Skip to main content
obituary

Composer R. Murray Schafer.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto’s cavernous Sony Centre was the site of one of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s greatest triumphs. In June, 2015, some 1,000 performers – including a 750-voice choir – gave three presentations of Mr. Schafer’s Apocalypsis in a production budgeted at over $1-million, as part of the annual Luminato Festival.

Inspired by medieval religious pageants, the work is in two parts: The first relates the end of the world as foretold in the biblical Book of Revelation, while the second offers a vision of the new universe that arises in its stead. The two-hour-long work was composed in 1976 and had only been performed in its entirety once before. David Fallis, who conducted Apocalypsis on that occasion, notes that the experience “was like the original meaning of that word – a revelation. To be asked by Murray to enter into his extraordinary sound-world – so fearless and many-layered – was a deep honour.”

The Luminato performances were a critical and popular success, but came too late to make much difference to Mr. Schafer’s life. By 2015, he was suffering from the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which robbed him of his creative powers and would hold him in its grip for the last eight years of his life.

Although Alzheimer’s put an end to Mr. Schafer’s creative work, his final years were not without redeeming qualities. “As his dementia progressed, he became happier and happier, until he could be described as the Holy Fool, or like a Divine Child,” his wife Eleanor James recalls. “Those who knew him during those last years can testify to this strange blessing that filled our home.”

Mr. Schafer in front of his artwork.Robin Elliott/Handout

Mr. Schafer died at home on Aug. 14 on his farm in Indian River, near Peterborough, Ont., aged 88. During the course of a prolific career that lasted over 60 years, he was an internationally celebrated composer and music educator, and the founder of the field of acoustic ecology – the study of the relationship between humans and their sound environment. He was also a talented visual artist, an imaginative writer of both fiction and music scholarship, and ran a publishing company, Arcana Editions, devoted to putting his works into public circulation.

Ellen Waterman, who holds the Helmut Kallmann Chair for Music in Canada at Carleton University, observes that “Schafer’s highly polemical views were not always in tune with Canadian society, but his bold propositions about music, sound, education and environment made him one of our most original artists and thinkers.”

Frequently in demand as a lecturer (in English, French, and German), composer and educator in Europe, South America and Japan, Mr. Schafer was often frustrated by a lack of support in his own country. Although Canadian orchestras and chamber ensembles often commissioned works from him, Mr. Schafer’s heart was in his ambitious Patria cycle of music-theatre works, many of them intended for outdoor performance. “On account of the depth of the musical, literary, psychological and mythological worlds Mr. Schafer creates in Patria, this cycle is one of the most compelling, dynamic, and multifaceted works of art to emerge from the late 20th/early 21st centuries,” says Kirk MacKenzie, who completed a PhD thesis on the cycle. Opera companies, however, have largely ignored Patria. The Canadian Opera Company performed just one of the dozen works in the cycle, in 1987. Mr. Schafer’s dissatisfaction with that COC production led him to create his own company to mount the Patria works under his supervision.

Mr. Schafer did have his passionate supporters. Alex Pauk conducted 77 performances of Mr. Schafer’s music with the Toronto-based Esprit Orchestra. The Orford Quartet played Mr. Schafer’s String Quartet No. 1 more than 100 times around the world, and in 1990 recorded all five quartets he had written by that date. The Molinari Quartet has performed all 13 of Schafer’s string quartets and recorded them as well. And a devoted circle of followers joined Mr. Schafer every August to mount the week-long epilogue to the Patria cycle outdoors in the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

Olga Ranzenhofer, the first violinist of the Molinari Quartet, says, “When Murray received his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, he told himself that it is not a reason to stop composing. He wanted to prove to himself that he still could, so he wrote his 13th Quartet and sent it to me asking me what I thought about it. I told him it was beautiful and that of course we will perform it. He called it Alzheimer’s Masterpiece.” The short movement for string quartet, which premiered in Montreal on November 15, 2015, was the last work Mr. Schafer completed.

Mr. Schafer left an extensive catalogue of compositions. He had a particular affinity for the female voice, in part inspired by the fact that two of his three wives were professional mezzo-sopranos.André Leduc/Handout

Raymond Murray Schafer was born on July 18, 1933 in Sarnia, Ont., where his father Harold J. Schafer was an accountant for Imperial Oil. The family moved to Toronto in 1934 and another son, David Paul Schafer, was born in 1937. At the urging of their mother, Belle Anderson Schafer, the boys joined the choir in Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill. The experience instilled in Mr. Schafer a lifelong love for choral music, a medium in which he created some of his finest and most popular works, including Epitaph for Moonlight (1968), his most-performed work and the one that brought him to international attention.

Mr. Schafer’s experience with public education, on the other hand, was singularly unhappy. At age eight, he lost his right eye to glaucoma. Known as the boy with one eye from then on, he was bullied by classmates, which made his primary school years at Humewood Public School singularly unpleasant. His experiences at Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute were even worse – he felt that his teachers did not appreciate his artistic inclinations, and he barely managed to complete high school. The pattern continued at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, where he spent two frustrating years before being expelled for insubordination in 1953. Exasperated by his own experiences in school, Mr. Schafer became a passionate autodidact, and made it one of his life’s missions to reform the field of music education.

In a series of pamphlets and books that he produced beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Schafer laid out a new vision for music learning. His goal was to unleash the creative potential of children, focusing on composition and exploration in sound rather than rote performance. His publications were widely translated and particularly influential in Central and South America. “Whether working with a group of kindergartners, doctoral students, or interested community members, Schafer was excited to interact and keenly interested in what participants heard and what they could create themselves,” says Doug Friesen, a leading proponent of Mr. Schafer’s educational mission. “I think his ideas, with some critical updates, still offer important interventions to what institutions of music education narrowly define as music.”

Travelling was one path to knowledge for Mr. Schafer. In addition to frequent trips to Europe (including extensive travels behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s), he visited the Middle East and was often invited to Japan and South America. His literary interests ranged just as widely: He set to music texts in many different languages, including selections from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, medieval German poets, Sappho, Rumi, Novalis, Rilke, Rabindranath Tagore and Bertolt Brecht, among others.

Despite a lack of traditional credentials, Mr. Schafer enjoyed a successful if relatively brief career in academia. He was the composer-in-residence at Memorial University in Newfoundland for two years, and then moved in 1965 to the newly opened Simon Fraser University in B.C., where he remained for ten years. At SFU, he initiated the World Soundscape Project, having coined the term “soundscape” in his educational pamphlet The New Soundscape (1969). Mr. Schafer’s most important contribution to the WSP was his book The Tuning of the World (1977), later reissued as The Soundscape (1994). It describes and analyzes historical and contemporary soundscapes and provides guidelines for acoustic design (the ecologically prudent management of sound). The book changed the way many think about and experience the world of sound and is a foundational document in the field of acoustic ecology.

By that time, Mr. Schafer had left academia behind, having quit his position at SFU to move to a farm near Bancroft, Ont., in 1975. He lived in rural Ontario for the rest of his life, preferring the gentler rhythms and natural sounds to the overly noisy, lo-fi soundscape of urban centres. He moved to a farm in Indian River in 1987 and remained there for the rest of his life. He devoted his time to composition and other creative activities, occasionally taking on short-term positions at universities in Canada and the United States and travelling around the world to lecture and attend the premieres of his compositions. Honours came his way frequently – he was awarded ten honorary degrees, received the inaugural Glenn Gould Prize in 1987, the Canada Council’s Molson Prize in 1993 and its Walter Carsen Prize in 2005, an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Conservatory of Music in 2008, a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement in 2009, and was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2013.

Mr. Schafer left an extensive catalogue of compositions. He had a particular affinity for the female voice, in part inspired by the fact that two of his three wives were professional mezzo-sopranos. He wrote several works for his first wife, Phyllis Mailing – including Requiems for the Party Girl (1967), later incorporated into the second part of the Patria cycle. For his third wife, Eleanor James, with whom he enjoyed a close professional and personal relationship for many years before their marriage, he wrote, among other works, Letters from Mignon (1984), an orchestral version of his early work Minnelieder (1956/1986), and Thunder: Perfect Mind (2003) – all of which Ms. James recorded with Alex Pauk and the Esprit Orchestra. Mr. Schafer’s other orchestral, choral and chamber music works have been performed frequently in Canada and abroad and are often met with enthusiastic standing ovations. “He was a man of deep faith but not one confined to a strict set of dogmas or practices,” Ms. James says. “In fact, it was his music that expressed his deep spirituality. And that music is so varied and rich that it is clear his spirituality knew no boundaries.”

Mr. Schafer’s autobiography My Life on Earth and Elsewhere was published in 2012. He is also the subject of two biographies, by Stephen Adams (1983) and L. Brett Scott (2019). “Without his presence in my life, I would have become a very different person. Career business aside, I owe him a broadening of my understanding, my felt life, and my perception of the world that cannot be measured,” Mr. Adams says. Mr. Scott adds: “I can say without hesitation that Murray was the most creative person that I have ever met, and although he did have a reputation of being quite the curmudgeon, he was also wonderfully kind and generous. It is one of my great joys that Murray and Eleanor welcomed me into their home and allowed me to both be a friend and a witness to their life and their enduring love.”

Mr. Schafer was married three times, first to Ms. Mailing in 1960, next to Jean C. Reed in 1975, and finally to Ms. James, an ordained United Church minister as well as a mezzo-soprano, in 2011. He is survived by Ms. James and by his brother D. Paul Schafer, Paul’s wife Nancy, and their daughters Charlene and Susan Schafer. The Molinari Quartet will pay tribute to Mr. Schafer by performing several of his string quartets in a special concert in Montreal on Oct. 15, which will also be livestreamed.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for the premiere of Murray Schafer’s last string quartet. This version has been corrected.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct