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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McBurney, Mona Margaret (1862–1932)

by Faye E. Patton

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

Mona Margaret McBurney (1862-1932), composer, pianist and teacher, was born on 29 July 1862 at Douglas, Isle of Man, youngest of six children of Isaiah McBurney LL.D., teacher and classical scholar, and his wife Margaret, née Bonnar, art and music teacher. She was educated in Edinburgh, where she also received her first formal musical training from (Sir) Alexander Mackenzie, who was later to become the principal of the Royal Academy of Music.

Migrating to Victoria probably early in 1881, the family lived at Geelong, where Mona attended the Ladies' College, of which her brother Samuel McBurney was principal. She matriculated to the University of Melbourne in 1881 and in 1892, after the appointment of the first Ormond professor of music G. W. L. Marshall-Hall, enrolled as a music student. She was awarded general exhibitions for the first and second years of her course and in 1896 became the fourth bachelor of music graduate, and the first such woman graduate from an Australian university.

Distinction as a composer and performer came early in Mona McBurney's career, and continued throughout her life. In 1902 her 'Ode to Dante' was awarded an honourable mention by the Societa Dante in Rome, and was subsequently performed throughout Australia and New Zealand. By 1905 she had composed an opera, The Dalmatian, the libretto adapted from a popular novel by F. Marion Crawford, Marietta: A Maid of Venice ; excerpts were performed in December 1910. Produced in its entirety in 1926, it was the first performance of an opera by a woman composer in Australia. In 1907 she conducted Una Bourne and a women's orchestra in her 'Northern Ballad', which had been commissioned for the Exhibition of Women's Work. It was included in the 1908 season of Marshall-Hall concerts, and later published as a two-piano arrangement.

Throughout her career Mona McBurney contributed actively to musical and literary societies, as a composer and performer. For over three decades her songs and piano works were a regular feature of the Musical Society of Victoria concerts. She was also prominent in the British Music Society from its inception in 1921, the Queen's Hall concerts, the Melbourne Music Club, choral societies and private music and literary groups. Her noted 'at homes' and soirées provided a forum for young musicians and composers and gave a lead to women professionally committed to music.

Mona McBurney was appointed a teacher of Italian and French at the university conservatorium in 1918, and of Italian at the Albert Street Conservatorium in 1921, continuing in both positions until her death. In 1926 she was elected an honorary life member of the Lyceum Club.

All Miss McBurney's major works—an opera, a concerto for piano and orchestra, a string quartet, two choral odes, her piano works, and most of her thirty songs and part-songs—were performed during her lifetime. Recognition continued after her death, with several public performances, radio broadcasts and private recitals.

A shy, retiring woman, Mona McBurney possessed a driving enthusiasm and a capacity to inspire her students, who regarded her with affection. She died of pneumonia at her Hawthorn home on 4 December 1932 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Kew cemetery. Her most famous pupil, the composer Margaret Sutherland, described her as 'one of the most sensitive, gentle, yet vital persons I ever knew'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Fraser and N. Palmer (ed), Centenary Gift Book (Melb, 1934)
  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • A. Lubbock, People in Glass Houses (Melb, 1977)
  • Southern Sphere, 1 Dec 1911
  • Woman's World, 1 June 1926
  • Australian Musical News, 2 Aug 1926, 28 Feb, 4 May, 9 June 1933
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1925, 19 June 1926
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Dec 1932.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Faye E. Patton, 'McBurney, Mona Margaret (1862–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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