Born in Toronto, Weinzweig went to Harbord Collegiate Institute, and studied music at the university. In 1937, he left for the United States to study under Bernard Rogers. During the Second World War, he began composing film music, and in 1952 he became a professor at his old university in Toronto. In the previous year he had co-founded the Canadian League of Composers, and he was actively involved in several other organisations representing musicians and composers.
John Jacob Weinzweig was the eldest child of Joseph and Rose (Burstyn) Weinzweig, Polish Jewish immigrants. His younger siblings were named Morris and Grace Weinzweig. In Russian-occupied Poland, his father was temporarily imprisoned for participating in radical union movements, and the family moved to Canada shortly after.
His first music lessons were at Workman's Circle Peretz School at the age of 14, where he participated in mandolin classes. He went on to attend Harbord Collegiate Institute, a secondary school where the students consisted primarily of the children of Jewish immigrant families. Harbord had one of the only school orchestra programs in Canada at the time, and it was here that he learned to play the tuba and saxophone, and even had the opportunity to conduct. His teacher recognized his talent and encouraged his parents to send him to piano lessons. He studied under several teachers and in the years following high school, Weinzweig attained a university entrance level in both piano and theory at the Royal Conservatory. His brother, Morris, also took up the saxophone and, from a young age, the two brothers earned pocket money by playing at local events such a school dances and political rallies. Morris went on to become a leading studio musician on the saxophone.
The University of Toronto Faculty of Music was founded in 1918, but it was not until the early 1930s that it began to offer classes leading to a degree. John Weinzweig was among the first to enroll in the new program and obtained his B.Mus. in 1937. During his undergraduate degree, he was continuously producing short works, most of which were romantic and impressionistic. After observing Weinzweig's work, composer and school director Howard Hanson encouraged him to pursue Master's studies in composition at the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester). He followed Hanson's advice and acquired his M.Mus. in 1938. During his university career, he also developed an interest in conducting, as he found that conducting experience was useful to him as a composer.
Weinzweig's move toward serialism was not a complete transition; he was very selective and deliberate in which principles he chose to adopt. While he acknowledged that Schoenberg's influence on the musical world was powerful, he was not particularly taken with Schoeberg's music and preferred that of composers such as Berg and Webern. His attraction to serialism was not the same as that of its Viennese founders. Since he was not taught strictly using tonality in his early education, he did not feel the need to rebel and use serialism simply as a means to avoid tonality. While he often employed the techniques used by Stravinsky, Bartók, Copland and Varèse, he did not teach these methods to his students exclusively.
The way in which Weinzweig used a 12-tone row in his compositions differed from the traditional method. He would use the row as a motivic invention and develop that motive in a neoclassical manner, treating it more like a theme than a means of tonal organization. The row typically remains identifiable throughout the piece but is not limited by strict serial procedures.
The influence of popular music of the 1930s can be seen in Weinzweig's work, especially his Divertimentos No.2 and 3, which mimic the quirky rhythms of this music. His Divertimento No. 8 and Out of the Blue exhibit elements of both blues and ragtime. Even his Violin Concerto and Wind Quartet show characteristics of blues in their melodies.
Along with another choral piece composed around the same time (To the Lands Over Yonder), his piece titled Edge of the World is the first work to use Inuit folk music as compositional material.
In 1951, John Weinzweig met with fellow composers Harry Somers and Samuel Dolin to discuss the issue of composing professionally in Canada. They wished to raise awareness and acceptance of Canadian music, to be listened to and taken seriously, and contacted around a dozen other Canadian composers who shared their desires. Within a year they had acquired a federal charter as the Canadian League of Composers (CLC), of which Weinzweig was the first president. Though the original members were all from close within Weinzweig's circle, the idea of the CLC was to bring composers together to work for a common cause, not to achieve a uniform national style. This mindset was much like that of the Group of Seven 30 years earlier in Canadian art.
The first project the CLC took on was to sponsor public concerts featuring new Canadian compositions. These concerts featured many different kinds of repertoire, including orchestral works, chamber music and opera, but they lacked the support of many established performing groups. Despite this, approximately 30 concerts of exclusively Canadian music occurred between the years of 1951 and 1960. The first concert, on May 16, 1951, had a program of entirely Weinzweig's music. The concert was jointly held with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) of Toronto, and was given a favourable review by the art critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail.
They next took on the task of editing an anthology of newly composed piano repertoire. This resulted in the accumulation of a small library which housed the scores of many members, and provided the use of these scores to interested conductors and performers.
In 1960, the CLC organized the International Conference of Composers as part of the Stratford music festival. This conference drew composers from 30 different countries, including Krenek, Varèse and Berio. After a decade, national membership had grown to around 40 people, including four women, and continued to grow steadily throughout the century.
In 1939 Weinzweig was appointed to the music faculty at the Toronto Conservatory of Music where he taught through 1960 with the exception of a leave of absence in 1944. In 1952 he joined the faculty of the University of Toronto where he taught until his retirement in 1978. He continued to teach masterclasses, seminars, and workshops at a number of institutions of higher learning during the 1980s. He also taught several students privately during his lifetime. His large number of notable students include the following:
John Weinzweig's early works concentrate primarily on orchestra. Some pieces that he wrote as a student include Whirling Dwarf, The Enchanted Hill, and A Tale of Tuamoto (based on a Polynesian legend). While none of these gained much recognition at the time, some did receive readings by the orchestra at Eastman. One of his earliest orchestral works, written shortly after obtaining his master's degree, is Rhapsody (1941). This version was not particularly successful, but was later salvaged by one of his first pupils, Victor Feldbrill, and revived. In some of his early piano suites, the emergence of 12-tone serialism as a method of pitch organization can be seen.
In 1948 Weinzweig won a silver medal in the art competitions of the Olympic Games for his "Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings".
This sonata is a work that most closely represents the neoclassicism techniques of Stravinsky. The crisp, economical texture makes the piece look easy on paper. It contains a 12-note series that unfolds one or two notes at a time and keys are often implied during cadences, showing no clear effort to avoid doing so. These factor later became a trade mark of Weinzweig and can be seen in many of his works
Red Ear of Corn was the first Canadian score to be commissioned for the Canadian Ballet Festival. The material consists of a blend of Iroquois music, French-Canadian folk song and fiddle music. The music is meant to tell the story of why red cobs of corn can occasionally be found in the yellow corn fields of Québec. In this story, an Iroquois maiden is stabbed by the chief of her tribe, whom she was forcibly engaged to. It is said that red corn appears out of the ground where her blood was spilled.
This was an important work for Canada because it showed that the country's composers could write large-scale works for orchestra. It created exposure for musical material of Canadian origin, but also revealed a new treatment of folk material. Rather than just composing an accompaniment for an original folk song, Weinzweig took small rhythmic and melodic gestures from the melodies and incorporated them into his writing. This approach, inspired by Béla Bartók, continues to be used by Canadian composers today.
This piano suite was the first Canadian composition to use Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone system, though in a modified form. It consists of three movements; Waltzling, Dirgeling and Themes with Variables. In this piece, the tone row is treated as motivic material used with the traditional neoclassic forms, such as ABA and theme and variations. Waltzing exhibits another variation of this system by using a row consisting of only nine tones. This row, which seems to show a preference for minor thirds and sixths, is used as the basis of both the melody and the rhythmic ostinato that accompanies it.
The motivic repetition and overall ABA form lessens the usual harsh sound of a tone row. At the time, this piece was rejected by many colleagues and the majority of the general public.
From the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada