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In Memoriam: R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021)

In Memoriam: R. Murray Schafer (1933-2021)

Published on August 17, 2021

The Royal Conservatory mourns the loss of R. Murray Schafer, eminent Canadian composer, and RCM alumnus.

R. Murray Schafer

“The world has lost someone who made incomparable contributions to the culture of this country – an internationally acclaimed composer and trailblazer in the exploration of the relationship between people and their acoustic environment. I am saddened to have lost such an illustrious colleague and Canadian icon," stated Dr. Peter Simon, President & CEO of The Royal Conservatory.
An artist with a wide range of interests, Mr. Schafer composed for theatre and created multimedia productions as well as choral pieces, but was best known for his groundbreaking creations – or “soundscapes” – that were performed outdoors and incorporated sounds from nature into the music. 
Born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1933, Schafer learned to play the piano at the age of six, but was initially interested in pursuing a career as a painter. However, due to issues with his vision, in 1952, he resumed his musical studies at The Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. 
Mr. Schafer’s relationship with The Conservatory dates back over 75 years. From 1945-55, he studied harpsichord, music theory, and piano, the latter from legendary teacher Alberto Guerrero. The Conservatory made him an Honorary Fellow in 2008, and in 2009, his piece Spirits of the House, commissioned by Michael and Sonja Koerner, premiered at the grand opening of Koerner Hall. He was also a Composer-in-Residence at The Glenn Gould School, and his works have been performed on international stages by the ARC Ensemble

Additionally, an excerpt from the score of his piece Divan | Shams | Tabriz Lustro: Part One is etched in a glass case at The RCM that houses a William Steinway limited edition piano. 
“This is the end of a major era for Canadian composition,” said Barry Shiffman, Associate Dean & Director of Chamber Music at The Glenn Gould School, and Director of The Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, as he reminisced about Mr. Schafer’s consideration and generosity with the artists who performed his music. 
“As a [founding] member of the St. String Lawrence Quartet, I remember taking his String Quartet No. 3 on our first tour of France. We had written to Murray in hopes we could meet him and have him work with us on our performance in advance of the tour. He did not respond, so we wrote him again and told him where the concert would be happening. When we arrived at the hotel the morning of the concert, Murray was waiting for us! Somehow, he had contacted the hall and found out where we were staying. Even though we had never met him, we rode a train to the concert that evening, and Murray talked us through the work describing what he was looking for. 

“He attended our soundcheck and we worked with him up until the concert – which was the only event at which we’d planned to perform the piece. However, it was such a sensation that we were asked to include in on a concert program a few days later – and eventually, all presenters on the tour demanded we include the work. No other composition we ever played as a quartet had the impact of Murray’s composition. Visceral, funny, emotional – really stunning. We ended up playing his music all over the world, including Four Forty, a concerto that he wrote specifically for us, and we played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.”

RCM Chancellor Michael Koerner, who with his wife Sonja commissioned the piece Spirits of the House, reminisced about a unique experience he had with Mr. Schafer.

"I got to know Murray through an organization called Ten Centuries Concerts. We shared an interest in 17th- and 18th-century harpsichord music, and as I have two of these instruments at my home, we actually played some Couperin duets together. Murray invited me out to a small lake north of Toronto close to where he lived, and I helped financially with the production of Music for a Wilderness Lake where twelve trombones played the same piece twice, once at sunrise and once at sunset. A fascinating experiment in how music is etched by atmospheric conditions."
The RCM offers sincere condolences to Mr. Schafer’s wife, mezzo-soprano Eleanor James Schafer.