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Dummiyah (1969)

  • Composer: Weinzweig, John
  • Conductor: Tovey, Bramwell
  • Performance Date: 2003-07-22
  • Recording courtesy of CBC Radio 2
Portrait of composer Weinzweig, John

Weinzweig, John

Mar 11, 1913 - Aug 24, 2006

Overview

Can silence be portrayed in sound? That is the challenge in Dummiyah, the Hebrew word for silence. To Weinzweig, silence was the only possible response to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in the death camps. In this ultra-quiet work, he attempts to deal with this issue using timbre and tone color rather than themes and harmony. Learn more

Music Connection

The Spirit of the Age: Composers Responding to Historical Influences

Description: Composers reflect the spirit of their own age in their music, intentionally or not. Sample works from Canadians John Weinzweig, Michael Colgrass, Oskar Morawetz, Barbara Pentland, André Prévost, and Claude Vivier illustrate the techniques and approaches composers use to respond to their own times. Learn more

Biography

Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913;
died in Toronto, August 24, 2006

Although he was certainly not the first composer in Canada, John Weinzweig, more than any other, helped establish the profession of composer in this country. For this reason he has become known as the “Dean of Canadian Composers.” Furthermore, few will argue that he has exerted more influence than any other living musician on the classical music scene in Canada. In nearly forty years on the faculties of the Royal Conservatory and the University of Toronto (he retired in 1978), Weinzweig served as teacher and musical guide for a good number of Canada’s best composers.

Getting started

Despite his unofficial title of “Dean of Canadian Composers,” Weinzweig came from neither of the predominant cultures that founded Canada, neither the French nor the English, but rather from Polish-Jewish ancestry. Nor did he follow the traditional routes of early Canadian composers to study in France (if you came from French Canada) or England (if you came from English Canada). Following studies at the University of Toronto, he broke with tradition and headed for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Here he received his first instruction in composition (it simply was not taught in Toronto at the time), and after only a year working with Bernard Rogers returned to Toronto with a Master’s degree.

Back in Toronto

His first year back in Toronto (1939), Weinzweig composed the first piece of Canadian music using serial technique (the second movement of his Suite for Piano No. 1). But conservative Toronto was not yet ready to accept the new sounds Weinzweig had encountered at Eastman. “The rest of his biography,” writes Florence Hayes, “is, in large part, the history of the development of new music in Canada.” R. Murray Schafer observed in 1973 that “if I were to name [Weinzweig’s] principal service to Canada, it could be that he rode out the first storm of criticism alone, until he could educate enough other composers to offer him the companionship of the Canadian League of Composers. His refusal to admit that music was at a standstill … gradually won a more benign attitude for the reception of our music.” Composer Gary Kulesha said at a 90th birthday tribute in 2003: “From his activities as a composer to his wide range of work as an organizer and administrator, John has affected every classical musician in this country in some way for over 60 years. At 90, he is still changing the world, still insisting on doing things the right way. He is still demanding respect. He is still insisting that Canadians should have a commitment to Canadians. It is hard to imagine how anyone could deserve the title ‘Dean of Canadian Composers’ more.”

Work for radio and film

Between 1941 and 1951 Weinzweig composed music to some one hundred programs of radio dramas for the CBC, including the series New Homes for Old, White Empire and Jalna. He also wrote several film scores for the National Film Board. In this body of work, Weinzweig had the opportunity to hone his craft and to develop his personal style, a style that began to wean listeners away from the exclusively traditional, conservative music to which they had been accustomed.

Teaching

From 1939 to 1960 (except for a stint in the Air Force from 1943-45) at the Toronto Conservatory and from 1952 to 1978 at the University of Toronto, Weinzweig trained a veritable Who’s Who of the profession: Murray Adaskin, Robert Aitken, John Beckwith, Norma Beecroft, Brian Cherney, Harry Freedman, Srul Irving Glick, Gary Hayes, Bruce Mather, R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, and many, many more.

Administrative posts

In 1951, along with Harry Somers and other colleagues and students, Weinzweig was one of the founding members of the Canadian League of Composers, and became its first president. Eight years later he was instrumental in founding the Canadian Music Centre, which so importantly promotes and disseminates music of Canadian composers across the country and around the world. From 1973-75 he served as president of the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada (CAPAC).

His music

In the course of a career spanning more than sixty years, Weinzweig produced a large body of works for virtually every performing medium except opera. Of particular importance is his output of chamber music (more than thirty works) and the series of twelve Divertimentos for solo instrument(s) and string orchestra. These he composed over a span of half a century, beginning with the one for flute and strings in 1946 (which won him a silver medal at the 1948 Olympics) and concluding with the one for woodwind quintet and strings in 1998. In between came divertimentos featuring instruments that do not often get into the spotlight: oboe, bassoon, alto saxophone, horn, tuba and English horn, among others. His full-length concertos for violin, piano and harp are among the most important for these instruments composed by a Canadian. The first piece of Canadian music to employ the twelve-tone process is by John Weinzweig (the Suite for Piano No. 1 of 1939). There is also a substantial body of works for piano and for voices. The article about Weinzweig in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada lists the following characteristics of his output generally: “clarity of texture, economy of material, rhythmic energy, tight motivic organization, short melodic outbursts contrasted with long flowing lines, and harmonies that, though often harsh, never fully lose their tonal orientation.”

Honors, awards and more

When Radio Canada International launched its Anthology of Canadian Music series in 1978 (a series that grew to over thirty volumes), Weinzweig was the first composer to be so honored. He has received honorary degrees from the Universities of Ottawa and Toronto. Conferral of the Order of Canada in 1974 served as recognition of his unrelenting efforts to improve the welfare of the Canadian composer and to enrich Canada’s musical life. In 1978 he was awarded the Canadian Music Council Medal, in 1981 the Canadian League of Composers designated him “president emeritus,” in 1988 he became a member of the Order of Ontario, and in 2002 he received the Golden Jubilee Medal. He was the first composer to be awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize in 1981 and the first composer to receive the Roy Thomson Hall Award in 1991. Weinzweig’s international standing is such that by the 1980s, he estimated that about half of his royalties came from foreign countries.

Concert Program Notes

John Weinzweig: Born in Toronto, March 11, 1913; died in Toronto, August 24, 2006

Dummiyah is the Hebrew word for silence, and silence is the binding element of Weinzweig’s eponymous 15-minute composition. Aside from John Cage’s (in)famous 4:33, there is no such thing as music created entirely from silence. But in Dummiyah, Weinzweig uses silence in dramatic ways to set off important material. To him, silence is the only response to the horrors perpetrated on the Jews in the Nazi death camps. Inspiration for his composition came from reading a book about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the evidence given by survivors. Weinzweig also drew inspiration from Psalm 39 (“I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. / I was dumb with silence, I held my peace ...”) A third source of inspiration came from the brooding presence of a dormant volcano, Popocatepetl, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that Weinzweig contemplated while composing Dummiyah. The work was written during the winter months of 1969 while the composer was in Mexico on sabbatical from the University of Toronto. The first performance was given on July 4 of that year at the MacMillan Theatre at the University of Toronto by the CBC Festival Orchestra conducted by Victor Feldbrill.

“In [Dummiyah],” writes Weinzweig, “I wanted to explore the shape and vitality of silence - how do you turn silence into a kind of rhythm? Well, it opens up with several beats of silence ... The conductor is giving beats, but there is no sound. ... In the course of the work there is [sic] approximately thirty seconds of silence in which the players are holding their instruments but there is no sound ... Silence is the unspoken word. A shadow of something heard. Silence is the final sound of the Nazi Holocaust.”

There are no “themes” in Dummiyah. Instead, Weinzweig conveys his artistic intent with timbre, color and the dramatic gesture. The music remains on the quiet side of the dynamic spectrum throughout the work’s seventeen-minute length, rising above mezzo-piano for only a few isolated shrieks of horror from the woodwinds. Strings provide a soft, dense mass of sound interrupted four times by brief, rhythmically excited episodes from the woodwinds: first flutes and piccolo, next oboes and English horn, then clarinets and bass clarinet, and finally bassoons and contrabassoon. Each “trio” is followed by commentary from the harp and percussion. The full orchestra is used only at the end, where the dynamic level remains ppp. One feature of Dummiyah, not detectable from a recording, is the theatrical gesture of the conductor beating several measures of “silence” at both the beginning and the end.

Robert Markow

This Year in History: 1969

History, Politics and Social Affairs

  • The Official Languages Act is passed, with English and French both declared official languages of the federal administration under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
  • 5,000 attend a Toronto rally to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
  • The last resident of Canada’s worst slum, Africville, located in Halifax, is persuaded by the city to sell his home.
  • Herbert Gray is introduced as the first Jewish cabinet minister.
  • The Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan adopt official flags.
  • Richard M. Nixon is inaugurated as President of the United States.
  • James Earl Ray is charged with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. He is sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee state penitentiary.

Nature, Science and Technology

  • Canada Post terminates Saturday delivery and post office service.
  • The RCMP makes its last northern dog sled patrol before replacing the teams with snowmobiles.
  • The Canadian Snowbirds aerobatic team is formed.
  • Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the moon as part of the Apollo program.
  • U.S./Canada ISIS 1 is launched to study the ionosphere.

The Arts, Literature and Entertainment

  • The Montreal Expos, Canada’s first major league baseball team, play in the National League.
  • The first Canada Summer Games are held in Halifax-Dartmouth.
  • Margaret Atwood publishes her humorous first novel, The Edible Woman.
  • The rock musical Hair, with music by Montrealer Galt MacDermot, makes its Canadian premiere in Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.
  • The National Arts Centre opens in Ottawa. It remains the only bilingual multipurpose performing arts center in North America.
  • Group of Seven painters Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley die.
  • The Beatles give a free concert for their last time together in public.

Music Connection

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.

The Spirit of the Age: Composers Responding to Historical Influences explores some important questions in relation to Canadian composers and their place in the twentieth century. The composers featured here lived through and were affected by momentous times. In their music we find the influence of the Holocaust, post-World War II Communist oppression, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, civil rights protests, the rise of Black Power, the suppression of Czechoslovakian democracy, anti-homophobia, global pollution issues and more.

Learn more