Roy Agnew - Australian Heritage Series
Robert (Roy) Ewing Agnew was born in Sydney on 23rd August 1891, the second son and eldest surviving child of Maria and Samuel Agnew. Music was to become Agnew’s passion and from an early age he showed unique musical qualities that led him to the career of composer and performer, a man later described by critics as bringing a freshness and vitality to his work.
Although largely self-taught, Agnew initially took piano lessons with Daisy Miller. As the child’s creative qualities began to become apparent, Agnew’s parents sought advice from Emanuel de Beaupuis, an eminent Italian composer and teacher then living in Sydney. Recognising Agnew’s unique talents, de Beaupuis agreed to accept the boy as a daily pupil and thus began a long and fruitful relationship in which, under de Beaupuis’ tutelage, Agnew mastered the technical and pianistic skills that would equip him to become a very competent and popular performer. With de Beaupuis’ death in 1913 - a man who had become both friend and mentor, - Agnew went on to study composition for a short time with Alfred Hill. With his parents’ blessing Agnew learnt no trade other than the craft of composition and combined this talent with performance and teaching. As a young man, he taught piano first at his parents’ home at Ashfield in Sydney, as well as at Kambala Church of England Girls’ School at Rose Bay where his sister Marjorie was a weekly boarder.
In the early years of the 20th century, Agnew was well known as a performer in Sydney, and his own works featured prominently on concert programmes. Benno Moiseiwitsch, visiting Sydney in 1920, publicly acclaimed Agnew’s talent by including two of his miniatures, Deidrie’s Lament and Dance of the Wild Men in his own recital at the Sydney Town Hall. In 1923 a benefit concert organised by the citizens of Sydney at the Sydney Town Hall raised enough funds to enable Agnew to travel to London and embark upon a period of training and exposure to the wider field of European musical thinking.
Soon after he arrived in England Agnew met many prominent musicians, among them Arnold Bax, Myra Hess and Percival Garrett, who welcomed him into their circle. He took some composition and orchestration lessons with Gerrard Williams and his works were well received by London audiences and critics alike. Agnew’s time in England was highly profitable: he made a number of broadcasts and gave performances of his own new works as well as works by Debussy and Stravinsky, and a number of publishing houses released his music, not only in Australia but in England and the United States. Over his lifetime, virtually all of Agnew’s works were published. From the earliest days prominent artists including Benno Moiseiwitsch, already referred to, John Crown, - who introduced Agnew’s works to audiences in the United States, - Walter Gieseking, William Murdoch and Alfred Cortot were among those who performed Agnew’s music.
Homesick, in 1928 Agnew returned to Australia where he was given a "Welcome Home” concert on 16th July in his home city, Sydney. He furthered his teaching and performing career, giving many recitals and lecture-demonstrations. In 1930 Agnew married Kathleen Olive O’Connor, a musician, whose father had been a judge and a member of Australia’s first Parliament. Later that year the couple returned to England and Agnew continued his career of performance and broadcasts, giving recitals at various venues in London and Glasgow as well as performances for the BBC. Much of his piano music was written during these years in England.
In 1934, Agnew and his wife returned to Australia. The Australian Broadcasting Commission en-gaged Agnew for a tour of broadcast recitals in Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and Melbourne in which he performed some sixty of his own works. The couple then settled in Melbourne for a short period of time before returning permanently to Sydney. From the beginning of 1938, Agnew arranged and hosted a series of programmes of new music for the ABC. This series lasted for some five years becoming a milestone in the history of the performance of contemporary music in Australia. Agnew’s long time interest in modern music was well served by these programmes which aired the works of contemporary English and European composers. Before the war these works were played straight to air by prominent Australian pianists including Gordon Watson, Winifred Burston, Frank Warbrick and Agnew himself. This valuable and historic series offered works unknown at the time in Australia and included the sonatas of Scriabin, Bax, Bartok and Ireland, as well as piano works by Honegger, Debussy, Scriabin, Webern, Berg and Milhaud. In another historic landmark in 1943, the ABC in Sydney recorded Agnew performing some fifty of his own works (including five vocal works) and through a reciprocal agreement between the ABC and the BBC, many of these works were heard in England on the BBC’s Home Service programmes. In 1943, Agnew was appointed as a piano examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board, and in 1944 he joined the part-time teaching staff at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music. Both these appointments, however, were short-lived; tragically, in November 1944, Agnew died of septicaemia following tonsillitis.
What can be said of Agnew’s place in the development of Australian music? His compositional style displayed originality and indeed uniqueness amongst the music of Australian composers of the first half of the century. At the same time, it is possible to detect in his style the influences of Scriabin, Debussy and Liszt, as well as the English composers whose music he admired: Ireland, Bax and Scott. His harmonic idiom tended largely towards the rich, lyric language of the Romantic/Impressionist European tradition, particularly in his early works, but with his last work, the Sonata Legend Capricornia, his musical language was evolving into tighter, more cohesive lines that pointed the way to a more innovative style.
Agnew’s death at an early age was regrettable; Australia had lost one of its foremost composers, a man admired by pupils and public alike, a man who loomed large over the musical scene in Sydney. His works include over seventy compositions for piano, some twenty vocal works, the chamber work Two Songs without Words for voice and clarinet, and the popular tone poem for voice and orchestra, The Breaking of the Drought. Many of the titles of his works reflect Agnew’s love of Australia, and without a doubt his talent lay in the composition and performance of idiomatic works for the piano, the instrument that he loved and understood so well. The legacy he left was carried on by his pupils including Frank Hutchens, Dulcie Holland and Beatrice Tange and more recently, his piano works have found a new champion in the performances of Larry Sitsky.
During his lifetime, Agnew was hailed by critics both here and abroad as a talented musician and an original composer who brought a freshness and vitality to his work. Now, over half a century since his death, these comments are still valid. Regrettably, over the years the music of Roy Agnew has been neglected; but happily, with the publication of these unique volumes containing all of Agnew’s piano miniatures, his place in the history of Australian music is once more assured. Biographical notes by Dr Rita Crews OAM
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