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Pikler, Robert (1909–1984)

by Diane Collins

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

Robert Pikler (1909-1984), violinist, violist and conductor, was born on 24 January 1909 at Fureszfalu, Hungary, one of six children of Emil Pikler, Social Democrat member of the Hungarian parliament, and his wife Roza, née Haber. Following tuition with Eugene Ormandy, Robert entered Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where he studied violin and viola. Also interested in conducting, in 1927 he formed his own chamber orchestra, which toured extensively in Central Europe before departing in 1934 for Asia. Mixing concert and radio work, Pikler and his orchestra stayed in India for two years, later touring the East with the violinist Szymon Goldberg and the pianist Lili Kraus. Pikler was directing the Netherlands East Indies Radio Orchestra in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1942, when the Japanese interned him. The extra food that he received for performing helped him to survive but he later commented: ‘with all humility, I feel I was stronger than many others. I had a stronger will to survive’. In 1946 he arrived in Sydney, broke, without an instrument and wearing a borrowed suit.

Within months, Pikler formed, with Richard Goldner, the Musica Viva Chamber Players. With Pikler as violinist and leader, they sometimes gave two hundred concerts a year. A solace in an alien environment for many European expatriates, the group disbanded in 1951 following Musica Viva’s temporary collapse. Although Pikler was among the many Jewish musicians who pioneered this organisation, he always wore his Jewish identity lightly. He was naturalised in 1958.

In 1952 (Sir) Eugene Goossens offered Pikler the position of principal violist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The chamber musician accepted reluctantly but symphony work provided financial security. A model of uncompromising musicianship, he was rapidly recognised as the best viola player in Australia. Visiting musicians who sought his collaboration included Yehudi Menuhin, Raphael Kubelik, Daniel Barenboim and William Walton.

Pikler left the SSO in 1965 to become artistic director and violist with the Sydney String Quartet, which was in residence at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. His exceptional skill as a chamber musician contributed much to the success of the group, the first Australian string quartet to perform internationally. In 1969 eye problems forced him to leave the quartet. Returning to conducting, he formed the Robert Pikler Chamber Orchestra, which toured Australia to acclaim, and, in 1970, South-East Asia. When Pikler retired from public performances in the following year, a packed concert at the conservatorium on 20 November honoured his contribution to Australia’s musical development.

A tireless advocate of young performers, Pikler was an exceptional string teacher during his years as senior lecturer at the conservatorium, where he formally taught until 1978. In 1972 he had formed the Sydney Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra and his mentoring also contributed much to the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s early years.

In the relatively isolated world of Australian art music, Pikler represented central European traditions and standards of excellence. The music critic Roger Covell wrote that Pikler continuously demonstrated ‘what it means to be a musician in the highest sense’. He was especially associated with poignant performances of Bartok’s String Quartet No.6 and Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor; the ‘dark brown honey’ of his viola playing tended to overshadow his virtuosity with the violin. In 1972 he received the Encyclopaedia Britannica Australia arts award and in 1974 was appointed OBE.

Threaded through Pikler’s career was courageous transcendence over chronic infirmities. Pressure neuritis in his left hand forced him to play with plastic caps on two fingers to lessen the pain. Terrible headaches were the legacy of cancer in the bone cavities of his face. At home, his poor health made him ‘morose’. On 29 November 1946 at Wesley Chapel, Sydney, Pikler had married with Methodist forms Lois Alleyne Simpson, a 19-year-old New Zealand-born cellist; they later divorced. He married Claire Elizabeth Fox, an oboist, on 11 January 1963 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney.

A proud, private, taciturn man with a wry sense of humour, Pikler was talented at chess and bridge. Aged 17, he was officially rated a chess master; he won titles in India and Australia. Olive skin, dark eyes and a strong, serious face evoked his central European origins. His daughter observed that a Hungarian background also meant yearnings for ‘hot salami, iced water and walnut pancakes’. Survived by his wife and their daughter and the two sons of his first marriage, he died on 17 January 1984 in his home at Magill, Adelaide, and was cremated. He is remembered through numerous recordings and a conservatorium scholarship.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 30 Aug 1969, p 21
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Nov 1971, p 20, 22 Nov 1971, p 14
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 June 1977, p 2
  • Musica Viva Australia Bulletin, Apr-June 1984, p 3
  • A12508, item 25/432 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Robert Pikler and Sydney Conservatorium chamber orchestras’ programs (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Collins, 'Pikler, Robert (1909–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pikler-robert-15463/text26679, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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

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