Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hanke, Sonya Helen (1933–1993)

by Diane Collins

This article was published online in 2017

Sonya Helen Hanke (1933–1993), pianist and music teacher, was born on 27 September 1933 at Hunters Hill, Sydney, younger of two children of Sydney-born parents Henry Aloysius Hanke, artist, and his wife Emily, née Mortimer. Her father was a well-known painter whose achievements included winning the 1934 Archibald prize and, in 1936, the inaugural Sir John Sulman prize. Educated at North Sydney Girls’ High School, Sonya displayed an early aptitude for piano. She studied at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, graduating in 1951 with performance and teaching diplomas.

In 1952 Hanke won the open piano championship at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod and a Pedley, Woolley, McMenamin Trust scholarship. This enabled her to study at the Royal College of Music, London (1953–56), where she was awarded the Hopkinson gold medal for piano playing (1956). In April 1954 she gained the associate of the Royal College of Music diploma in piano performing. While in Europe, she received an Italian government scholarship for advanced study at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, Siena, where (1955–57, 1959) she was taught by Guido Agosti and Alfred Cortot. She also studied at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Siena would retain a central place in her life. There she met and married Aldo Lucchetti, an agricultural scientist, in 1959. The marriage was childless. Living at Siena, she performed in Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Britain, later also touring Israel and the United States of America.

After her marriage ended, Hanke returned to Australia in 1974 to arrange concert performances. Subsequently, she accepted a position in the keyboard department of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, which she took up part time in 1976 (full time from 1979). She was highly regarded as a caring, inspirational teacher. Though formal in manner, she bequeathed a sophisticated and developed taste in music to students and they responded with loyalty. Musicians who took lessons with her included Kathryn Selby, David Howie, Lisa Moore, Corey McVicar, and Michael Harvey.

As a pianist, Hanke was much admired by leading music critics, who praised her interpretations and technical mastery. Her meticulous preparation and her strength in playing flamboyant Romantic piano music were also widely acknowledged, though some musicians described her approach as solid but lacking in method, a legacy attributed to her long exposure to Italian piano culture. The critic Fred Blanks praised her ‘virtuosic technical agility’ and ‘affinity’ with the music of Franz Liszt; her performances of the composer’s works could ‘assume the stature of musical revelation’ (1978, 21).

An energetic musician, Hanke maintained a network of professional connections and vigorously pursued her interests in Liszt and contemporary Italian composers. She was an examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board and eisteddfods. In 1980 she became foundation president of the South Pacific Liszt Society; the Hungarian government honoured her in 1986 for her promotion of Liszt. She was also a music adviser to the European Liszt Society and a member of the international jury adjudicating Liszt competitions. In 1986 at Budapest she gave the world premiere of Hexameron 1986, a set of variations on a theme of Liszt written by six Australian composers. Her desire to promote contemporary Italian composers led to her premiere, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of Respighi’s Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode.

Small, stocky, and meticulously groomed, Hanke was intensely private. She had a dry sense of humour and a fondness for playing piano rags at social gatherings. Resigning from the conservatorium in 1992, she fought a long battle with breast cancer that led her to visit the ashram of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru. She died on 4 September 1993 at St Leonards and was cremated. All her books and music were left to the conservatorium which, in 1994, established the Sonya Hanke memorial scholarship for pianists.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Blanks, Fred. ‘Painting a Liszt Picture.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1978, 21

  • Howie, David. Interview by the author

  • Lucchetti, Aldo. Personal communication

  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Liszt Advocate of Note.’ 8 September 1993, 28

Additional Resources

Citation details

Diane Collins, 'Hanke, Sonya Helen (1933–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hanke-sonya-helen-18745/text30433, published online 2017, accessed online 14 November 2018.

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