Australian Dictionary of Biography

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English, George Selwyn (1912–1980)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

George Selwyn English (1912-1980), composer, was born on 16 September 1912 in Sydney, son of native-born parents George Philip John Engisch (later English)—who had a long but peripatetic career as a teacher of singing, a composer and a conductor—and his wife Marjorie Blanche, née Hodgson. Educated at Malvern Church of England Grammar and Melbourne High schools, young George learned music partly from his father and partly through his own efforts: his mother vetoed proper training as a result of an unhappy marriage and an acrimonious divorce (1929).

Living in Britain from 1935, English assiduously studied in libraries, attended concerts, worked as a music critic, and established and edited the British Motorist magazine. On 19 December 1936 at the register office, Hampstead, he married Clare Rosina Henkes; they were to have a son and daughter before being divorced in 1975. Returning to Sydney in 1939, he was employed by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd until he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 14 July 1942. He was discharged on 23 December on medical grounds.

English worked as a critic for Sydney newspapers and subsequently as chief editor for the music publishers, W. H. Paling & Co. Ltd, doing a great deal of freelance composing and arranging, especially for theatre, radio and films. He assembled an extensive collection of 'mood music' while associated with the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit and with the Shell and Vacuum oil companies' production units. His experiences during the filming of Alice through the Centre (1950) developed his craft as a composer and led to such works as The Australian Dingo (1958), Death of a Wombat (which won a Prix Italia in 1959) and The First Waratah (for narrator, wind quintet and percussion, 1972) which were imaginative evocations in music and text of aspects of the Australian bush.

He also wrote numerous songs, including Song for a Crowning (1953), to a poem by Elizabeth Riddell, and won an Australian Broadcasting Commission prize for the overture for full orchestra, For a Royal Occasion (1952). English was not prolific, but wrote reliably to order. His serious compositions included Sinfonia (1967), the overture, Botany Bay 1770 (1960), Quintet for Wind Instruments (1969), Chiaroscuro (1966) for string trio, and an undated Symphony in A minor. A technically skilled composer of limited imagination, he produced a tempered version of the English modernist style of the 1920s and 1930s. Only after Chiaroscuro did he show 'a cautious acceptance of the principles of serialism'.

Active in music politics, English was a 'writer member' (1961-68) of the board of the Australasian Performing Right Association, editor (1969-78) of its journal, and founding president (1960) of the Fellowship of Australian Composers (later secretary and a long-time councillor). In 1961 he began to campaign for a musical counterpart of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Eventually, in 1965, he led a delegation to meet Prime Minister Harold Holt; the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers Advisory Board was established in 1967.

On 13 June 1975 English married an advertising executive Marcia Clement Rose in a civil ceremony at Cremorne. Accounts of the nature of this tall, strongly built, bushy-browed man emphasize his tenacity and his mercurial temperament—at times charming, at times fiercely unpleasant, owing in part to alcohol. Survived by his wife and their son, English died of cancer on 8 October 1980 at Mosman and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. He belonged to that generation of composers—including Roy Agnew and Raymond Hanson—who, despite their professionalism, were overshadowed by the emergence of an Australian avant-garde in the 1960s.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Musical News, no 50, Sept 1959, p 10
  • Canon, Mar-Apr 1961, p 136
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1950, 25 Mar 1952, 27 Apr 1953, 2 July 1971
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1952
  • ABC Archives (Sydney)
  • Australian Music Centre Library (Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Carmody, 'English, George Selwyn (1912–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/english-george-selwyn-10122/text17867, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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