Murray Adaskin | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Murray Adaskin

LifeA brother of Harry and John Adaskin, he studied with Harry and with Luigi von Kunits in Toronto, with Kathleen Parlow in New York, and with Marcel Chailley in Paris. He met and married the soprano Frances James in 1931.
Adaskin, Murray
Adaskin's compositions employ a highly personal neoclassical idiom, frequently using Canadian folk material (courtesy Nicholas Morant/Canadian Music Centre).

Murray Adaskin

 Murray Adaskin. Composer, teacher, violinist, conductor, born Toronto 28 Mar 1906, died Victoria 6 May 2002; honorary LL D (Lethbridge) 1970, honorary D MUS (Brandon) 1972, honorary D MUS (Windsor) 1977, honorary LL D (Saskatchewan) 1984, honorary D MUS (Victoria) 1984, honorary D Letters (Brock) 2000.

A brother of Harry and John Adaskin, he studied with Harry and with Luigi von Kunits in Toronto, with Kathleen Parlow in New York, and with Marcel Chailley in Paris. He met and married the soprano Frances James in 1931. For many years he lived as an orchestral and chamber musician, playing 1923-36 with the TSO and 1938-52 with the Royal York Hotel Trio. In 1944, however, he began to study composition with John Weinzweig, and soon composition became his prime interest. He studied further with Darius Milhaud at Aspen (summers 1949, 1950, 1953) and 1949-51 with Charles Jones in California.

In 1952 he was named head of music at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. During his tenure, 1957-60, as conductor of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra he insisted that the orchestra commission a Canadian work annually. He also included Canadian works in the program of the Summer Festival of Music which he organized in 1959 and in Six Exhibition Concerts (1967) which combined performances with an exhibition documenting the composers' careers. A charter member of the CLComp, he also served 1966-9 on the Canada Council. In 1966 at the University of Saskatchewan he became composer-in-residence, the first such position created by a Canadian university. In 1972 he retired, and in 1973 he moved to Victoria, where he continued to compose and teach. He formed a close association with the Victoria artistic community, especially at the University of Victoria where in the 1990s he taught both violin and composition. Most of his Victoria works were written for that city's performers and ensembles, especially its younger musicians.

 In 1982 the University of Saskatchewan sponsored An Adaskin Celebration, a concert honouring his 75th birthday, and 12 Feb-26 Mar 1988 he was honoured by the University of Victoria with The Adaskin Years: a Celebration of Canada's Arts. This series of concerts of music by Adaskin and those who had influenced him or been influenced by him, combined an exhibition of the Adaskins' collection of Canadian painting and culminated in a Conference on Canada's Arts, 1930-1970. CBC radio honoured Adaskin in three episodes of 'Mostly Music' 27-29 Nov 1989, profiling his life and music.


A modernist without being a radical, Adaskin in his compositions developed a consistent and recognizable technique which exploits three main textures: counterpoint of two melodies, rhythmic activity under melody, and rhythmic activity alone. The rhythmic activity, often syncopated, is given characteristically to staccato woodwinds or strings. The form evolves from short motions repeated either sequentially or in rhythmic transformation, with frequent changes in texture and timbre. Phrase lengths also are short, often spanning only two bars. Adaskin used folk material occasionally, extracting from it short motives similar to those that appear in his other music and using them in a similar way. His Saskatchewan Legend and Algonquin Symphony contain examples of this procedure.

His style is marked by a French influence and pleasantness of expression, attained through a personal mixture of neoclassic and folk elements. He made use of serial procedures in some works but did not find strict 12-tone writing useful for his musical approach.

Compositions and Commissions

Most of his works were commissioned, including by the CBC (the opera Grant, Warden of the Plains, the Rondino for Nine Instruments, the String Quartet No. 1) the NACO (Diversion for Orchestra), the Chamber Players of Toronto, (In Praise of Canadian Painting in the Thirties), the Nanaimo Symphony Orchestra (Nootka Ritual), the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (Divertimento No. 4), George Zukerman (the Bassoon Concerto), and others.

Adaskin's oeuvre comprises around 130 works, many written after his official retirement, and past the age at which most composers stop creating. In 1996 he was composer-in-residence for the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival, and the Victoria Symphony programmed a tribute concert for his 90th birthday. His final composition was Musica Victoria, written in 2000, an adaptation of his Cassenti concertante.

Volume 23 of RCI's Anthology of Canadian Music (1986) was devoted to Adaskin's compositions. Murray Adaskin and his second wife, Dorothea (b Larsen, m 1989), produced several recordings of his works 1995-2001. The Media Magic label has produced The Adaskin Collection, a series of CDs in several volumes of his compositions through the years: Vol 1 (1995); Vol 2 (1997); Vol 3 (1999); Vol 4 (2004); Vol 5 (2001); Vol 6 (2012). Adaskin was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a listing of his works and articles about him may be found on the CMC website.

Honours and Legacy

Adaskin's work as teacher, conductor, and advocate of Canadian music and musicians ranks with his work as composer. His benign and positive attitude towards Canadian music is expressed in his genial Saskatchewan reports in the Canadian Chronicles of issues 1 to 4 of the Canada Music Book (1970-2). He was one of the first to leave the Toronto-Montreal concentration and contribute in a real way to the decentralization of Canadian musical activity. His pupils included Andrew Dawes, Paul Pedersen, Boyd McDonald, and Neil Harris.

Adaskin was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1980. He received the Saskatchewan Arts Board's Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1991, and in 1996 the University of Victoria established the annual Adaskin Lectures on the Arts in Canada, which have continued in 2012 with distinguished guest speakers.

He deposited his papers at the National Library of Canada, and made gifts of his scores to the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Western Ontario. His complete body of work has been published and bound as the Murray Adaskin Collection at the University of Saskatchewan. The University of Victoria also has an Adaskin fonds, and offers the Murray Adaskin Prize in Music Composition and an endowment fund in his name.

See also Amati String Quartet.

Further Reading