The Toronto that composer John Weinzweig was born into a hundred years ago has more or less disappeared. Yes, many of the buildings are the same. The Weinzweig family home at College and Clinton, in fact, is still there – it's getting a historical plaque next week to honour him as the dean of Canadian classical composition.
But the spirit of the city – its mores, its arts scene, its culture, its people, its heart – has all changed. And this week, as fine Canadian performers and the University of Toronto honour the centenary of Weinzweig's birth with a series of concerts and a day-long symposium, it's worth noting that those changes are due, in no small measure, to the efforts of the composer himself. If there are Canadians today who can make a professional living writing serious music, it's because of the pioneering efforts of Weinzweig.
Weinzweig came by his organizing genius naturally. His father, Joseph, who established the family in Toronto in the early part of the 20th century, had been a union organizer in his native Poland, jailed for his activities there, and not-so-politely coaxed to leave the country permanently. John grew up in a fascinating, predominantly Jewish communitythat stressed humanitarian ideals, the life of the mind, and an emphasis on social justice. By the time he had left Harbord Collegiate, where he had rubbed shoulders with such fellow students as Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, Sam (The Record Man) Sniderman, future Bank of Canada Governor Louis Rasminsky, and deli owner Sam Shopsowitz, Weinzweig knew he wanted to be a composer.
But inthe colonial backwater of mid-century Toronto, to be a composer meant, more or less, arranging hymns for next Sunday's church service. We had been blessed with enough good taste, we then felt, to be able to safely ignore the 20th century that foamed all around us.
Weinzweig punctured that smug insularity. After returning from his studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., full of the radicalism of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone composing method, he eventually became the pioneer who led two generations of Canadian composers tumbling into the present. Murray Adaskin, John Beckwith, Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, Harry Freedman, Phil Nimmons, Robert Aitken, David Jaeger, Brian Cherney, Marjan Mozetich, Doug Riley – for 30 years there was barely a Canadian composer whom Weinzweig didn't just inspire, but actively teach.
Yet Weinzweig was more than just a mentor and a gifted creator. In the wake of his and others's efforts, commissions were offered Canadian composers; the Canadian League of Composers became a potent lobbying voice; the Canadian Music Centre became a repository of scores and reference materials. Canadians started hearing, and responding to, Canadian musical voices.
Not that these battles are over. Daniel Weinzweig, John's son, notes that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is celebrating two centenaries in its 2013-14 season – of Benjamin Britten and of Witold Lutoslawski – but not the centenary of Weinzweig. For all that, we are much more sure of ourselves as an artistic nation today than we were in the past – thanks to people like John Weinzweig.