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Gordon Athol Anderson (1929–1981)

by Robert Curry

This article was published:

Gordon Athol Anderson (1929-1981), musicologist and medievalist, was born on 1 May 1929 at Armadale, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents Albert Anderson, minister of the Churches of Christ, and his wife Eva Violet, née Hallyburton. Gordon was educated at King’s College, Adelaide, and was an accomplished jazz pianist. On 23 September 1950 at the Church of Christ, Maylands, Adelaide, he married Laurel Alice Heath, a typist.

Anderson’s path to an academic career was hard hewn; most of his studies at the University of Adelaide (Mus.Bac., 1958; BA, 1959; M.Mus., 1971; Mus.Doc., 1977) were conducted part time. He was 29 before he completed the course at the Elder Conservatorium of Music for his first undergraduate degree. From 1957 to 1969 he taught languages and music at Pulteney Grammar School. In 1968 he enrolled as a research student in the musicology program at the university, where it soon became apparent that the quantity and quality of his scholarly output far exceeded the requirements for postgraduate awards. In his first year he published `Notre Dame Bilingual Motets’ (Miscellanea Musicologica), a ninety-page study of this neglected sub-genre of the thirteenth-century motet; and `Mode and Change of Mode in Notre-Dame Conductus’ (Acta Musicologica), his first foray into the theoretical intricacies of modal rhythm and its applicability to conductus. That year he also completed Part 1 of The Latin Compositions in Fascicules VII and VIII of the Notre Dame Manuscript Wolfenbüttel Helmstadt 1099 (1206 , (1968-76), his first critical edition of thirteenth-century manuscripts.

That Anderson should have chosen to specialise in Notre Dame repertoire, a shorthand term for the major musico-poetic genres of thirteenth-century (mostly Parisian) music, is understandable given his interests in Latin, philosophy, liturgy and music. His skills in philology and bibliography were ideally suited to the demands of researching this repertoire, characterised as it is by complex textual and musical interrelationships between pieces and their sources. One of his finest achievements, and his most frequently cited work, was his annotated guide to the vast corpus of para-liturgical Latin song. `Notre Dame and Related Conductus: A Catalogue Raisonné’ (Miscellanea Musicologica, 1972, 1975) represents the fruits of his period as a research fellow at Flinders University (1970-73). The catalogue and its taxonomy underpinned the volumes of transcriptions, Notre-Dame and Related Conductus: Opera Omnia (1979-88).

In a series of detailed articles, especially `The Rhythm of cum littera Sections of Polyphonic Conductus in Mensural Sources’ and `The Rhythm of the Monophonic Conductus in the Florence Manuscript as Indicated in Parallel Sources in Mensural Notation’ (Journal of the American Musicological Society 1973, 1978), Anderson articulated the view that the prosody of conductus poetry, its accentual patterns, was the prime determinant of a piece’s musical rhythm. Accordingly, all his transcriptions of this repertoire are given in rhythmicised versions, even where the musical notation is equivocal as regards rhythm. Anderson’s view now represents the minority position.

As with his rate of publication, so with his career: the momentum once started proved unstoppable. Appointed as a lecturer in music at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, in 1973, Anderson was promoted to senior lecturer in 1975, to associate professor in 1977, and to a personal chair in musicology in 1979. In 1977 he became the first national president of the Musicology Society of Australia and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He also served (1977-80) on the editorial board of Studies in Music. In 1978 he joined the advisory committee of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, Canberra. Next year he took his only trip abroad to study at first hand the sources on which he had made himself an international authority. The focus of his leave was the most ambitious of his scholarly projects: a thematic index, complete concordance of sources, and critical edition of the entire corpus of medieval sequences.

Over thirteen years from 1968, Anderson produced four critical editions of major manuscripts, wrote more than two dozen articles and reviews, and completed nine of the projected eleven volumes of the monumental series Opera Omnia. A fine teacher and brilliant researcher, he was a down-to-earth, kindly man, keen on football, fond of jazz, and devoted to his family. At the height of his intellectual powers he died of myocardial infarction on 30 June 1981 at Armidale and was cremated. His wife, and their two daughters and son, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Gordon Athol Anderson (1929-1981): In Memoriam (1984)
  • R. Jacobsson (ed), Pax et Sapientia (1986)
  • Musicology, no 7, 1982, p 154
  • private information.

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Citation details

Robert Curry, 'Anderson, Gordon Athol (1929–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 May, 1929
Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


30 June, 1981 (aged 52)
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

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