Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Llewellyn, Ernest Victor (1915–1982)

by Jeff Brownrigg

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ernest Victor Llewellyn (1915-1982), musician, music teacher and administrator, was born on 21 June 1915 at Kurri Kurri, New South Wales, youngest of four surviving children of John Llewellyn, a Welsh-born coalminer, and his Australian-born wife Elizabeth Matilda ('Tillie'), née Burt.  Educated at Kurri Kurri State and West Maitland High schools, Ernest showed early musical promise.  At 7 he commenced study with Jascha Gopinko, who nurtured him and encouraged intuitive musicianship dependent on a deep understanding of a musical score.  Winning prizes in musical competitions and eisteddfods, he was soon styled 'the boy wonder violinist'.  In 1928 the Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti, then touring Australia, heard the 13-year-old play the Brahms violin concerto and recommended that he abandon formal education and focus on the violin.  Taking Szigeti’s advice and holding an Australian Music Examination Board’s scholarship (1930), he enrolled at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music but left after six months.

During the early 1930s Llewellyn played the viola in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Sydney String Quartet and its Sydney orchestra.  Returning to the violin, in 1936 he played Chausson’s Poème for the English conductor (Sir) Malcolm Sargent, who praised him publicly.  In 1937 he gave the earliest Australian performance of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, under the Hungarian-born American conductor George Szell.  The outbreak of World War II in 1939 prevented his accepting Szell’s offer to make him sub-leader of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  From 1940 to 1942 he was deputy-leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; he taught at the Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music and led the Melbourne University String Quartet.  On 12 August 1939 at the Methodist Church, Ryde, he had married Ruth, a typist, and younger daughter of A. E. Smith, Australia’s most respected violin-maker.  His father-in-law’s wedding present was the violin Llewellyn played for the rest of his life.

On 12 June 1942 Llewellyn enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and was employed initially as a clerk.  His services as a violinist were not used until October 1943 when he was posted to the headquarters of No.4 (Maintenance) Group and took up duties with the State Welfare Section.  Following representations from the Queensland government, he was discharged on 22 July 1944 to lead a State-subsidised quartet.

Moving to Queensland, Llewellyn played with the Queensland State String Quartet in 1944-48.  Among the recordings made in Columbia’s Sydney studios was the group’s enduring interpretation of Alfred Hill’s String Quartet No.2 in G Minor, 'A Maori Legend in Four Scenes'.  He toured with the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, presenting with her in 1949 the complete repertoire of Beethoven’s piano and violin sonatas.  Leader of the ABC String Quartet (1948-52) and concert master of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1949-64), he was solo artist in the Australian première of (Sir) William Walton’s violin concerto.  He was to become assistant conductor of the orchestra in 1959.  With the cellist John Kennedy and his wife, the pianist Priscilla Kennedy, he presented a series of concerts in New Zealand in 1951.

Awarded in 1955 the William Kapell memorial and Fulbright research scholarships, Llewellyn studied at the Julliard School in New York (1955-56).  Later offered postings with orchestras outside Australia, he chose to return to Sydney.  He was musical director of the chamber music festival at Mittagong, New South Wales, in 1958 and co-director of the first Easter festival for Musica Viva.  Resigning from the ABC in 1964, he hoped to form a teaching community near Mittagong.  Instead, in the following year he was appointed foundation director of the Canberra School of Music.  At first operating out of temporary accommodation, the CSM officially opened its substantial, purpose-built building in September 1976.  Its large concert hall (Llewellyn Hall from 1980) became the principal musical venue in the city.  Llewellyn was musical director, and conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra from 1966 to 1980.

Llewellyn was invited to Moscow in 1974 as an honoured guest of the fifth International Tchaikovsky Competition and was, in 1978, the first Australian elected to the judging panel.  He visited Shanghai and Peking in 1979 to conduct string master classes and to advise the Chinese government on music teaching methods.  On his retirement in 1980 Llewellyn moved to Eastwood, near Mittagong, where he and Ruth ran cattle.  At the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1980-81, he taught students in a program of cultural exchange.  In 1981 he taught violin and chamber music at Glennifer Brae, Wollongong, planning to establish a Wollongong school of music.

A 'gentle visionary', according to the music critic W. L. Hoffmann, Llewellyn was of imposing stature and bearing which, with his musical brilliance, inspired those he led and those he lobbied for his projects.  Uncompromising in his attitude to high standards of performance, he had great physical stamina.  Friends described him as unpretentious and down-to-earth.  Isaac Stern admired his music and was a close friend.  Although the violin was, he said, the 'love of his life', Llewellyn enjoyed painting, golf and driving the tractor at Eastwood.  He was appointed MBE (1968) and CBE (1970) for his service to music.

Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died of a cerebral tumour at Zetland, Sydney, on 12 July 1982 and was cremated.  The Llewellyn Choir and the Ernest Llewellyn memorial scholarship, which helps young musicians and the advancement of string playing in Australia, commemorate his achievements.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Bebbington (ed), A Dictionary of Australian Music, 1998
  • Canberra Times, 13 July 1982, p 2
  • 2MBS-FM Programme Guide, June 1990, p 5
  • P. Kennedy, Ernest Llewellyn (ms, 1990, National Library of Australia)
  • Ernest Llewellyn papers (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Jeff Brownrigg, 'Llewellyn, Ernest Victor (1915–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/llewellyn-ernest-victor-14295/text25360, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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