Memorial to Martin Luther King

Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Oskar Morawetz was one of Canada’s most successful composers. Yet many audiences have not heard his music. Morawetz was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. Just as he reached an age when his professional musical aspirations were in sight, the Nazi regime invaded his homeland. He moved to Vienna to continue his piano study, but as a young man of Jewish heritage, it became increasingly clear that remaining in the German lands was unrealistic. When Hitler occupied Prague in 1939, Morawetz’s father obtained documentation allowing the family to travel to England, eventually resettling in Canada. Morawetz, however, decided he would be safe in Paris, which was not the case. After a harrowing journey from France to Italy to the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic, in 1940 he was finally reunited with his family in Canada where he completed his education at the University of Toronto, eventually joining the faculty himself.

Morawetz is, in many ways, a performer’s composer, as evidenced by the number of esteemed musicians who have commissioned or embraced his compositions. Glenn Gould, Jeanne Baxtresser, Itzhak Perlman, Jon Vickers, and Yo-Yo Ma are just some of the artists who have championed his work. In fact, it was famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who asked Morawetz to compose a cello concerto, but with some sort of unexpected instrumentation. This was the impetus for what was to become one of the composer’s most performed works, a Memorial to Martin Luther King. The concerto, composed in 1968 shortly after King’s death, programmatically portrays the civil rights leader’s final days, with sections musically depicting the Freedom March, the gunshot that claimed King’s life, and a funeral procession marked by quotation of the spiritual “Free at Last.” The composer described his vision as “the solo cello weeping above the marching procession epitomizing the cry of the people.” Morawetz honored Rostropovich’s instrumentation request by writing for an ensemble of orchestral winds and an expanded percussion section. He later explained, “It struck me. The image of the funeral processions passing by our house in Úpice when I was seven. I used to watch it with despair and deep sadness, thinking of the person who had died. I recalled that these processions were always accompanied by a wind band and drums. And so the idea of the funeral march being played solemnly by the wind instruments was born.” Thus, Morawetz’s words reveal the nostalgic recollection of a young boy whose life was irrevocably changed by notions of racial superiority in a land far away, while the composition itself stands as a tribute honoring the suffering felt throughout the Black community upon the death of King, and as an ongoing nod to those who continue to fight for an equality not yet achieved.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Morawetz for over half a century was considered one of Canada’s outstanding composers.  He was born in what is now the Czech Republic before the end of WWI, and studied in Prague until the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938.   He thereupon continued his education in Vienna and Paris.  With the advent of the war, after several futile attempts he managed to immigrate to Canada.  By 1946 he was teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, later beginning a long career at the University of Toronto.  During that time, he enjoyed widespread recognition and honor in his adopted country.  Composer of well over one hundred compositions, he worked in most genres, except that of opera.  Works for the orchestra were his forte, however.

His compositions have enjoyed great success over most of the globe, performed by the luminaries of the musical world.  His musical style may be considered somewhat conservative, never characterized by the ways of the Avant Garde, such as serialism or say, electronic music.   He had a secure mastery of the melodic line, dramatic pacing, and orchestra color.   In his own words: “Ever since I was a child, music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line.”  One of his most acclaimed and successful compositions is his From the Diary of Anne Frank (1970).  Of the awards that it garnered was a special one (“the most important contribution to Jewish culture and music in Canada”) from the J.I. Segal Fund for Jewish Culture in Canada in Montreal.

The genesis of Memorial to Martin Luther King began before King’s death, in 1967, when the great Russian ‘cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, impressed with Morawetz’s Two Fantasies for Cello and Piano, asked the composer to write a work him.  More specifically, Rostropovich asked that it be a rather unusual one:  not a concerto with the “usual form and content nor with the standard sized orchestra.”  Work went slowly, with minimal progress, until a few days after King’s murder Morawetz watched the extensive coverage of the obsequies on television.  He thereupon conceived the nature of this rather unusual work:  no strings at all, to feature the power and “dramatic colour” afforded by writing only for woodwinds, brass, a large percussion section, and piano.  Furthermore, it would in form employ a technique rather out of favor in contemporary composition:  a program.  That is, the work would “tell a story,” a narrative in music, of the events — in sequence — of King’s last day: the Freedom March in Memphis, the gunshot of assassination, his death, and ending with a funeral march.  The theme of the latter is based upon King’s favorite spiritual, “Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.”  The progress on the composition then went quickly, and the première took place in 1970 in Montreal.  Accolades for the work soon came quickly, and it is now considered one of the outstanding contemporary compositions of its kind.

Notwithstanding the composer’s reputation as somewhat conservative in melodic and harmonic style, the very nature of this work almost demands a dark, rather dissonant and stark content.  The introduction opens with a shriek of despair in the brass, accompanied by piano and percussion—setting the stage for the nation’s day of trauma.  The solo ‘cello then enters, ruminating in a loose and almost disjunct fashion, exploiting the dark, lower range of the instrument.  Insistent “throbbing” in the timpani and bass drum and dark wind chords complete the crepuscular atmosphere. 

The narrative proper then begins with the “Freedom March” from earlier in the fatal day, led by the piano.  As the somewhat jagged and punchy march proceeds the music tension ominously grows, little by little, until, of course, the fatal shot occurs—dramatically portrayed by a drum rim-shot, with timpani, bass drum, and whip, followed by a paroxysm of consternation in the winds. Solo ‘cello and orchestra interludes follow, varied, consistently evoking somber moods.  Throughout, Morawetz demonstrates his imaginative mastery of wind and percussion orchestration.

The following funeral procession is woven through with elements of the melody of the spiritual “Free at Last . . . ,” but in textures and harmonies that are everything but stable and traditional.  Here, the composer gives the lead to the wind orchestra, and employs the soloist as a kind of commentator between the orchestra’s clear iterations of the spiritual’s material.

The wind orchestra leads us to the finale with an extended statement, weaving a weft of motives and ideas from earlier, after which the solo ‘cello begins the peroration.  In best theatrical fashion, it deftly and gradually climbs higher and higher in tessitura, all the time seemingly drifting away from the turgid pain of the earlier heartbreak.  The end is ethereal, limpid, and seems to transcend and float above the leaden emotion of the day’s tragedy.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic at the Lincoln Center, February 2022.