Esther Kahn


Esther Kahn (1877 - 1962)

Esther was born in 1877 in London of German/Jewish descent where the family lived in Kensington. At the age of five she made her first public appearance as a pianist in London. She won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music but was unable to commence musical studies there because her family migrated to Australia soon after Esther’s fifth birthday. Upon her arrival in Sydney in 1883 Esther began piano lessons with Josef Kretschmann, performing a recital from memory in the Sydney Town Hall aged twelve.
Esther became a composer of songs, solo piano, organ, and chamber music, and was an organist as well as a pianist. Her first compositions were published in the 1890s and were performed by either Esther herself, Lillian Frost, organist Auguste Wiegande, during his residence in Australia, her sister Bessie Kahn as well as some of her students though like so many other composers Esther had to be content with the distribution of some of her compositions in manuscript form. A number of her works were published in the Australian Musical Album which appeared in 1894. She was very involved with the Sydney Lyceum Club and was also active in a women’s organization being either the Soroptimists or the Theosophists. Like many of her peers she used male pseudonyms Charles Stewart (Stuart?) and Ivan Romanov and was involved with the music and art crowd in the Palings store in George Street Sydney. The Palings store was a concert venue as well as a place where lessons were taken before the opening of the Conservatorium in Sydney. Esther also held musical evenings in her home. 

Esther’s first stand-alone published piano work, Intermezzo op. 25 was composed in 1906 and dedicated to her teacher and mentor, Josef Kretschmann. This was followed by Xmastide (prefaced by a poem attributed to Wrenn Sutton) 1910; Day Dreams - a Waltz, published 1911; Coronation March, dedicated to Her Excellency Countess Dudley 1911; Sweet Idleness (entr’acte for piano solo) published and performed in 1913;  Barcarolle published 1914; Powder and Patches for piano, 1918; Valse Brillantè, published 1921; The Watermill,  published 1922; Spring Song, published 1924; Memories of Youth: Five Graded piano solos, 1936 and Midst Heather and Wattle, 1949. Spring Song was also published by its German title – Frühlingslied - and in the original published score is prefaced by a poem.

Esther Kahn was part of a generation of artists who had the opportunity to create a new culture. At the turn of the century Australia was one of the youngest civilized countries where many Europeans chose to settle. The days of the convicts were passed and there was a sense of the pioneer in many of the musicians and artists who came. There were obviously two distinct routes they could take. They could either aim to create an original Australian voice which reflected the values which were fast becoming a trademark, exploring such themes as Aboriginality, mateship, egalitarianism, national identity and so on or they could staunchly stick to the English and European traditions that they had brought with them. Esther preferred to write in a style that was reminiscent of the European tradition that had been the ground roots of her musical upbringing.

(Extracts taken from biographical notes by Jeanell Carrigan.  See The Composers’ Series)


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