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Alexander Burnard (1900-1971) - Papers:  Biography

The papers of Alexander Burnard, Australian composer, including correspondence from Percy and Ella Grainger.

Archives : Alexander Burnard

The papers of Alexander Burnard, Australian composer, 1900-1971

In a letter dated 2nd June 1956, the famous Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote to his friend and colleague, Alex Burnard, and described the latter's musical talent in the following words:

"You seem to me to be exactly what the highest flight of Australian musical genius should be. Or put it this way: Your music is the tonal counterpoint of Norman Lindsay's most complicated and cosmic drawings, say "Man's World" or that Bachanalian One (I forget the title)."

It is a pity that such a composer as Burnard, likened to the artistic genius of Norman Lindsay, and held in such high regard by an equally gifted genius of the calibre of Percy Grainger, could have fallen into such a state of musical obscurity.

Dr David Alexander Burnard was born on the 10th October 1900 at Malvern, Adelaide, South Australia. Alex, as his friends knew him, was born into a family of scholars. His father was a Headmaster in the Education Department of South Australia, and retired in 1918, and his Alex Burnard as a young manbrother and sister were both, at the time, in the course of qualifying as doctors.

At school, he excelled in English, and displayed a love for literature and a natural gift for music. He studied theory and practice of music at the Elder Conservatorium with Professor E. Harold Davies and Mr George Pearce.

Upon leaving school he became a bank officer at the Commonwealth Bank in Adelaide from 1917 to 1924, before deciding upon a career of music. He attended the University of Adelaide and received his degree of Bachelor of Music in 1927. By 1929 he was studying Composition at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London under Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams and Pianoforte with Mr Herbert Fryer.

Back in Adelaide, he proceeded to attain his Doctorate of Music in 1932, earning a living as a private teacher and Chief Music Critic at the Adelaide Advertiser, from 1930 to 1934. At the invitation of Dr Davies, he joined the staff of the Music School of the University as teacher in Composition and Orchestration in 1933, before being offered a post at the N.S.W. State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, by the then Head Dr Edgar Bainton. A position which he accepted in 1935 and served in until his resignation in May 1967. In 1953 he was awarded the Coronation Medal for his service to music as teacher, lecturer, conductor and composer.

He wrote many essays, prose works, poetry and critical studies. He published a work on Harmony and Composition in 1950, of which a second edition was published 15 years later.

He enjoyed the friendship of many distinguished composers, musicians and conductors including Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams, Eugene Goossens and Percy Grainger. His students, such as Malcolm Williamson, Geoffrey Parsons, Barry Tuckwell, Johannes Tall and Trevor Jones, also achieved distinction in Australia, the United States and England.

He married twice in his life, in 1931 to Phyllis Jean Webb, a singer who died in October 1966, and again in 1967 to Olive Monro.

As a composer, he wrote orchestral, choral, instrumental and chamber works, along with many songs and compositions for piano. His Op.12, an Overture to a setting of John Milton's Land; Allegro (completed in 1931), was performed by the BBC Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Eugene Goosens and other conductors. Many of the compositions have been performed on radio or public performance, with several being awarded first prizes in competitions.

He was awarded the MBE in 1970 for services to music, literature and education, and died on 4th October 1971.

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