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Music Individual Composer & Musician


Essays on His Life and Music

edited by John Beckwith

by (author) Brian Cherney

Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2011
Individual Composer & Musician, Composers & Musicians, History & Criticism
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2011
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Mar 2018
    List Price

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First comprehensive study of John Weinzweig (1913–2006), the pre-eminent Canadian composer of his generation, with essays by composers, theorists, and musicologists. Includes a CD of extracts.


Influenced by European modernists such as Stravinsky, Berg, and Webern, Weinzweig was the first Canadian composer to employ serialism, thereby bringing a spirit of innovation to mid-twentieth-century Canadian music. A forceful advocate for modern Canadian composition, Weinzweig played a key role in the founding of the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre during a buoyant and expansive period for the arts in Canada. He was an influential force as a teacher of composition, first with the Royal Conservatory of Music and later with the University of Toronto’s music faculty.

This first comprehensive study of Weinzweig since his death consists of new essays by composers, theorists, and musicologists. It deals with biographical aspects (the social context of early-twentieth-century Toronto, his activism, his teaching, his early scores for CBC Radio dramas), analyzes his compositional processes and his output (his approach to serialism, his instrumental practice, the presence of jazz elements, the vocal works, the divertimenti), and examines various evaluations of his music (his own – in letters, interviews, talks, and writings – plus those of critics and scholars, of listeners, and of performers). The essays are framed by the co-editors’ portrait/assessment of Weinzweig and a brief personal memoir. Much of the content draws on new research in the extensive Weinzweig Fonds at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Included at the end of the book are a List of Works by John Weinzweig by Kathleen McMorrow and a Discography by David Olds. Supplementing the volume is an audio CD of extracts (some in their first public release), ranging from a 1937 student work to a song cycle of 1994. /p

About the authors

John Beckwith’s thirty-eight years with the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, included seven as its dean and five as founding director of its Institute for Canadian Music. Among his compositions are four operas and many orchestral, choral, chamber, and solo works. A frequent contributor to Canadian and foreign music journals, he is the author of Music Papers (1997) and In Search of Alberto Guerrero (WLU Press, 2006).

Since 1972 Brian Cherney has been on the staff of the Faculty of Music (now the Schulich School of Music) at McGill University, where he teaches composition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. His extensive compositional output includes orchestral, choral, and instrumental music. His monograph on the Canadian composer Harry Somers was published in 1975.

John Beckwith's profile page

Since 1972, Brian Cherney has been on the staff of the Faculty of Music (now the Schulich School of Music) at McGill University, where he teaches composition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. His extensive compositional output includes orchestral, choral, and instrumental music. His monograph on the Canadian composer Harry Somers was published in 1975.

Brian Cherney's profile page


  • Winner, Association for the Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research

Editorial Reviews

"A thorough and affectionate account of John Weinzweig, his life and music, with detailed analyses of individual works. John was a friend, always ready with good advice, and this book says much about the development of the music scene in Toronto and how influential John was and how tirelessly he worked to move the ‘old boys’ into the twentieth century. A marvellous tribute to someone who has a unique place in Canadian music history."

Mary Lou Fallis

"John Weinzweig was a life force, a great Canadian, a wonderful musician and an exceptional composer. He was supremely influential as a teacher and composer, and a formidable activist for musical causes. How we could do with Weinzweig today, to lead the charge against the dumbing-down of culture. This magnificent collection of essays and memoirs has been fastidiously edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney. They have done full justice to their brief, superbly capturing the feisty, indomitable spirit of a man whose avuncular gaze could be dangerously disarming. The authors present a unique insight into the irascible, yet adorable nature of a creative spirit who was unfamiliar with compromise, and who until the very end of his long life was willing to confront mediocrity wherever he saw it. Compelling throughout, this is one of the most absorbing books on a composer that I have read in a long time."

Bramwell Tovey

"Weinzweig referred to himself as a 'radical romantic.' In an essay about how to play his music, Robert Aitken writes about 'his spry wit, intense irony, twinkling eyes yet steadfast seriousness of purpose.' By the end of the final essay, co-editor John Beckwith's affectionate Weinzweig As I Knew Him, a vivid portrait has emerged from the various perspectives explored in this superb book. This book has been produced with uncommon care, right from the cover art, through the documentation on Weinzweig's compositions and recordings, to the enclosed CD of his music. Throughout the text there are photos of items such as a page from his first piano teacher Gertrude Anderson's hand-written account of his early years, and a portrait by Harold Town, whose rejection of realism, as Robin Elliott shows, parallels Weinzweig's own unswerving rejection of tonality."


"This book represents a milestone in Canadian music: a groundbreaking book on John Weinzweig, the man who brought Canadian concert music into the 20th century. This book anticipates the celebrations in 2013 of Weinzweig's 100th birth year, but it's a fantastic addition to our understanding of our musical past through a thorough examination of Weinzweig's life and times. The editors Beckwith and Cherney have written some chapters themselves, each of which is marvelously researched, brimming with information and insight. But they've also done a fantastic job of choosing the other articles that are included. It is impressive because it deals with the man and the music with equal depth and understanding. This excellent book will set the standard for any future publications about Canadian artists in any discipline. Bravo to WLU Press for helping to make it happen!"

Laurence's Picks January 2011–Soundstream Blog

"In Weinzweig, Beckwith and Cherney commission 15 essays by writers, composers, and educators—including themselves—and provide us with an absorbing, penetrating and multifaceted understanding of John Weinzweig and his times.. Comprising personal reminiscence, historical, social, and artistic context, accessible descriptions of the compositions, and appreciations of the legacy, the book also includes a helpful catalogue of works and a discography by Kathleen McMorrow and David Olds, plus a CD produced by that stalwart of Canadian music broadcasting, David Jaeger.... Both books [Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music and Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer] incorporate photographs, music examples, detailed notes and indexes. In addition to their narrative strengths, the books also include comprehensive and credible technical discussions and anlysis of the subjects' music by practising composers, musicians, and authors. Should they delve into these chapters, general readers will learn a great deal about mid-20th-century compositional and performance practice too."

Literary Review of Canada, Vol. 20, no. 6, July/August 2012

"John Beckwith and Brian Cherney's co-edited book about the life and music of John Weinzweig is a valuable addition to the growing body of publications available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press devoted to Canadian music topics.... The sum total of the essays Beckwith and Cherney have a stunning achievement...which will no doubt serve as the benchmark for future Canadian composer studies for years to come.... Simply put, Beckwith and Cherney make the case that Canada's musical landscape, in terms of the concert hall, the university/conservatory classroom, and government granting agencies, was profoundly shaped by Weinzweig, and the picture today would be markedly different without his influential voice.... By bringing together such a diverse group of authors—composers, musicologists, theorists and performers—the editors have...presented all three aspects of Weinzweig—the composer, the teacher and the activist—through a refreshing, new lens. It is a brilliant achievement leading to stimulating insights not just about Weinzweig, but also about our musical culture during the second half of the twentieth century.... One feature worthy of praise is the impressive quality of the musical examples."

CAML Review (Canadian Association of Music Libraries), 39, no 2, August 2011

"This reviewer cannot remember reading a better compendium of essays on a composer's ‘life and music’ than this.... The book is beautifully balanced, written for literate music lovers, not just professionals. Readers will find biography, cultural and social history, personal recollection, and musical analysis both accessible and arcane—Weinzweig was, after all, ‘Canada's first serialist.’ The accompanying CD illustrates various aspects of the composer's style; one wishes it were longer, but both it and the work list/discography are welcome.... This is an important book on Canadian music from WWII through the 1980s. Summing Up: Highly recommended."


"This collection of essays about John Weinzweig, one of Canada's most respected and influential twentieth-century composers, offers a vivid description of a man whose music and life might best be understood through their surprising contradictions: a young, activist outsider who came to occupy iconic status in Canada's art music establishment in his senior years; Canada's ‘first serialist’ who advocated musical progress and innovation but continued to use twelve-tone techniques decades after they were out of fashion; and a musical style that balanced the harshness and warmth, seriousness and playfulness inherent in the man.... [The group of chapters exploring Weinzweig's music] offers a fresh, informed, and nuanced appraisal of a Canadian icon's music.... [while the] balanced picture of the man, which celebrates his huge accomplishments while admitting his foibles and failures, may be the most enjoyable aspect of the book."

MLA Notes

"A superb volume of essays on perhaps Toronto's most influential composer ever."

The Star, Feb. 10, 2012

"With the Weinzweig centenary coming up in 2013, the time does seem right to encourage more discussion concerning his influence and, hopefully, performance of his music. This new volume makes a valuable contribution to the rather small body of research devoted to Canadian composers... Each of the authors makes a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of how the craft of composition was practised by an important Canadian composer during one of the most tumultuous periods in musical history.... An excellent sampler CD, including representative works covering Weinzweig's entire career, accompanies the volume. Put together by veteran CBC producer David Jaeger, it is one of the best parts of the whole project. As the disc played through, I was struck again and again by the quality of the music. A complete list of works and discography is also included. Any composer who remains active for as long as John Weinzweig did is bound to go in and out of ‘fashion’ during his lifetime. One who is as involved with the “political’ side of things runs the risk of having his public feuds overshadow the importance of his music. This may have happened to this ‘self-made composer.’ If such is the case, then I hope that time will give performers and listeners the distance necessary to hear his compositions with fresh ears. This volume will help."

Intersections, 30/2, 2010

Other titles by John Beckwith

Other titles by Brian Cherney