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Burston, Winifred Charlotte Hillier Crosse (1889–1976)

by Larry Sitsky

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Winifred Charlotte Hillier Crosse Burston (1889-1976), pianist, was born on 3 April 1889 at Gaythorn Albion, near Caboolture, Queensland, fourth child of English-born parents Thomas Burston, clerk, and his wife Mary, née Gibson. Raised in Brisbane and taught by her mother (an accomplished pianist who was still broadcasting in her nineties), in 1908 Winifred went to Berlin. She studied under the pianist Theodore Bohlmann at the Stern'sches Konservatorium der Musik, Berlin, and gained its diploma. Following Bohlmann to the United States of America, she made public appearances and taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory. She returned to Berlin in 1911 to study with the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, and his disciple, the Dutch pianist Egon Petri. Having spent a summer with the Falzfeins, a noble family who lived near Kiev, Ukraine, in October 1913 she gave a recital at the Aeolian Hall, London.

Returning to Queensland in 1914, Burston taught piano in Brisbane and in 1919 was appointed to the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney. She encouraged the performance of new works from Europe and gave Australian premières of such pieces as Busoni's Indian Fantasy (1914), Bax's Quintet for Oboe and Strings (1923), Delius's Piano Concerto and some of Liszt's later compositions. From Busoni and Petri she received (and passed on) a grand European tradition, a particular orchestral approach to the piano and a liberal attitude to the art of transcription, soon to become unfashionable.

Visiting Europe in 1931, Burston discovered and championed Emmanuel Moore's double-keyboard piano; she purchased and brought back to Australia a rare example of this instrument in 1932. She was sufficiently flexible to overhaul her technique and play works on the new piano. In the 1930s she was president of the Sydney centre of the British and International Music Society, the first woman council-member of the Musical Association of New South Wales (1936, vice-president 1939) and of the Associated Music Clubs of Australia, and president of the musicians' section of the United Associations (of Women).

From the 1930s Burston gave many recitals for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. When she returned to Brisbane for annual holidays she was immediately 'snared' by local A.B.C. stations to give a series of piano recitals. In July 1939 she began conducting the Wednesday morning 'Women's Session' for the A.B.C. in Sydney: her programme usually began with a short talk, then she played selected records 'of all types—vocal, instrumental, solo choir, band', and each week featured a particular composer or artist. In her late seventies she gave a series of piano recitals for A.B.C. television, introducing them herself.

As a pianist, Burston favoured the late Romantic repertoire and music of the early twentieth century, and loved Busoni's transcriptions of Bach. Her performance was marked by a very fluid technique and rhythmic freedom, typical of early-twentieth-century pianism. She had little patience for preciousness in interpretation and favoured a broad, robust approach which was concerned with architecture and design, and avoided fiddly detail.

Burston had a capacity for renewal and an enthusiasm for fresh ideas. Quite late in life she discovered the new, Dutch school of composition and made a special study of this repertoire, once again giving first performances. She promoted piano music by Australian composers and developed an especially warm relationship with Roy Agnew, whose works she performed and whose music she taught to her pupils.

As a person and a teacher, Burston was strong and direct, sometimes to the point of bluntness, and was outspoken when she perceived injustices and anomalies in Australian educational systems. She was attached to the Sydney conservatorium until she retired in 1964; she also travelled interstate as an examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board until shortly before her death, visiting many institutions, among them the Canberra School of Music. Students tended to remain in touch with her for years after they graduated from her studio, and were eventually allowed to call her 'Winifred', rather than 'Miss Burston'; out of her hearing, they affectionately referred to her as 'Winnie'. Her pupils included Geoffrey Parsons, Alan Jenkins, Rainer von Zastrow, Richard Meale and Larry Sitsky. She died on 24 June 1976 at her Edgecliff home and was cremated. A fund was established to endow a scholarship in her memory at the Canberra School of Music.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News, 1 Sept 1927, p 33
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Dec 1916, 17 Aug 1927, 14 Mar 1931, 28 June 1934, 6 July 1976
  • Sun (Sydney), 3 Dec 1916
  • Canberra Times, 12 Oct 1977
  • W. Burston file (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Larry Sitsky, 'Burston, Winifred Charlotte Hillier Crosse (1889–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burston-winifred-charlotte-hillier-crosse-9641/text17009, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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