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Sverjensky, Alexander (1901–1971)

by Diane Collins

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

Alexander Sverjensky (1901-1971), musician and pianoforte teacher, was born on 26 March 1901 at Riga, Russia (Latvia), son of Boris Sverjensky, railway commissioner, and his wife Sophie, née Mironoff. Alexander attended the Aleksandra Gimnazija, Riga, and began piano lessons at the age of 12. He studied under Alexander Glazunov at the Petrograd (St Petersburg) Conservatory from 1915 and also worked with the Imperial Opera soprano Lydia Lipkovska. Later, he attended the University of Tomsk where he read some law.

Following difficult years in Siberia and Moscow, Sverjensky grew so disenchanted with the new Bolshevik régime that he fled across Russia to China in 1922. He spent eleven months there and contacted Madame Lipkovska, by then an émigré. In 1923-24 he was her accompanist on a tour of China, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. After more concerts in Europe, Sverjensky returned to Sydney on 22 June 1925 in the Ville de Strassbourg to settle permanently. On 20 October 1927 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Phillip Street, he married Mary Beryl Hartley Murdoch; they were to have a son before she divorced him in April 1943. Sverjensky was naturalized on 17 September 1930. At the registrar-general's office, Sydney, on 24 June 1943 he married Enith Clarke, a teacher of piano.

Sverjensky's well-attended chamber-music concerts made a notable impact in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a passionate proponent of Russian music: his expressive and informed performances of works by Stravinsky, Scriabin, Medtner, Balakirev, Glazunov and Rachmaninov encouraged audiences to move beyond an often-stereotyped appreciation of Russian composition. In 1926 he introduced the music of Prokofiev to Australia. From 1933 he played with the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Sydney orchestra. He founded his own trio in 1936, with Albert Cazabon (violin) and George Elwood (cello). In an environment where the approach to music was often deadeningly conservative, Sverjensky's concerts were memorable for their imaginative programming, especially in the juxtaposition of works drawn from widely disparate musical periods.

Appraisals of Sverjensky's talents as a concert pianist were mixed, but he was nationally recognized as one of the greatest piano teachers of his generation. Working at first from a private studio, he went on to teach at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music from 1938 to 1969. The doyen of the conservatorium's piano professors, he was also the best paid. Students found him extremely intimidating. He was a highly prescriptive instructor whose lessons were notoriously expensive and demanding. None the less, his stern perfectionism, commitment to his pupils' musical development, and great understanding of pianoforte technique shaped the lives of legions of young pianists. His pupils spanned several generations of Australia's leading exponents of pianoforte and included Richard Farrell, Romola Costantino, Roger Woodward and Malcolm Williamson. Such students helped to spread his reputation abroad.

Although Sverjensky was a forthright spokesman for the conservatorium staff on many industrial issues, he was zealous in defending his untrammelled entrepreneurial freedom and opposed to the conversion of conservatorium teaching positions from a casual to a full-time basis. Always an enigmatic figure, he was also influential in numerous music organizations. He served as chairman of the National Council of Musical Associations of Australia, president of the Musical Association of New South Wales and a federal examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board. His involvement with general music education led him to lecture for the A.B.C.

In June 1951 Sverjensky divorced his wife. On 5 July that year he married 22-year-old Isla Lilian Draper at the registrar-general's office. Affectionately known as 'Sver', he was slightly built, bespectacled, and balding from an early age. His hands were large and his high domed forehead helped to create an aura of intensity and intellectualism. He was widely regarded as a gifted linguist, and as a ladies' man. A member of the Royal Automobile Club of Australia, he played tennis and bridge, and enjoyed gardening. He died of heart disease on 3 October 1971 at his home at Bondi Beach and was cremated without a religious service; his wife and their son survived him, as did the son of his first marriage. A special memorial concert was held that month at the conservatorium, featuring his colleague Robert Pikler and former students.

Select Bibliography

  • Theatre, Society and Home, 1 Apr 1924
  • Australian Musical News, 1 Feb 1929, 1 Nov 1932, 1 Nov 1933, 1 Aug 1936, 1 Jan 1938, 1 Dec 1944
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Nov 1937, 13 Dec 1943, 27 Apr 1945, 1, 2, 8 Dec 1950, 6 Oct 1971
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 10 Oct 1971
  • naturalisation file, A1, item 1930/7103 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Collins, 'Sverjensky, Alexander (1901–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sverjensky-alexander-11807/text21125, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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