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Lavater, Louis Isidore (1867–1953)

by Valerie Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Louis Isidore Lavater (1867-1953), composer, musician and writer, was born on 2 March 1867 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest child of George Theodore Adams Lavater, civil servant, and his English-born wife Emily Challinor, née Swindells. His Swiss-born father had migrated to Victoria after the 1851 gold rush. He was educated at St Kilda Grammar School, Wesley College and the University of Melbourne where in 1884 he began to study medicine, later abandoning it for music, a subject dearer to his heart although he did not complete his degree.

From March 1885 to January 1887 Lavater worked for the London Chartered Bank of Australia and in 1888 was secretary to the orchestral committee of the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition. In 1892 he moved to Colac where he taught music and opened a school, offering a wide range of subjects.

With the enthusiasm that was to accompany most of his ventures he conducted the Methodist choir and produced operas and oratorios for the Colac Lyric Club as well as writing and conducting for local and Melbourne fêtes, benefits and entertainments. Where musical gaps existed he proceeded to fill them, forming an orchestra, Liedertafel, and ladies' choir. He also organized a circulating library of sheet music, played for the cricket team and was its secretary, and published light verse and humorous paragraphs in local papers.

On 4 February 1912 Lavater married Catherine Annie Churchland at Wesley Church, Melbourne. Two years later they left Colac for Melbourne where Catherine died on 12 July 1914. On 22 November 1916 Lavater married Beatrice Kathleen Stephens, a nurse from New Zealand. This marriage ended unhappily in divorce in June 1936.

Lavater was a versatile and prolific composer, but his music only ever earned him a precarious living, which the £1 a week pension eventually granted him by the Commonwealth Literary Fund alleviated slightly. Much of his work remained in manuscript but he did publish orchestral, choral and chamber music, sonatas, pieces for the piano, violin and cello, motets and part-songs and Nina, a ballet suite which was performed in London and Australia. He was author of The Licentiate Pianist's Handbook (1928, 1945) and received the gold medal from the London College of Music. He was much in demand as an adjudicator at local and interstate musical competitions.

Although music was always the major component in his life, he was the author of four collections of poetry: Blue Days and Grey Days (1915), A Lover's Ephemeris (1917), This Green Mortality (1922) and 'Changing harmonies' which remained unpublished. In 1926 he edited an anthology, The Sonnet in Australasia, which had a favourable critical reception, and he also translated Swedish poems. His interest in Swedish literature and music earned him the honour of associate of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Lavater's own poetry at its best was intelligent, lyrical and often sensuous. He published short stories, although not nearly as many as he would have liked; in some of these, especially the earlier ones, the prose is polished and humorous and demonstrates a predilection for the mysterious and macabre.

Lavater lectured to clubs and societies on diverse topics. He edited Verse magazine, wrote book reviews, and was sometime music critic for the Sun News-Pictorial, the New Graphic and Listener In. He belonged to a variety of clubs and societies, including the Buonarotti Club, Dickens Fellowship, Fellowship of Australian Writers, Melbourne Literary Club, Australian Literature Society, Australian Artists' Association, Bread and Cheese Club, Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria and P.E.N. International. He was sometime Melbourne secretary of the British Music Society, president of the Association of Music Teachers of Victoria, and librarian, examiner and president of the Musical Society of Victoria. In 1935 his determination was the main impetus behind the foundation of the Guild of Australian Composers, whose aim was to encourage and make Australian works more widely known both at home and overseas.

This dream of Lavater's was still unrealized when he died suddenly at St Kilda on 22 May 1953. But his influence lived on in the younger writers and musicians whose talent he encouraged. The impression remains of a picturesque, unpretentious, kindly and generous man with a keen sense of humour, and a passionate desire to further the development of music and literature that was distinctively Australian.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Nemet, History of the Musical Society of Victoria 1861-1981 (Melb, nd)
  • W. A. Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 10, no 4, 1951, p 364, 12, no 3, 1953, p 319, 322, 358
  • Australasian, 9 Sept 1939
  • Louis Lavater papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Valerie Kent, 'Lavater, Louis Isidore (1867–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lavater-louis-isidore-7107/text12257, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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