poem first with a recording of either Martin Luther King's "Let freedom ring" speech or a news report of Robert Kennedy's assassination (both events occurred in 1968), then with a made-up language and finally with a news report about torture which is delivered in very neutral news reporter style. The work was commissioned by the Société Radio Canada in 1981.

Photo of composer Claude Vivier

Portrait of composer Claude Vivier


Weinzweig (1913-2006) was born and died in Toronto, and was a leading Canadian composer of his generation. "Dummiyah" is the Hebrew word for silence. This work attempts to respond to the horror of the Nazi Holocaust by expressing musical silence – the only fitting response in the composer's view.

The music is mostly quiet, and moves in a very formal pattern from ‘string mass' to woodwind episode to harp with percussion. The ending is very dramatic: the musicians keep their instruments ready to play while the conductor conducts a silence for as long as two minutes, gradually retiring one group of instruments after another. The work was first performed by the CBC Festival Orchestra conducted by Victor Feldbrill in 1969.

Photo of composer John Weinzweig

Portrait of composer John Weinzweig

Credits and Copyright

  • Image Asset: Michael Colgrass
    Paul Hoeffler
  • Image Asset: Oskar Morawetz
    Arnold Matthews
  • Image Asset: Barbara Pentland
  • Image Asset: André Prévost
    Canadian Music Centre
  • Image Asset: Claude Vivier
    Canadian Music Centre
  • Image Asset: Dummiyah
    John Weinzweig Estate
Virtual Museum of Canada

To access the Virtual Museum of Canada's complete digital learning resources and lesson plans, visit the VMC Teachers' Centre.