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Stirling, Lorna Mary Belton (1893–1956)

by Suzanne Robinson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Lorna Mary Belton Stirling (1893-1956), musicologist, was born on 24 June 1893 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Victorian-born parents James Belton Stirling, draper, and his wife Mary Edith, née Smith. The family was involved in the arts and community service. Belton was an amateur musician, as was his brother George, an organist, and their sister Mary, a pianist. Tall, fair-haired and attractive, Lorna attended Fintona school, Camberwell, and Methodist Ladies' College, Kew (dux 1910), and became a violin teacher. On entering the University Conservatorium of Music, she was awarded an exhibition in violin; additional studies included viola and piano, as well as theoretical subjects under Professor George Marshall-Hall. She topped each year of her course for a diploma in music and at the end of her final year (1917) won an Ormond exhibition.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Miss Stirling had performed in a string quartet which toured Victoria to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Society. She later performed as an accompanist in a series of concerts for children. From 1921 she wrote a regular children's page in the Australian Musical News. After studying in Germany for some months, she settled in London in 1922. She edited Music and Youth and Panpipes, contributed to the Music Teacher, the Sackbut and the Manchester Guardian, published a book, Music through Games (London, 1930), and lectured on music to school children. A series of her articles appeared in Stead's Review in 1931, demonstrating the insights she had gained into the modernist music she had heard in Europe. By 1932 she was back in Melbourne where, in the following year, she was appointed music critic for the Star.

In the mid-1930s Stirling toured Europe, the United States of America and South Africa. She became honorary secretary of the Victorian branch of the British Music Society and a member of the executive-committee of the Lyceum Club in 1936. During World War II she gave vital encouragement to her friend, the composer Margaret Sutherland. Together they inaugurated midday recitals in the Assembly Hall, Collins Street: the performances aided the Australian Red Cross Society's prisoner-of-war fund and provided a platform for works by Sutherland and other Melbourne composers.

Stirling and Sutherland began campaigning for an arts centre to be built on the site of the derelict Wirth's Park. With John Lloyd, they launched the Combined Arts Centre Movement, enlisting the support of artists and arts societies. By November 1944 they had gathered 40,000 signatures to a petition seeking 'the erection of a Building or Buildings suitable for the use and presentation of [the] Arts for the benefit of the Public and under control of the State Authorities'. (The Victorian parliament finally passed the National Art Gallery and Cultural Centre Act in 1956.)

During the war Stirling also organized children's concerts on behalf of the B.M.S. and established a madrigal group, 'The Tudor Singers'. In 1942 she had been elected honorary secretary of the Lyceum Club, a role she apostrophized as 'Oil-Pourer, Back-patter, Exhorter, Consoler'. According to the club's history, she 'infused life and spirit into everything she did', and even composed songs and farces for club entertainments. She resigned in 1949 and travelled to Europe where she relished attending concerts, visiting galleries, and meeting composers and musicologists. In 1951 she was appointed temporary lecturer in music appreciation at the University of Melbourne, but serious illness led to her resignation at the end of 1954.

Stirling died of cancer on 9 February 1956 at her Hawthorn home and was cremated. She had destroyed the majority of her papers, including compositions, diaries and lectures. The bulk of her estate, sworn for probate at £29,386, was bequeathed to the University of Melbourne for the benefit of International House, and to found the Lorna Stirling Fund for international student exchange. From her art collection, she left Sir Arthur Streeton's portrait of Marshall-Hall to the National Gallery of Victoria. Her university colleague Keith Macartney recalled: 'Her knowledge of music, literature, painting, and the arts of the theatre was great, but her scholarship was carried lightly, and gifted as she was with vivid personality and a witty turn of phrase, she was able to get on terms with any audience, whether academic or not'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. T. Stirling, Gang Forward (Melb, 1972)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Aug 1956, p 32
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1956
  • Stirling papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Lyceum Club papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Suzanne Robinson, 'Stirling, Lorna Mary Belton (1893–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stirling-lorna-mary-belton-11774/text21059, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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