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R. Murray Schafer

Schafer’s Biography

Raymond Murray Schafer [André Leduc]

R. Murray Schafer is Canada’s pre-eminent composer who, in an era of specialization, has shown himself to be a true Renaissance man. Schafer has won national and international acclaim, not only for his achievements as a composer, but also as an educator, environmentalist, literary scholar, visual artist, and provocateur. After receiving a Licentiate in piano through the Royal Schools of Music (England), he pursued further studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto, followed by periods of study in Austria and England.

Schafer's diversity of interests is reflected in the enormous range of his output: scholarly books, theatre works, pieces for amateur and professional choirs, commissions for orchestral works from the Toronto Symphony, Montreal Symphony, Kyoto Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, and others, as well as a cycle of eleven string quartets and numerous works for solo voice with both piano and orchestral accompaniment. In addition, there is the monumental PATRIA cycle of twelve related music dramas, many of which are presented in unusual settings or at special times of the day or year.

As the originator of the word ‘soundscape,’ Schafer initiated research in acoustic ecology with the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver during the early 1970s. The research is described in several publications, notably The Tuning of the World (which remains in print after 30 years and has been translated into several languages). The concept of soundscapes embraces all disciplines concerned with sound and the growing interest in soundscape research around the world led to the formation of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology in 1994. WFAE hosts international conferences and publishes a journal entitled Soundscape. This work has influenced countless composers world-wide and has had significant influence on Schafer’s own environmental works.

Celebrating Schafer’s 75th birthday, following a concert of Schafer’s works by the National Arts Centre Orchestra at Southam Hall on March 26, 2008. In this photo: Maestro Alexander Mickelthwaite, mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, R. Murray Schafer, and soprano Donna Brown. [Dyanne Wilson Photography]

In 1975, Murray Schafer left the Communications Department of Simon Fraser University to live as a free-lance composer and writer in Ontario. Schafer’s rural environment has allowed him to work with communities in Maynooth and Peterborough, remarkable models for how artists can integrate into their societies. Schafer founded the Maynooth Community Choir, with whom he wrote and produced the music theatre piece Jonah. He chose his rural home near the Peterborough area to work on artistic projects with this community. The productions of Patria 3: The Greatest Show in Peterborough in 1987 and 1988 included the participation of local amateurs. During Schafer’s years as the Artistic Director of the Peterborough Festival of the Arts, he helped steer a small, local undertaking with traditional programming towards an ambitious diversified arts festival garnering both strong regional support and national recognition. Schafer encourages artists to draw on the riches of their local surroundings and culture. The beauty of Canada’s wilderness is the setting of the Patria prologue The Princess of the Stars, which has been performed several times at different outdoor sites across Canada. Other outdoor works include The Enchanted Forest and The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, performed at the Haliburton Forest in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Besides his work as a dramatist, music educator, music journalist, and in the new field of soundscape studies, Schafer has made significant contributions to the humanities as a musicologist, literary scholar, creative writer, and visual artist. His E.T.A. Hoffman and Music is the first book-length study on the subject and his Ezra Pound and Music is a major achievement of musical and literary scholarship. In addition to prose works, he has also written a number of creative literary pieces which include the novellas Dicamus et Labyrinthos and Ariadne, both of which exhibit the composer’s calligraphy and art. Schafer’s visual art can be seen in many of his musical scores which include illustrations and/or graphic notation. Many of these have been exhibited in art galleries.

Schafer is best known for his writings on music education, including The Composer in the Classroom (1965), Ear Cleaning (1967), Creative Music Education (1976), A Sound Education (1992), and HearSing (2005). His works have been translated into multiple languages, and his innovative methods have been used in classrooms around the world.

In the 1980s, Schafer wrote concertos for flute, harp, and guitar, three string quartets, and various chamber and orchestral works, and he continues to receive commissions. In particular, his love for the solo female voice has inspired numerous works. Specifically for his partner Eleanor James’s rich mezzo-soprano voice, he has written demanding chamber music (Tanzlied for voice and harp, Tantrika, voice and percussion) and works for voice and orchestra (Letters from Mignon and Thunder/Perfect Mind). These works, as well as the orchestrated version of the Minnelieder were newly released in May 2007 by ATMA Classique to critical acclaim. Eleanor James has also appeared in leading roles in most of the Patria theatre works.

Schafer’s diversity belies generalizations of style; his work could be described as a synthesis of 20th century avant-garde techniques with 19th century Romantic spirit. In 1977, he received both the Canadian Music Council’s first Composer of the Year award and the first Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. In 1980 he was awarded the Prix International Arthur-Honegger; in 1985 he received the Banff Centre for the Arts National Award, and in 1987 he became the first recipient of the $50,000 triennial Glenn Gould Award. Schafer holds seven honorary doctorates from universities in Canada, France, and Argentina. Yehudi Menuhin praised “His strong, benevolent, and highly original imagination and intellect, a dynamic power whose manifold personal expressions and aspirations are in total accord with the urgent needs and dreams of humanity today.”


Sources consulted: Canadian Music Centre, Arcana Productions, Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. More detailed information on Murray Schafer's life and work can be found in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Schafer with Montreal school children in the 1960s. [François Varin]
Learn more about Murray Schafer's educational philosophy and ideas for the classroom teacher in these Teaching videos.