Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880–1956)

by Helen Bainton

This article was published:

Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880-1956), by Sam Hood, 1934

Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880-1956), by Sam Hood, 1934

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 101

Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880-1956), musician, was born on 14 February 1880 at Hackney, London, son of Rev. George Bainton, Congregational minister, and his wife Mary, née Cave. He was educated at King Henry VIII School at Coventry, where his musical gifts became apparent. At 9 he played in his first concert and in 1896 won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London, where his teachers included (Sir) Charles Stanford and Franklin Taylor; he was awarded the Tagore medal.

In 1901 Bainton was appointed professor of pianoforte and composition at the Conservatoire of Music, Newcastle upon Tyne, and became principal in 1912. At the parish church at Long Benton, Northumberland, on 31 July 1905 he had married his student Ethel Frances Eales. Active in the city's musical life, he was conductor of the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra in 1911-34. Visiting Germany for the Bayreuth music festival in 1914, he was caught by the outbreak of war and interned in Ruhleben camp with other musicians. He organized a madrigal society known as 'Bainton's Magpies', conducted an orchestra, played piano concertos, lectured on musical and literary subjects, and composed vigorously. In 1918 he was invalided to The Hague before resuming his position at Newcastle.

'An accomplished but minor figure in the gentler English traditions of the earlier twentieth century music', Bainton was a prolific composer of choral, symphonic and chamber works. He was often inspired to set poetry to music 'with a masterly instinct for imagery'; close friends included the poets Gordon Bottomley and Wilfrid Gibson. As an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, he made several tours of Australia, Canada and India.

In 1934 Bainton was appointed director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, and that year was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Durham and elected a fellow of the Royal College of Music. He arrived in Sydney with his wife in the Cormorin on 31 May. Steeped in the English musical traditions of orchestral, operatic, chamber music and general scholastic training, Bainton was filled with enthusiasm for the task ahead. Within a few months he conducted the first concerts of the future Sydney Symphony Orchestra and had founded the conservatorium's opera school, which in August 1935 performed Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice on a stage so defective that it was described by one critic as 'equivalent to putting on Wagner's Parsifal in an ordinary theatre'. Thereafter the school staged two operas a year.

Bainton revived chamber music concerts and concert tours to country centres, started classes for military bands, built up the string quartet and choir, increased the number of orchestral concerts, and as conductor introduced many unfamiliar works to Sydney audiences. He firmly believed in broadcasting as a means of musical education and encouraged the music club movement; he often adjudicated at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod. Between teaching, conducting, playing, examining and lecturing, he still found time to compose. He attracted good teachers and raised the standards for the conservatorium diploma; due to his influence music became a full subject at intermediate and leaving certificate examinations. A Bach scholar, he conducted the Mass in B Minor in 1936; from 1939 the Easter performance of the St Matthew Passion under his direction became an annual event. His wife and daughter Helen were also active musicians.

In 1942 Bainton conducted his Symphony in D Minor in Sydney and Melbourne and in 1944, at the conservatorium, the first performance of his opera, The Pearl Tree. The libretto based on a Hindu legend was written by R. C. Trevelyan, and the sets were designed and painted by Bainton's daughter Guendolen and her artist husband Harold Abbott. The score was praised by Neville Cardus, who found the performance 'one of the richest and most potential seeds ever sown for the future of music in this country'. At his farewell concert at the conservatorium in 1946 Bainton conducted the first performance of his An English Idyll.

When he reached retiring age the number of students at the conservatorium had increased from 750 in 1934 to over 2000. In 1947 he the toured Canada and Ceylon and next year New Zealand. He loved walking, and in 1935 had climbed the Milford Track in New Zealand. After the death of his wife in 1954, Bainton completed his Symphony in C Minor. He was drowned after suffering a coronary occlusion while swimming at Lady Martin's Beach, Point Piper, on 8 December 1956, and was cremated with Anglican rites after a service at St Andrew's Cathedral. Belonging 'to a golden age of English culture … that recognized the connection between a musical education and an education in letters', he had enriched the musical life of Sydney at a time when it was suffering from starvation.

Select Bibliography

  • H. P. Greene, Charles Villiers Stanford (Lond, 1935)
  • H. J. Wood, My Life of Music (Lond, 1938)
  • E. Blom (ed), Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Lond, 1954)
  • G. Bottomley and Paul Nash, Poet & Painter, C. C. Abbott and A. Bertram eds (Lond, 1955)
  • R. H. Bainton, Pilgrim Parson (New York, 1958)
  • H. Bainton, Remembered on Waking (Syd, 1960)
  • D. E. Tunley, ‘Thoughts on the music of Edgar Bainton’, Westerly, June 1963
  • E. L. Bainton diaries (State Library of New South Wales) and papers and newsclippings (Conservatorium of Music, Sydney).

Citation details

Helen Bainton, 'Bainton, Edgar Leslie (1880–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 July 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

Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880-1956), by Sam Hood, 1934

Edgar Leslie Bainton (1880-1956), by Sam Hood, 1934

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 101

Life Summary [details]


14 February, 1880
London, Middlesex, England


8 December, 1956 (aged 76)
Point Piper, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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