Ezra Schabas (1924–2020)
Professor Emeritus Ezra Schabas of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music died in Toronto on October 12, 2020 at the age of 96. Schabas was born in New York City on April 24, 1924. Specializing in clarinet performance and music education, he completed an Artist’s Diploma (1943) and a BSc degree (1948) from the Juilliard School, and an MA (1949) at Columbia University. He served with the US Armed Forces during World War II and was stationed in Germany and in France, where he studied at the Conservatoire in Nancy and, after the war, at the Fontainebleau School for the Arts. After academic appointments in Massachusetts and Cleveland (1948–52) he became the Director of Concerts and Publicity at the Royal Conservatory of Music (then a constituent part of the University of Toronto) in 1952. He subsequently became a Special Lecturer at the Faculty of Music in 1960, an Associate Professor in 1961 and a Professor in 1968. He served for ten years as the chair of the Faculty of Music’s opera and performance departments (1968–78) and then was principal of the Royal Conservatory of Music (still part of the University of Toronto at the time) from 1978 to 1983. After two more years at the Faculty of Music he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1985.
Concurrent with his activities at the University of Toronto, Schabas enjoyed a busy career as a freelance clarinettist and a consultant and administrator. He played with the CBC Symphony Orchestra and was a founding member of the Toronto Woodwind Quintet (1956–60). Among his clarinet pupils were the jazz musician Brian Barley, Paul Grice and Howard Knopf (both members of the York Winds), Peter Smith (a founding member of the National Arts Centre Orchestra), the music librarian S. Timothy Maloney, and Patricia Wait-Weisenblum (a clarinet instructor at York University). Schabas was the music manager for the Stratford Festival (1958–61) and in 1960 he helped to found the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, for which he served variously as an instructor, auditioner, and administrator during its first five seasons. Two other projects which he founded were the Orchestral Training Program at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Musical Performance and Communication program at the University of Toronto, both funded by the federal government. He served as the first president of the Association of Canadian Orchestras (1972–74) and the Association of Colleges and Conservatories of Music (1980–84). He was an active member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, serving as its President from 1996 to 1998.
Schabas’s most enduring legacy may be his work as a music researcher and writer. His first book was Theodore Thomas: America’s Conductor and Builder of Orchestras, 1835-1905 (University of Illinois Press, 1989), a detailed biography of the indefatigable German-born US orchestra builder. Five years later came Sir Ernest MacMillan: The Importance of Being Canadian (University of Toronto Press, 1994), the definitive study of the leading Canadian musician of the mid-twentieth century; Schabas won the City of Toronto Book Award in 1995 for this biography. For his next project, Schabas collaborated with the musicologist Carl Morey to write Opera Viva (Dundurn Press, 2000), the official history of the Canadian Opera Company, which is both a handsome coffee table book and a scholarly study of the leading opera company in Canada. Next came There’s Music in These Walls: A History of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Dundurn Press, 2005), for which Schabas conducted extensive archival research and interviews. While the book remains the definitive history of the Con, it is not the ‘official’ history of the institution, as Schabas was characteristically unwilling to surrender editorial independence for the project. For his last book, Schabas returned to biography for a study of the Czech-born opera singer and actor Jan Rubes (Dundurn Press, 2007) who was also, like Schabas, an enthusiastic tennis player.
Among his many honours, Schabas was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 1996 and was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2001. He is survived by his wife Ann, a former Dean of the Faculty of Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto and the daughter of Barker Fairley, whose paintings of local musicians adorn room 130 in the Faculty of Music’s Edward Johnson Building (the Barker Fairley Room). He is also survived by five children, twelve grandchildren (including the soprano Sara Schabas, University of Toronto BMus, 2012; and Marguerite Schabas, Executive Assistant to the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company) and eleven great-grandchildren. His personal and professional papers are held by the University of Toronto Archives.