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McDonald, Phyllis Mary (1905–1977)

by Sue Tronser

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Phyllis Mary McDonald (1905-1977), violinist and teacher of music, was born on 27 April 1905 at Darlington, Sydney, younger daughter of Herbert John Carlyle McDonald, a native-born boiler-maker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Burke, who came from Ireland. Educated at the Sisters of Mercy Golden Grove Convent, Redfern, where she learned the violin from Sister Aquina, Phyllis played for the visiting violinist, Jascha Heifetz, who declared that she looked like a devil, but played like an angel. In 1922 she won an associated board exhibition to the Royal Academy of Music, London (associate, 1924; licentiate, 1926; fellow, 1966). She studied initially with Hans Wessely and later with Edith Knocker, and was awarded numerous prizes and appointed a sub-professor at the college. McDonald formed her own string quartet and also began to establish a solo career.

Shortly after her return to Sydney, J. & N. Tait advertised a recital on 28 June 1933 by 'the brilliant violinist Miss Phyllis McDonald' at the town hall. Once settled back home, she taught violin and ensemble playing at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music from 1935 to 1967. She had a distinctive teaching style and a loyal following: many former colleagues and students testified to her devotion to her students. McDonald played in the Conservatorium String Quartet (which performed weekly) and with various light music ensembles. She was heard frequently on Australian Broadcasting Commission programmes, both as soloist and in ensembles. In 1942 she was one of the local artists engaged for that year's A.B.C. concert series. Critics considered her a talented performer, with a smooth, warm tone.

McDonald was a colleague and friend of several composers working at the conservatorium, especially Frank Hutchens and Raymond Hanson, both of whom played for her diploma classes. She often performed with them and promoted their compositions. Phyllis was especially close to Hanson, who wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra for her. When consulted by him, she told him to write what he liked, as the soloist should cope with any technical difficulties. Hanson took her at her word, and she found the result so complicated that she never found time to learn it. She did, however, record Hanson's Sonata for Violin and Piano and his Three Fancies (for violin and piano)—with the composer—for an A.B.C. broadcast in 1950.

In 1947 Willem Noske, a visiting Dutch violinist, had heard McDonald play violin sonatas by Dorian Le Gallienne and Hanson; he considered her 'such a fine violinist that if she were to leave Australia' he was sure 'she would be accepted in a very short time as a world violinist'. Miss McDonald was a small, rotund woman, with thick glasses. Colleagues enjoyed her company, but found her quiet and reticent, revealing little of her private life. She collapsed on her way to a concert at the Sydney Opera House and died on 12 July 1977 in Sydney Hospital; she was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Radic, Bernard Heinze (Melb, 1986)
  • Australian Musical News, 38, Nov 1947, p 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1923, 12 June, 9 July 1924, 7 Sept 1925, 31 Jan, 29 July, 31 Oct 1927
  • Sydney Conservatorium of Music Library
  • Dennis Wolanski Library of Performing Arts, Sydney Opera House
  • private information.

Citation details

Sue Tronser, 'McDonald, Phyllis Mary (1905–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-phyllis-mary-10935/text19429, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 27 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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