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Antill, John Henry (1904–1986)

by Harold Hort

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Henry Antill (1904-1986), musician, composer and broadcaster, was born on 8 April 1904 at Ashfield, Sydney, second child of English-born parents John Henry Antill, boilermaker, and his wife Marianne Elizabeth, née Baker. John was educated at St Andrew’s Cathedral Choir School, Sydney, where his musical training began, then at Trinity Grammar School, Summer Hill. At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to the New South Wales Government Railways as a mechanical draftsman. One of his tasks was to help design a multi-toned steam whistle for the C-36 class locomotive.

Music was always in Antill’s mind and while an apprentice he wrote several operas including Endymion, which was to be performed in 1953. Overcoming his father’s reservations about the unreliable nature of a career in music, he left the railways and began studying with the organist Frederick Mewton. On Mewton’s retirement he enrolled full time at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, where Alfred Hill taught him composition and Gerald Walenn was his violin mentor. Antill’s practical experience included singing, as a tenor, in the chorus and playing second violin, and later bass clarinet, in the orchestra. After leaving the conservatorium he toured with the Williamson Imperial Grand Opera company in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand from 1932 to 1934, singing in the chorus, conducting backstage and enjoying the experience of being a member of a professional company.

When the company was disbanded Antill formed a quartet, called the Mastersingers Male Quartet, for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He also founded, and arranged for, other groups, among them the Melody-makers Male Quartet and the Choristers Male Quartet. In 1934-35 he participated in the (Sir Benjamin) Fuller Opera Company as a member of the chorus, backstage conductor and player of the clarinet and the bass clarinet.

Antill joined the staff of the ABC in 1936 as assistant to the federal music editor and three weeks later was also appointed conductor of the Wireless Chorus. He was a member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra simultaneously but found this commitment too much. In July 1939 he became the ABC’s balance and control officer in Sydney and from October he worked as a presentation officer. On 2 February he had married with Anglican rites Constance Margaret Peaker, a clerk, at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, where they had first met. They had a daughter in 1945; her twin was stillborn. John undertook considerable domestic duties in their home at Neutral Bay and then at Hunter’s Hill, especially after Constance’s death in 1957. He later lived at Cronulla.

As a child Antill had seen a form of corroboree performed at La Perouse. His memories of this experience stimulated an interest in writings on Aboriginal people and ultimately led to his composing the ballet Corroboree, which became his best-known work. Soon after the end of World War II the ABC made the SSO available to Antill for a `read through’ of the work, but took no further action. During his 1946 tour of Australia, (Sir) Eugene Goossens, having sought out Australian compositions, conducted the SSO in a symphonic suite of four excerpts from the ballet at a free Sunday afternoon concert in the Sydney Town Hall on 18 August. In October, his fare having been raised by public subscription, Antill attended a performance in London.

The presentation of Corroboree as a ballet proved more difficult than its performance as a suite. After a number of failed attempts, including one by (Sir) Robert Helpmann in London, Dorothy Helmricharranged for its performance at Sydney’s Empire Theatre, commencing on 3 July 1950, with choreography by Rex Reid and décor by William Constable; Antill conducted the SSO and the National Theatre Ballet Company provided the dancers. The season was a success, even financially, although there were critics who complained that it did not fully bring out the spiritual qualities of the Aboriginal ceremony. Antill said that he had attempted not a truly ritual corroboree but an entertainment that captured something of the idiom for a non-Aboriginal audience. A shorter version of Corroboree was staged in a gala performance for Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, with Beth Dean’s choreography and with Antill as conductor.

Goossens later performed the music from Corroboree throughout the world. This work was authentically Australian, expressing something of the spiritual values of the original inhabitants of the country, and having an exhilarating percussive and rhythmic character. The work stimulated new approaches to composition among younger Australian composers.

During the four months from October 1946 that Antill had spent in London, the ABC had paid his salary and arranged for him to study orchestral and balance techniques with the British Broadcasting Corporation. He returned in February 1947 and became the ABC’s music supervisor for New South Wales. A prolific composer, he wrote music for films, starting with School in the Mail Box in 1947 and extending to documentaries on Papua and New Guinea. He also wrote Overture for a Momentous Occasion (1957) and Paean to the Spirit of Man (1968), both commissioned by the ABC, Music for a Royal Pageant (for the royal tour in 1962) and Symphony on a City (1959) for the city of Newcastle. His operas included The Music Critic (1953) and The First Christmas (1969). Other works encompass an oratorio, The Song of Hagar to Abraham the Patriarch (1958), ballet music such as G’Day Digger (c.1955), The Sentimental Bloke (1955) and Black Opal (1961), and much vocal music. He wrote the music to precede Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message in 1959. On his eightieth birthday he said that he wished that people would listen to the many other ballets that he had composed, not just to Corroboree. He decorated many of his scores with illustrations of set designs and costumes in watercolour.

Antill was slim in build and shy and diffident in manner. As music editor (1950-69) with the ABC, he was responsible for selecting compositions, and for encouraging Australian composers and promoting their work. Because of his reticence, he did little to seek performances or exposure of his own compositions. The Fellowship of Australian Composers conferred life membership on him in 1974. He was appointed OBE in 1971 and CMG in 1981 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in creative arts by the University of Wollongong in 1985. His portrait by Louis Kahan is held at the State Library of New South Wales and a bronze bust by Dawn Swayne is held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The John Antill composition scholarship, offered annually to an outstanding conservatorium student, was established to honour him. Survived by his daughter, he died on 29 December 1986 at Caringbah and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Uncommon Men (1965)
  • R. Covell, Australia’s Music (1967)
  • F. Callaway and D. Tunley (eds), Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (1978)
  • B. Dean and V. Carell, Gentle Genius (1987)
  • Canon, Apr 1955, p 353
  • APRA: Magazine of the Australasian Performing Right Association, Dec 1984, p 15
  • John Antill papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harold Hort, 'Antill, John Henry (1904–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/antill-john-henry-12145/text21761, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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