Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roy Ewing (Robert) Agnew (1891–1944)

by Dorothy Helmrich

This article was published:

Roy Ewing (Robert) Agnew (1891-1944), composer and pianist, was born on 23 August 1891 in Sydney, son of Samuel Agnew, cordial manufacturer, and his wife Maria Jane, née Miller. Educated at Chatswood and Hornsby public schools, he was taught music by Emanuel de Beaupuis, an Italian pianist living in Sydney, then briefly studied composition under Alfred Hill at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. By 1911 Agnew was teaching the piano at Marrickville and beginning to compose 'strikingly original works', abandoning 'the limitations of key and tonal relationship'; in 1913 he published Australian Forest Pieces for Piano. His compositions were unknown until Benno Moiseiwitsch played Deirdre's Lament and the Dance of the Wild Men at a matinée at the Sydney Town Hall in 1920 and helped him to find publishers.

In 1923, through the generosity of friends, Agnew went to London where he studied composition and orchestration with Gerrard Williams. In 1927 his Fantaisie Sonata was played in London by William Murdoch, and published by Augener Ltd of London who later brought out many of his smaller works. The Arthur P. Schmidt Co. of New York issued five of his small pieces in book form, titled Contrasts (c.1927). In 1928 he returned to Sydney and in July played at a welcome-home concert at the conservatorium. In August his poem for orchestra and voice, The Breaking of the Drought, was conducted by Hill and encored. At Dorothy Helmrich's farewell concert in July 1929, Agnew played for the first time his Poem Sonata and next April gave a recital of his works at Burdekin House. On 8 November 1930 at St Mary's Cathedral he married Kathleen Olive, youngest daughter of R. E. O'Connor.

In Britain in 1931-34, Agnew performed his works at the Lyceum Club and at George Woodhouse's studio, London, in Glasgow, and for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He returned in December 1934 for an Australian Broadcasting Commission tour and in May 1935 gave two radio recitals of his works. In September he advertised a series of lessons in 'Practical Composition' and in 'General Interpretation and the art of Pedalling' in Melbourne. That year his Sonata Poeme was published by [G. L.] Allan & Co. Pty Ltd of Melbourne. In 1936 his Symphonic Poem for orchestra and voice was performed in Perth with Dorothy Helmrich as soloist. His Five Contrasts, written originally for the piano, was arranged for string orchestra by his friend John Antill.

From January 1938 Agnew was engaged by the A.B.C. to arrange and compère a weekly session devoted to modern and contemporary composers: it created such interest that it continued for five years. In January he had won the prize for the sesquicentennial celebrations of the Musical Association of New South Wales with his Sonata Ballade (1939), which he later recorded for the Columbia Phonograph Co. In January 1943 the A.B.C. had records made of Agnew playing some fifty of his own compositions. He had completed in 1940 his last big work Sonata Legend or Capricornia, which was performed at the conservatorium in 1944 by Alexander Sverjensky and published in 1949 as Capricornia (Sonata Legend) by Augener.

Gentle and modest, Agnew was elusive: 'apart from the piano and the home and garden and the flowers he loved so much, life for him was not very real or concrete at all'. He enjoyed walking and surfing. In February 1944 he joined the staff of the conservatorium but he died of septicaemia following tonsillitis on 12 November and was cremated with Presbyterian rites. Childless, he was survived by his wife. His estate was valued for probate at £547.

Agnew had published some ninety piano works as well as many small pieces. His obituarist Neville Cardus claimed that 'his piano music was composed with much warmth of harmony of the romantic flavours current just before [World War I]. He assimilated chordal and development formulae from Scriabin in particular, but he made everything second nature to his essentially lyrical imagination … He also had a sure feeling for miniature poems of atmosphere, evocative of sea and dawn and mists'. Roger Covell has found much of Agnew's work repetitive and 'dense and fuzzy', but 'it helped to introduce a note of serious, poetic fancy into Australian music'.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • R. Covell, Australia's Music (Melb, 1967)
  • F. Gordon, ‘Roy Agnew: composer’, Lone Hand, 1 Oct 1920
  • Australian Musical News, 1 Sept 1935
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 22 June 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 17 July, 23 Aug 1928, 2 July 1929, 11 Apr 1930, 24 Dec 1934, 20, 25 May 1935, 13 Nov 1944
  • K. Hince papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Dorothy Helmrich, 'Agnew, Roy Ewing (Robert) (1891–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 August, 1891
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


12 November, 1944 (aged 53)
New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.