Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hart, Fritz Bennicke (1874–1949)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Fritz Bennicke Hart (1874-1949), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

Fritz Bennicke Hart (1874-1949), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/380

Fritz Bennicke Hart (1874-1949), composer, conductor and teacher, was born on 11 February 1874 at Greenwich, England, eldest child of Frederick Robinson Hart and his wife Jemima (Jemmima) Waters, née Bennicke. His father, a commercial traveller, directed the parish choir in which Hart sang from the age of 6. His Cornish mother taught pianoforte. Both sides of the family claimed musical distinction as performers and minor composers.

Hart became a chorister at Westminster Abbey where he remained for three years under the directorship of Sir Frederick Bridge. In 1893-96 he was a student at the Royal College of Music. His friends there included the composers Gustav Holst, Coleridge Taylor, William Hurlstone; later friends were Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland.

After graduating Hart toured and acted for eighteen months with a dramatic company; this led to writing incidental music for Julius Caesar. His first opportunity to conduct came at Eastbourne where he directed his own music for Romeo and Juliet. His next few years as musical director with various touring companies gave him a range of experience from operettas and musical comedy to dramatic incidental music and opera. On 4 September 1904, at Bristol, he married Jessie Florence Glover Beattie; their only child, Basil, was born in 1905.

In 1909 Hart came to Australia when J. C. Williamson offered him an engagement for twelve months. It was extended to four years. In 1913, when G. W. L. Marshall-Hall went to London, Hart assumed his lecturing duties at the Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne. A year later Marshall-Hall sent instructions to close the conservatorium, but the remaining staff refused to resign and made Hart their director. In 1915 Marshall-Hall was reinstated as Ormond professor of music at the University of Melbourne, thus returning as a rival to his former institution. Amalgamation proved impossible, even after Marshall-Hall's death in July 1915. Anti-German feeling provoked by World War I isolated Marshall-Hall and his largely German-born staff from the popular Albert Street conservatorium under Hart, whose extravagantly pro-British ally (Dame) Nellie Melba threw in her lot with Albert Street, founding there her school of singing.

Melba and her pupils shaped Hart's work as a composer in his choice of vocal forms, though the Celtic revival and the poetry of Herrick also influenced him. Eighteen of his twenty-two operas, 267 of his 514 listed songs (he destroyed several hundred more) and three of his four large choral works were composed in Melbourne. Fifteen orchestral works, including one symphony, numerous chamber and solo instrumental works, unaccompanied choruses, part-songs, transcriptions and arrangements are among his remaining output.

In 1913 Hart and Alfred Hill founded the short-lived Australian Opera League whose first programme on 3 August 1914 included the first performance of Hart's opera Pierrette. Six other operas were staged in his lifetime, all in multiple performances: Ruth and Naomi (7 July 1917, Melbourne); Malvolio (5 December 1918, Melbourne); Deirdre in Exile (22 September 1926, Melbourne); The Woman who Laughed at Faery (25 September 1929, Melbourne); St George and the Dragon (10 July 1931, Melbourne); Even Unto Bethlehem (20 December 1943, Honolulu). The choral first performances in Melbourne include New Year's Eve and Salve Caput Cruentatum (6 July 1925); O Gloriosa Domina (28 November 1925); Natural Magic and The Gilly of Christ (3 June 1927) and Joll's Credo (1934).

In March 1924 Hart was made a fellow of the Royal College of Music, London. In 1927 he became acting conductor for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and in 1928 permanent conductor. Late in 1932 the Melbourne University Conservatorium Orchestra and the M.S.O. amalgamated under the joint conductorship of Hart and Professor (Sir) Bernard Heinze.

Meanwhile in December 1931 Hart was invited to Hawaii as guest conductor of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. He returned annually, remaining there from December to April. In 1937 he accepted the posts of permanent conductor of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and first professor of music at the University of Hawaii. Hart's wife had died in 1935 and on 16 September 1937 he married Marvell Newman Allison, an American. He visited Melbourne only once thereafter—for the jubilee of the Albert Street conservatorium in July 1945 when he conducted several of his works. He returned to Hawaii in November where he continued to compose, paint and write no fewer than twenty-three unpublished novels.

As described by his contemporaries, Hart was quick in all his movements and had a deep, resonant voice; he was a skilled raconteur. He died on 9 July 1949 at Honolulu of cardiac disorder and was cremated, survived by his son and his second wife.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Brentnall, My Memories (Melb, 1938)
  • E. Blom (ed), Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Lond, 1961)
  • G. McInnes, Goodbye, Melbourne Town (Lond, 1968)
  • Australian Musical News, 1 July 1920
  • Melba Conservatorium (Melbourne), Con Amore, 1 (1932), 10 (1943), 16 (1949?)
  • ABC Weekly, 28 July 1945
  • Honolulu Today, Oct 1947, Aug 1975
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 May 1927
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 July 1946
  • Hart collection (MS 9528, State Library of Victoria)
  • Melba memorial book, 1871-1931 (typed news items), McEwen collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • prospectuses of Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne, 1900-37 (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne, records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • programmes, S. F. Schneider collection (Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne)
  • Nellie Melba letters, 1915-26 (Performing Arts Museum, Melbourne)
  • Proceedingss of Arbitration Court 1933 on MSO, USO and ABC (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Brookes papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Hart, Fritz Bennicke (1874–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hart-fritz-bennicke-6589/text11341, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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