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Weinzweig’s Olympics: How Canadian composer hit his note to win silver

Weinzweig’s Olympics: How Canadian composer hit his note to win silver


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Toronto composer John Weinzweig, a 1948 Olympic silver medalist who did not look the part, had a small joke for people who asked if it was true that he’d won such a thing.

“Yes,” he would say. “I ran the 100-yard dash with a piano on my back.”

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His son Daniel mused recently that it’s a strange thing to grasp, this idea of a composer winning an Olympic medal — not with muscular thighs and broad shoulders, but with symbols printed on sheets, poured from an inventive brain.

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“People didn’t understand you could win an Olympic medal for music. How was that even possible?” Daniel Weinzweig said wryly.

But it was, indeed, possible. Daniel has the medal in his home as a reminder of his dad, the Olympian.

Arts medals were awarded at the Olympics from 1912 to 1948 and Canadians won two of them. In 1932, Robert Tait McKenzie captured bronze in the Sculpturing, Medals and Reliefs competition with a medallion entitled ‘Shield of the Athletes.’ Then in 1948, Weinzweig earned his silver medal in Instrumental and Chamber Music with his piece ‘Divertimento No. 1.’

The arts were low-key Olympic events during most of their medal run, generating a fraction of the hype devoted to athletic exploits and failures.

Weinzweig didn’t know his piece had been submitted to those 1948 Olympics and he wasn’t there when they announced his win during a London press conference.

“It was submitted for me by the Canadian Music Council,” Weinzweig told the Toronto Star in 1983. “After I gave it to them, I sort of forgot about it. When it won, I started getting calls from all over. The papers all asked ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in London?’

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“What did they expect? That I’d be over there running around a track with a piano on my back? I’m not that athletic. I’m more the stay-at-home type. You have to be to write music. It’s a lonely occupation.”

Weinzweig wasn’t the only Canadian composer recognized in that 1948 competition: Vancouver’s Jean Coulthard received an honourable mention for her 11-minute “Sonata for Oboe and Piano.

Canadian composer John Weinzweig was awarded a1948 London Olympics medal for his work titled Divertimento No. 1.
Canadian composer John Weinzweig was awarded a1948 London Olympics medal for his work titled Divertimento No. 1. Submitted photo

Medal arts events were abandoned after 1948, largely because of concerns over professional artists receiving pay for their work while competing for proverbial podium spots. It was initially launched through the sheer willpower of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. He felt something as lofty and idealistic as the Games should meld artistry with athleticism.

“Mind and muscle,” he called it and he deftly deflected all objections to the contrary.

In 1912, when art-makers first competed for medals, de Coubertin won literature gold by writing Ode to Sport under a pseudonym.

“O Sport,” he began, “pleasure of the Gods, essence of life! You appeared suddenly in the midst of the grey clearing which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence, like the radiant messenger of a past age, when mankind still smiled …”

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Creative men and women battled for gold, silver and bronze in pursuits as diverse as architecture, painting, literature, sculpture and music — wielding not javelins or balls, but pencils, rulers, chisels and lumps of unfinished material.

“Pentathlon of the Muses” it was sometimes called.

Two eclectic medalists crossed the grand divide between art and sport. In 1912, American Walter Winans won Olympic gold in both shooting and sculpture.

The wire report said Winans, who also won Olympic shooting silver in 1908, was a “versatile American and citizen of the world.”

Meanwhile, Hungarian Alfred Hajos — who captured two Olympic swimming gold medals in 1896 — won architecture silver in 1924 for his work in designing a stadium.

Hajos, dubbed “the Hungarian Dolphin” during his swimming days, was still a teen when he famously met King George of Greece after his double-gold performance.

“Where did you learn to swim like that?” the king asked.

“In the water, Majesty,” replied Hajos — either flustered or laid-back, depending on the version — but in any case, little aware that nearly three decades later he would become a triple medalist at the advanced age of 46.

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Canada had several arts entries through the decades, but just those two medals, the loftiest belonging to Weinzweig — a notable and often combative composer who fought to carve out a larger place for Canadian music.

He’d begun writing his Olympic-worthy piece in 1945 while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force. According to the book Weinzweig: Essays On His Life and Music,Divertimento No. 1′ was first played publicly by a CBC orchestra in December 1946, followed by a 1947 performance in Prague.

No gold medal was awarded in that 1948 event, so his silver was the highest honour given. The medal and a framed Olympic diploma crossed the ocean and got to his house. The diploma was hung up and displayed. The medal was tucked away.

Canadian composer John Weinzweig was awarded a1948 London Olympics medal for his work titled Divertimento No. 1, as his son Daniel looks on at his Toronto home.
Canadian composer John Weinzweig was awarded a1948 London Olympics medal for his work titled Divertimento No. 1, as his son Daniel looks on at his Toronto home. Kevin Mitchell/Postmedia

As things turned out, it wasn’t always easy being John Weinzweig’s Olympic medal.

He almost lost the disc permanently when Daniel — then a young boy — discovered it and got a bright idea.

“I was rummaging around in my father’s studio, came across this medal and thought it was just terrific,” Daniel said. “I took it to school and tried to swap it for cats-eye marbles in a velvet bag. I failed — I couldn’t interest the other kid, who didn’t really see the value in this medal. So I brought it home. My parents were appalled, but also amused, and they gave me credit for entrepreneurial spirit.”

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The medal also had an adventure in 2010, when Weinzweig’s award-winning piece was played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra during a concert held as part of the Vancouver Olympics. Members of Weinzweig’s family, including Daniel, were in attendance.

“I brought the medal with me,” Daniel said. “(Conductor Bramwell Tovey) showed it to the audience when there was a break after the piece and subsequently dropped it. He got down on his hands and knees on the stage, trying to retrieve it, in a panic that he’d lost this medal.”

John Weinzweig died in 2006, aged 93. The Daily Telegraph‘s obituary described the prominent composer as a “tall, slender man with a sharp tongue and a princely air.”

They could have amended that to “a sharp tongue, a princely air and an Olympic medal,” because it was a fascinating little piece of his life story, just like if he’d gotten the silver circle after coming off a running track or a pommel horse.

“I’m struggling with what to do with it, to tell you the truth,” Daniel Weinzweig said. “I don’t know where it should go and who should possess it if I’m not around. What happens to it? Is it a family heirloom, or does it belong in a museum — a sports museum, or with an arts and cultural organization? I’m trying to work through that at the moment. It’s a conundrum.

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“It’s a great story and it should be a source of pride that a Canadian composer won the highest honour in 1948 and it’s part of Olympic history in this country. We have a history of accomplishment in the Olympic Games and this is part of that. Yeah, it wasn’t for track and field or swimming, but my feeling is, that’s irrelevant.”

And Daniel is proud of that silver prize. In 2012, he went to the London Olympics as a spectator. A customs officer asked why he was there and, while explaining, he pulled out his father’s medal and showed it to the man.

His wife later noted that proffering that medal wasn’t necessary — all he’d needed to do was to say they were there to visit London, would stay for 10 days, and then go home. There was no pressing need to show-and-tell.

“But I was very proud of my father’s accomplishment, winning a silver medal, and I wanted to share that news,” he said with a laugh.

Weinzweig was a renowned music educator in addition to his composing work and he waged a variety of battles aimed at gaining a foothold for Canadian classical music.

“He fought for our Canadian composers to be recognized and supported by our cultural institutions. It was difficult,” Daniel said.

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“He was happy to take on the establishment — the musical establishment, the government establishment. I’ve got letters from prime ministers to bureaucrats, in response to his demands.

“He was a big champion, and also a critic, of the CBC, that they should play more Canadian music because that was the way Canadians could hear it. How else would they hear Canadian music? The orchestras weren’t playing it or very rarely. A lot of the music programming on CBC Radio 2, particularly, was the result of this kind of activism. He was an interesting guy.”

Sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, from Almonte, Ont., won an Olympic bronze medal in 1932 for his medallion entitled Shield of the Athletes.
Sculptor R. Tait McKenzie, from Almonte, Ont., won an Olympic bronze medal in 1932 for his medallion entitled Shield of the Athletes. Postmedia files

Tait McKenzie, who won his bronze medal 16 years before Weinzweig captured silver, also was an interesting guy. A lifelong friend of basketball inventor James Naismith, he was prominent in the arts as well as in the areas of physical education and medicine. His sculptures can be seen around the world.

In 1932, the Winnipeg Tribune wrote that Tait McKenzie combined “a medical man’s knowledge of human anatomy with an artist’s perception and feeling for form and grace …”

His works were judged at the 1912, 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1948 Olympics — the last one posthumously. The 1932 bronze was his one medal breakthrough.

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Tait McKenzie also entered the 1932 sculpture competition, with a work called The Eight — depicting eight nude athletes hoisting a crew shell. Before the judging, art critic Natolia O’Neil picked The Eight to win gold, but such was not its fate.

Tait McKenzie is today enshrined in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame — not as a medalist, but as a builder.

It’s worth noting that the reliefs and medallions gold medalist in 1932 was Poland’s Jozef Klukowski, who beat Tait McKenzie and many others with his “Sport Sculpture II.”

In 1936, in Berlin, with war clouds growing, he won silver for a relief entitled “Football Match.” The gold-medal winner that year was German Nazi member Emil Sutor.

In 1945, Klukowski died at age 51 — imprisoned during the Warsaw uprising and killed while being transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

It was the awful death of a creative man, who had once clutched his very own Olympic discs. His winning “Sport Culture II,” long considered to be lost, reportedly was rediscovered in 2000.

Every Olympian, and every medal, has a story — Jozef Klukowski and his gold, John Weinzweig and his silver, Robert Tait McKenzie and his bronze. Walter Winans and Alfred Hajos fluidly blended body and brain; shooting, swimming, creating.

Weinzweig’s son, all these years later, cherishes his father’s Olympian accomplishment.

“You can’t be dispassionate about an Olympic medal,” Daniel says simply. “It’s very special.”



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