Marjorie Hesse


Marjorie Hesse (1911-1986)

Teacher, examiner and composer, Marjorie Anne Hesse MBE was born in Brisbane on 13th November 1911.  She, like many of her peers who displayed extraordinary talent at an early age, was hailed as a child prodigy. Certainly, she was a talented pianist and later earned the reputation of being a formidable teacher and examiner. Early piano lessons were with Sydney May in Ipswich, Queensland, and several of her piano compositions were dedicated to him. Her family moved to Sydney when Marjorie was fifteen, the family consisting at that time of mother and siblings, Audrey and Bernie. Marjorie's mother, along with the help of her children, ran a boarding house in Darlinghurst to make ends meet. Marjorie had to run home after a day at the Conservatorium and wait on tables, often returning in the evening in concert dress to perform.

This would have had a resounding effect on Marjorie. Whether she felt imposed upon or was proud of the fact that she could accomplish so many things when her student colleagues could spend the time looking after their own needs and preparing their work without other commitments is possibly a factor in the development of her personality.

In Sydney, Marjorie joined the student ranks of the NSW Conservatorium in 1928 and studied piano with Frank Hutchens. Her teacher for harmony and counterpoint was Mirrie Solomon (Hill) and her classmates were Dulcie Holland and Josephine Bell. Josephine Bell wrote about Hesse: “Her personality was as colourful as her clothes she loved to wear and there was no doubt her presence was felt wherever she happened to be.

In 1927 Hesse won a national prize for piano and harmony presented by the Trinity College, London for being the best candidate in the British Commonwealth for the exam level she had entered and in 1930 she was awarded a scholarship from the AMEB after outstanding success in another exam. Hesse graduated with both teaching and performance diplomas from the NSW Conservatorium in 1932 and during those years of study she was the recipient of a Grade 1 scholarship. These diplomas were known as DSCM. (Diploma of the State Conservatorium of Music.)

In 1932 Hesse presented her first piano recital at the Conservatorium playing a toccata especially written for her by Frank Hutchens and one of her own compositions All suddenly the wind comes soft which is based on a poem written by Rupert Brooke and composed in that same year.

During the 1930s she performed frequently for ABC radio broadcasts as both soloist and concerto performer, and with Alice Prowse and Phyllis MacDonald gave her first ABC tour. She played the premier performance of Howard Ferguson’s Sonata in F minor and introduced concert audiences to the music of Delius, two Novelettes by Poulenc and new compositions by Roy Agnew and Alfred Hill. Hesse also gave the first NSW performance of de Falla's Nights in the Garden of Spain commemorating the 21years of the Conservatorium under the baton of Dr Edgar Bainton. She presented a recital of Australian music with Alice Prowse in New York and upon her return to Australia gained her Bachelor of Arts from Sydney University.

Hesse joined the staff at the NSW Conservatorium as a member of the piano faculty in 1936 and was one of the most highly qualified staff members holding not only the Diploma of the State Conservatorium of Music, but a B.A. (Sydney), Licentiate of the Royal School of Music and L. Mus. A. Marjorie Hesse was in fact one of the few staff employed who had a degree. In 1939 she went to England where she was accompanist to the great Italian singer, Dino Borgioli. Borgioli was the teacher of the well-known opera singer Dame Joan Hammond. Hesse gave the first performance of Alfred Hill's piano concerto and played the solo part in Constant Lambert's setting of Sitwell’s Rio Grande. She was responsible for introducing many Australian works to overseas audiences.

Hesse was a student at the Royal College of Music in London when war broke out. She had planned to stay in London for a longer time but returned to Australia as many of her peers were also forced to do.

Her brother, who had become a soldier, died in World War II and Marjorie would sit in her studio knitting socks for the soldiers at the same time as teaching piano. Apart from her teaching and knitting duties Hesse analysed examination pieces for students and wrote sight reading exercises. She was considered a formidable lady and students while they might be dead scared of Sverjensky, were in awe of both Hesse and Nancy Salas. Hesse apparently kept a large, thick pencil to rap on the fingers of the students and was fond of expressing her views on everything from life to music.

She retired from her position at the NSW Conservatorium in 1981 at the age of 70. In 1983 she was made an honorary life member of the Music Teachers’ Association.

Marjorie Hesse is an example of the performer/ teacher who also became a composer. Her works would have been performed quite frequently when she was alive but have been neglected since her death.

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


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