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Schafer, R. Murray

Schafer, R. Murray (1933-)


Birth of Raymond Murray Schafer, on July 18 to Sarnia, Ontario.


Starts his piano lessons.


Enrolls at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and at the University of Toronto. Studies with Alberto Guerrero (piano), Greta Kraus (harpsichord), John Weinzweig (composition) and Arnold Walter (musicology). Receives his only diploma, the L.R.S.M. (Licentiate, Royal Schools of Music). During this period, he meets Marshall McLuhan. Such occasional encounters significantly mark his intellectual development.


He leaves the ''Conventional'' university circuits to become an autodidact. He takes interest in languages (Latin, French, German, Italian and Arabic), literature and philosophy.


Stays in Vienna where he discovers medieval German, among other fields of interest.


Studies in England with Peter Racine Fricker (composition). To earn a living, he works as a journalist (it is during this period that he begins the research that will lead to the publication of his British Composers in Interview) and starts preparing a practical edition of Ezra Pound's little-know opera The Testament (1920-21), which was broadcast on the BBC in 1961.


Returns to Canada. He founds the Ten Centuries Concerts in Toronto, which he directs for some time. The aim of this musical society was to acquaint people with rarely heard music of old and of the present.


Artist in residence at Memorial University in Saint John's Newfoundland.


Part-time lecturer, then full professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Initiates, at the end of the sixties, the World Soundscape Project at SFU. He receives grants from the UNESCO and the Donner Canadian Fondation to support him in this project, whish concerns itself with the study of relationships between man the sounds around him. Thanks to these studies, Canada has taken a lead in this field of research.


Conference tour of Europe. He then buys a farm near Bancroft, Ontario. There, he composes, writes and prepares many musical projects for the local community. After 1984, he buys a new farm at Indian River, henceforth making this his home. He has received and continues to receive many awards. The principal one are:
  • 1974 : The Guggenheim Fellowship
  • 1977 : Composer of the year from the Canadian Music Council
  • 1977 : First recipient of the Prix Jules-Léger for new chamber music with his String Quartet n° 6 ''Waves''
  • 1980 : The Prix International Arthur Honegger for is String Quartet n° 1
  • 1985 : The Banff National Award in the Arts
  • 1987 : First recipient of the triennial Glenn-Gould Prize
  • 1993 : The Molson Prize of the Canada Council for the Arts
  • 1999 : Louis Applebaum Composer's Award
His musical and literary output is quite large and several of his books have been translated. His literary catalogue lists over 25 work's the most important probably being : The Book of Noise, The Tuning of the world, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Music, Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism, Patria and the theatre of Confluence, etc.

His catalogue of musical works consists of the following genres:

  • musical drama: 13 titles
  • orchestral: 13
  • string orchestra: 2
  • solo voice and orchestra: 13
  • solo instrument and orchestra : 7
  • 2 works for soloists, choir and orchestra
  • 1 work for wind band
  • 10 string quartets
  • 21 works for voice and/or instruments
  • 18 choral works
  • 3 dramatic works with choir
  • 3 works for radio and of electroacoustic music
Several of his works have been recorded on disc. More information available at the Canadian Music Centre. -

Mireille Gagné, Director, Canadian Music Centre

Quartet n° 1 (1970)

  • Composed in Vancouver and Toronto, April-May 1970
  • Commissioned by the Purcell Quartet
  • Premiered by the Purcell Quartet in Vancouver on July 16, 1970
  • 1980 Arthur- Honegger Prize
Written in 1970, the first quartet is the work of a young and fiery composer whose musical language already manifests a strong personality and much originality. As early as this first work, the foundations are laid for Schafer's writing for string quartet. It contains long unison sequences by all four instruments, catchy rhythmic motives, dramatic intensity, powerful lyricism, songful violin strains and the expressive use of quarter tones and glissandos. Schafer's metrical structures are at times absolutely precise and unequivocal, at times marked by wondrous freedom and breadth.Written timings acting as guides for duration allow for this type of ''controlled'' freedom. The first quartet opens with a section of uncommon intensity, lasting over four minutes. The four instruments are commingled, and each one tries as best it can to free itself from the clutches of the group. Finally it is the second violin who breaks loose, and this rift leads to a calmer, more lyrical section. Full of tranquillity, this section comes as a surprise. After some hesitation (quarter- tone glissandos), the first violin starts up on a strain over a microtonal sequence of eight notes within a half- tone interval, played by the other instruments. An expressive dialogue between the violins frames the two microtonal sections, the second of which is adorned with chromatic scales by the first violin. Then commences a rhythmic interplay giving the impression of clocks increasingly out of phase with each other. This interplay between the second violin and the viola shows that the instruments are no longer quite bound together, and that the breach has become inevitable. However, the four instruments then converge anew for a long unison sequence starting pianissimo and with hesitation. Each musician attempts once again to free himself from the clutches of the group, as if trying to jump from a train speeding ever more out of control. A new cleft leads to the coda, which takes the form of snapshots recalling the various episodes of the quartet. -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation: Jacques-André Houle)

Quartet n° 2 (1976)

  • Composed at Monteagle Valley, Ontario, January- October 1976
  • Premiered by the Purcell Quartet in Vancouver on November 24, 1976
  • 1978 Jules- Léger Prize for new chamber music
"No-one can step into the same river twice." -Heraclitus The second quartet was inspired by the work of the World Soundscape Project in which Schafer studied the acoustic phenomena of natural and urban environments. This quartet is subtitled Waves, and depicts the rhythm of the breaking and backwash of the waves on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada. Schafer's research has shown that the rhythm of the waves is always asymmetrical but that the time elapsed between them is almost always between six and eleven seconds. The structure and rhythm of the second quartet are based on this nautical time span. An impressionistic work replete with subtleties, the second quartet contrasts greatly with the first. Although the composer assures us that the music in this quartet is non-descriptive, one feels when listening to Waves the subtleties and murmuring of calm waters as well as the might and the surging of waves on the high seas. Eloquently rich and refined, the quartet's textures are very impressionistic and always seem to rush forward in ever-changing transformations. Schafer's writing is evocative of fluidity, using, for example, motives that intertwine, dissolve, burst forth and disperse The many motives that run through the work are constantly reintroduced under new rhythmic guises, with new dynamics and new tempos. Like a modern Heraclitus, Schafer evokes the unceasing motion of water through dynamic undulations of crescendos and diminuendos, and through continually variegating motives. Like the natural rhythm of the waves, this quartet unfolds a succession of six- to eleven- second cycles. The spatial movements of the players begin only in the final minutes of the second quartet. Moreover, the physical position of the instrumentalists at the end of the work is the same as will be found at the beginning of the following quartet. -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation: Jacques-André Houle)

Beauty and the Beast avec mezzo-soprano (1979)

Composed in November 1979, the chamber opera Beauty and the Beast by R. Murray Schafer is a part of his large-scale opus Patria 3, entitled The Greatest Show. The composer alludes to the supernatural dimension of tales by creating an immense funfair where spectators become the protagonists. Schafer's libretto is an adaptation of the tale The Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, dating back to 1757. The work is extremely demanding for the vocal soloist who has to personify all five characters, on a register spanning nearly three octaves, this in addition to manipulating masks. As in certain Mozart operas where the part of dialogue plays a key role in the unfolding of the plot, Schafer uses narration to ensure the development of the story line. The writing for string quartet is rather descriptive and even leitmotives are used by the composer to underline the intrigue. The quartet comments on the text and articulates the required transitions between the various characters performed by the one singer. What's more, whole-tone scales and elusive musical figures characterize the string writing for this work, written shortly before Schafer's Third String Quartet. -

Olga Ranzenhofer et Jean Portugais

(Translation: Marc Hyland)

Quartet n° 3 (1981)

  • Composed at Monteagle Valley, Ontario, June 1981
  • Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the Orford String Quartet
  • Premiered by the Orford String Quartet in Boston on September 30, 1981
Written in three movements, the third quartet of R. M. Schafer is a work of great contrasts. The end of the second quartet having left the cellist alone on stage, the third starts with a dramatic cello cadenza. The other musicians playing from different points in the hall, finally gather on stage playing very different kinds of music. The second movement is very powerful and exciting. Vocal shouts accompanying the musical gesture are sometimes very dramatic and sometimes very funny. The contrast is breathtaking when the third movement's slow, mystical unison playing is heard. The magic of the quarter-tones creates a moving and meditative atmosphere. The gradual disbanding of the unison and the departure of the first violin leave the mysteries of this stunning quartet unresolved. Schafer's originality and genius open new frontiers to string quartet writing. R. Murray Schafer has gained international acclaim as a composer as well as an educator, environmentalist, author and visual artist. His unique studies on the relationships between music, performer, public and environment as well as the originality and the strength of his music have made him famous around the world. -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

Theseus, for harp and string quartet (1983)

For the last thirty years, R. Murray Schafer has created a colossal opus, entitled Patria, a project the scope of which is comparable to Stockhausen’s Licht, and comprising a prologue, ten expansive sections and an epilogue. Each of these parts incorporates several works. The epilogue, in itself, is a sort of initiatory ritual to be performed in the woods, and lasts no less than eight days! Every single “day” from the Schafer decalogue can be linked to a culture –whether real or fictitious– and to an era in the history of humanity. Theseus is a component of Patria V, which is called The Crown of Ariadne, and is inspired by Greek mythology (*). Theseus was written in 1983 for Toronto harpist Judy Loman and the Orford Quartet. The work was premiered in Toronto on January 28, 1986. The Ariadne motif, also present in a number of Schafer string quartets (such as 5, 6, and 7) is used as the basic fabric of this quintet (**). This particular quintet is inspired by the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Comprising one single movement, the work features a variety of contrasting sections. The work’s first measures, mysteriously imbued with string glissandi, evokes a sense of solitude and the hazards of the labyrinth where Theseus has ventured. The swift figures first played by the harp and echoed by the strings let us in on its hidden recesses. A swirling, lyrical theme is introduced, played in unison by the strings alongside the harp’s free arabesques. A long crescendo takes us to the dramatic battle of Theseus and the Minotaur. The series of blows which will prove fatal to the Minotaur are struck by the harpist with a metal stick on the instrument’s low strings, while the quartet sustains an expressive chord in the high register. A moment later, the music lightens up and the Ariadne motif progressively takes over. On a symbolic level, this marks the triumph of Theseus and the joy of returning home. One finds in Theseus a remarkable osmosis between the harp and the quartet resources. This synergy is obvious through the pizzicati, the glissandi, chromatic movements, harmonics, and percussive sounds. (*) For further information, consult: http://www.patria.org/pdp/. (**) Cf. J. Portugais and O. Ranzenhofer (2000). Îles de la Nuit. Parcours dans l’œuvre pour quatuor à cordes de R. Murray Schafer. Circuit musiques contemporaines, Volume 11, Number 2, pp. 14-54. Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal. -

Olga Ranzenhofer et Jean Portugais

(Translation: Marc Hyland)

Quartet n° 4 (1989)

  • Composed at Indian River, Ontario, finished on January 5, 1989
  • Commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the Purcell Quartet thanks to the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and of Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Roland Bowman
  • Premiered by the Purcell Quartet with Margarita Noye, soprano, and Joan Blackman, violin, in Vancouver on April 18, 1989
After a seven-year break from string quartet writing, Schafer took up the pen again thanks to a commission from the Purcell Quartet. Begun at the end of 1988 and finished in January 1989, this work rekindles and integrates elements from his important trilogy Patria. The quartet opens on mysterious chords that underpin the first violin's initial strains from backstage. After this very lyrical beginning, dramatic tension mounts as the trio executes brilliant unison passages. The first violin then finally appears onstage to launch the dialogue. Calmness briefly returns before the lively and rhythmical outburst of the work's second section, reminiscent of Shostakovich. Here, brilliant upsurges, ostinatos, glissandos and cascading pizzicatos express joie de vivre and happiness. The formal layout of this section is A - A I: the components of the first part are modified, developed and presented in new succession. The premature death of his friend, the renowned poet bp Nichol, influenced Schafer in the composition of this quartet. Not long before his death, Nichol had participated in the great cycle Patria, and had acted in the capacity of announcer. To honour his memory, Schafer integrates one of the themes played by Nichol into his quartet. The third section is heralded by three violent aggregates of dissonant chords, like blows dealt by fate. After such commotion, could the mysterious, introspective music that follows represent the composer's meditation on the death of his friend? In any case, the emotion here is very real. At the end of the work, when ''accompanied by the quartet's harmonics'' avoice and a violin sound from backstage, the atmosphere becomes unreal' as if these voices were reaching us from the hereafter. We will leave the composer to conclude on the subject: ''Another influence for the voice is perhaps E. T. A. Hoffmann's story, The Cremona Violin (Rath Krespel) in which a mad violinmaker has a daughter with a beautiful voice whom he never allows to sing. When she does so one night, she dies, and at the moment of her death her father's Cremona violin cracks. She had been the soul of the instrument. The singer will return again in the seventh quartet as an insane apparition.'' -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation : Jacques-André Houle)

Quartet n° 5 «Rosalind» (1989)

  • Composed at Indian River, Ontario, finished on October 4, 1989
  • Commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Orford String Quartet by Stan Witkin and the Ontario Arts Council
  • Premiered by the Orford String Quartet in Toronto on December 17, 1989
Schafer's fifth string quartet was commissioned by the Toronto businessman Stan Witkin as a gift to his wife Rosalind for her fiftieth birthday. Written as a continuation of the fourth quartet, the present work opens with the exact final phrase of the former and resumes its lyrical qualities. At times very romantic and sensuous in nature, this work '' subtitled Rosalind'' also delivers very lively and entrancing sections with layers of complex rhythms. The great variety of interplay between different moods and the speed with which the episodes follow each other distinguish this quartet from the previous ones. In December 1999, the composer disclosed in Montreal his intentions concerning the fifth quartet: "My main preoccupation was to write a work that conformed to what I might call existential time. What do I mean by that? I mean the passage of time as we experience it between a cup of coffee and a toothache. "Everywhere in our lives time is structured for us. Music is also one of the structures; rhythms, meters, tempi, forms, movements— there is an artificiality about all of them when it comes to our mood changes. I wanted to create a work that modulated from one state to another without the listener being able to put a finger on the precise moment when things changed. For a young composer, bridging from one idea to another is the hardest thing to achieve. It is easy to get ideas; it is hard to fuse them. "The ability to create undetected modulations from state to state is still, for me, the mark of the greatest composer and it is strange that this is so difficult to achieve when we realize that life flows exactly in this way." -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation : Jacques-André Houle)

Quartet n° 6 Parting Wild Horse's Mane (1993)

Composed at Indian River, Ontario finished on March 3, 1993, copied and revised on April 13, 1993Commissioned by Michael Koerner, the Canada Council for Arts and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the Scotia Festival Premiered at the Scotia Festival by the Gould String Quartet in June 1993 The Sixth quartet borrows its form, structure and impetus from the series of 108 movements of the Chinese martial art T’ai Chi. In this quartet, the bonds that unify Schafer’s quartet cycle are more present than ever. Indeed, nearly all the musical material of this quartet is taken from the five previous quartets —quite an amazing feat! Only one new theme appears: that of the forest. The theme is called Tapio and is of a catchy rhythmic character. It will be repeated and developed abundantly in the seventh quartet. As an example of Schafer’s great mastery of compositional technique, note that in several episodes of the sixth quartet, the four instrumentalists simultaneously play passages taken from five different quartets! The source of inspiration for this quartet is the Chinese martial art of T’ai Chi, an exercise in mental as well as physical gymnastics. Those who practise it acknowledge its many beneficial effects, such as increased concentration, stress reduction, greater flexibility and better coordination and balance. The movements of T’ai Chi are generally slow. The sixth quartet borrows and integrates into the music the characteristic spirit of T’ai Chi. There is no redundancy however between the intensity of Schafer’s music and what can be observed of the T’ai Chi master’s movements. For instance, great musical energy can correspond to extreme physical restraint. The complete sequence of T’ai Chi involves 108 movements, 58 of which are different. The quartet follows the same pattern, with 108 sections based on 58 distinct ideas, themselves stemming from common themes. The fluidity of this quartet’s music is remarkable. Its momentum is never hindered thanks to the subtle transitions Schafer provides between the various sections. Since all the music is borrowed from the former works, we encounter in it all the rhythmic vigour, the flights of lyricism, the compositional mastery, the freedom of inflection and the rich imagination so characteristic of Schafer.

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation : Jacques-André Houle)

Quartet n° 7 with obligato soprano (1998, world premiere 1999)

  • Composed at Indian River, Ontario, finished on December 15, 1998
  • Commissioned by the Molinari Quartet with the support of Radio-Canada (Montreal), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Toronto) and the Canada Council for the Arts
  • Premiered in concert version by the Molinari Quartet and soprano Nathalie Paulin in Ottawa on May 4, 1999
  • Premiere of the stage version by the Molinari Quartet and soprano Marie-Danielle Parent in Montreal on December 11, 1999
A musical work at once violent and gentle, effervescent and static, expressing both distress and joy, this quartet with obbligato soprano distinguishes itself from Schafer's other works by its profound break with conventional string quartet writing. The formal innovations in this work are apparent in the many solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets that allow for unique and original sound effects. More than in any of the previous quartets, spatial unity has ceased to exist. The stage, backstage area, wings and aisles are as many places from whence the music comes forth. The music moves. A special harness was even contrived so the cellist could move about while playing. This opening up of the playing area serves to enhance the spacing and remoteness of sounds, quadraphony, minute time lags and staging. For the present recording. The Molinari Quartet and R. Murray Schafer settled on a version where the movements of the musicians were reduced to a minimum, in order to assure a better sound quality within the confines of stereophony. Despite the formal upheaval, the seventh quartet nevertheless maintains close ties with the entire corpus. The work's first phrase played by the cello and the viola is a reprise of the sixth quartet's very beginning. A dramatic entry of the first violin follows, declaiming a dissonant variation of Ariadne's theme. Shortly after, the return of the Tapio theme is easily recognizable, and will become obsessive throughout this quartet. These highly apparent quotes must not mislead us, though; each new work proposes a fresh reading and an enrichment of the musical ideas from the previous quartets. Everything leaves its mark: new material is repeated in novel guise, fresh ideas foster our understanding of familiar motives, all the "sound matter" imposes itself with a quasi organic necessity. This perpetual variation of common material constitutes in our opinion Schafer's "musical signature" of sorts. An obbligato soprano and the colourful sounds of percussion instruments (woodblock and cheng cheng) are here added to the classic string quartet. The structure of the seventh quartet has the string quartet as an entity alternate with the soprano's interventions. However, when the soprano sings, the quartet finds itself obliged to act as accompanist. The many interruptions imposed by the soprano upon the quartet and her strange comments (the texts of which are taken from the diary of a schizophrenic woman) clip the wings of the strings, who reassert themselves only in the absence of the singer. At the end of the work, the five musicians find themselves on stage together for the first time and endow us with brilliant and unifying music. The meeting of two great artists, R. Murray Schafer and Guido Molinari, bestowed this quartet with an important visual element that should be mentioned here, even though this aspect cannot be grasped on disc. The four primary colours so dear to Molinari are each associated with a musician and colour their individual musical lines. The red of the first violin represents fire, the blue of the second violin symbolizes water, the green of the cello is that of Tapio the Forest Spirit of the Finnish Kalevala legends and the yellow of the viola is the symbol of light. The composer explains the particular role of the soprano: "I didn't want to write a piece in which the singer sits around while the quartet plays three movements and then joins them for a glorious finale. In trying to find her role in the work I began to think of her colour (white). It symbolises purity, but it is also the colour of hospitals and therefore illness, and in ancient China it was the colour of death and funeral processions. The fortuitous discovery of some texts by an anonymous schizophrenic woman in a mental asylum gave me the solution: the singer would come and go throughout the music as an intruder, singing texts that are simultaneously sexual, musical and absurd." For the work's complete staged version, Guido Molinari created paintings and sculptures integrated into the performance of the quartet. In our opinion, it is through repeat hearings of the quartets that one can become familiar with each of them and hence fully appreciate their particular beauties. We also believe that by listening to the complete cycle of seven quartets in a row, all the treasures and profound unity of this music will become apparent. -

Olga Ranzenhofer and Jean Portugais

(Translation : Jacques-André Houle)

Quartet n° 8 (2000-2001, world premiere 2002)

R. Murray Schafer’s cycle of string quartets is one of the most important in its genre and now includes this Quartet no. 8, composed in Munich from February 24 to March 15, 2000, and revised at Indian River from September 17 to October 12, 2001. The work was commissioned for the Molinari Quartet by Ellen Karp, Bill Johnston and Paul Karp-Johnston to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Fred and Mary Karp. This request inspired a structure in two parts. The first movement depicts the high energy and spirits of youth, while the second is a lyrical meditation, evoking the lovers’ look back on their past together. The Quartet no. 8 was written during the same period as Patria VIII: The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix and bears similarities with that opus. The Cinnabar Phoenix is a bird one could relate to the Firebird and which holds a message for peace in various legends from Persia and China. In Patria VIII, set in the T’ang Chinese dynasty (618-907), the Phoenix is sent by the gods to inhabit a palace where it will bring harmony and peace. The first movement of the eighth quartet starts with the work’s overall generative motive, consisting of a fourth and a third (D, G, E, G). This figure is expressed by the second violin and the viola against harmonic glissandis. One will hear in this beginning an echo of the very last sounds from the 7th quartet. A bird call, different from that of the Phoenix, is played by the violin immediately after. An extensive kinetic development makes way for another free and rhapsodic violin solo, itself followed by a brief reference to the motive B flat – A – C – B (on Bach’s name) that permeates the second movement. The first movement is imbued with a Chinese motive pastiche, extracted from Patria VIII. This figure turns into a haunting ritornello, deliberately meant by the composer to be childish, if not silly. The second movement’s nightly essence is typical of Schafer’s preceding quartets. The composer merges two string quartets, one being pre-recorded while the other performs live. This duplication allows the composer to play with echo and distance, thus expanding the spatialization effects he has explored in previous quartets. Attention might be drawn to some of its features: the transposed name of Bach (D flat – C – E flat – D) which becomes the basic material of the entire movement, the pulsating pizzicatis moving back and forth from the pre-recorded to the live quartet, the sharp contrast created by the middle section, marked "with great excitement", the reappearance of the Chinese motive and finally the opposition between rhythmic freedom and ostinatis. Note: The Molinari Quartet pre-recorded the part of the second quartet in the second movement with the ATMA Classique recording label. -

Jean Portugais (Translation: Marc Hyland)

Quartet n° 9 (2005)

My ninth quartet was commissioned by the W.H. and S.E. Loewen Foundation for the International New Music Festival, sponsored by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The premiere took place on February 12, 2006 and the performers were Gwen Hoebig and Darryl Strain, violins, Dan Scholz, viola and Yuri Hooker, cello. Like many of my quartets, the ninth includes references to previous works, especially the eighth quartet, where the closing theme of that work occurs again at the beginning of the ninth, this time sung by a prerecorded boy soprano. At several points the quartet is accompanied and even interrupted by other children's voices, shouting and laughing in a playground, and their presence often has an effect on the music, raising an otherwise elegiac work to one of levity and playfulness. -

R. Murray Schafer

Quartet n° 10 (2006)

Quartet n° 11

Four-Forty (concerto)



Alphabetical List