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Lionel Albert Jack (John) Bishop (1903–1964)

by Alan Brissenden

This article was published:

Lionel Albert Jack (John) Bishop (1903-1964), musician and festival director, was born on 26 October 1903 at Aldinga, South Australia, second of six children of Henry Bishop, saddler, and his wife Harriett Fortescue, née Field. His education began at Aldinga Public School, under John Bourke, a gifted man who encouraged his pupils to look beyond the district's farming jobs. Singing was learned by the tonic sol-fa system and, although no instrumental music was taught, there were eagerly-awaited, annual school concerts. Henry's shop adjoined the village post office; in about 1908 the postmaster's daughter Eleanor Giles began Jack's piano lessons, being paid with bowls of eggs. He won prizes locally and in 1915 came third in the under-12 piano section at the Ballarat (Victoria) South Street competitions; the adjudicator A. E. Floyd, who later called the adult Bishop 'the little wizard', commented, 'A very artistic performance . . . I feel sure playing will develop greatly'.

In January 1917 Jack entered Adelaide High School and also became a scholarship pupil of William Silver, a leading Adelaide pianist and teacher, with whom he later went to live. Although he had not matriculated, in 1919 Bishop won the Alexander Clark memorial scholarship and began studying at the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide. He travelled with Silver in 1921 to England, Europe and the United States of America. In 1922, after completing his third year of study, he won the Elder overseas scholarship, which pqqrovided for a three-year course at the Royal College of Music, London; funds for his fare and a piano were raised by two benefit concerts, at one of which he appeared with several conservatorium staff.

Among his six hundred fellow students were Constant Lambert, (Sir) Michael Tippett and Stanford Robinson; his teachers were Herbert Howells (composition), Herbert Fryer (piano, first study), and (Sir) Adrian Boult and (Sir) Malcolm Sargent (conducting, second study). The staff also included Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob and John Ireland in composition, and (Dame) Myra Hess and Kathleen Long in piano. It was an exciting time in English music. Bishop was considered 'a brilliant pianist' and 'a gifted conductor' who had 'the ability to attack the subject of Music in many directions and to do it with marked success'. He left in July 1926, without graduating, to begin his professional career with choir and orchestral conducting, lecture recitals in schools and, in 1927, two broadcasts for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Through Silver's relations, Bishop had met Margaret Eleanor Harvey whom he married on 28 December 1927 at the parish church, Little Eaton, Derbyshire. In January 1928 they sailed for New Zealand where he had been appointed conductor of the Royal Wellington Choral Union. He made his debut on 2 June with Mendelssohn's Elijah, giving a fine performance with 'a graphic reading of the score'. For six years Bishop profoundly affected musical life in New Zealand. In 1930 he established the Wellington Philharmonic Orchestra (Jan Kubelik, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Isador Goodman and Peter Dawson appeared with it) and organized his first, full-scale festival, Music Week, in which he was soloist in Beethoven's 'Emperor' concerto. He formed a chamber group, gave lessons, recitals and wireless talks, and directed a Haydn bicentenary festival in 1932 and a Brahms centenary festival in 1933. He founded the Juvenile Concert League, introduced orchestral concerts for children and was music master (1928-31) at Scots College; in addition, he adjudicated, lectured for the Workers' Educational Association and was vice-president of the Music Teachers' Association.

Known as John from the 1930s, he was formally to adopt that name in 1960. In December 1933 Bishop resigned to teach at the University of Melbourne's Conservatorium of Music under Professor (Sir) Bernard Heinze, who aptly termed him a 'practical idealist'. The pay was small. He took private pupils, gave recitals, broadcast, examined, and travelled to every capital city as an adjudicator and a conductor; he became an examiner (1936) for and a member of the Australian Music Examinations Board. Bishop lived with his family at Mont Albert, but his city studio in Post Office Lane became his musical centre. He formed the Oriana Choir and the Chamber Music Guild, and contacted British composers, among them Benjamin (Lord) Britten, for their latest works.

Disappointed at not being accepted as a regular conductor of Australian Broadcasting Commission orchestras, but with acknowledged 'flair for administration and organization', extraordinary energy, enthusiasm and interest in youth, in 1937 Bishop was appointed director of music at Scotch College, Hawthorn. He transformed the school's musical life. Every student, from Grade 4 up, had to be in a house choir and had to play an instrument for at least one year. Distinguished musicians played alongside the boys in recitals, festivals were organized, house chamber groups were formed, a school music captain was appointed: music was raised to the same status as sport.

Bishop's influence widened. In 1940 he became founding president of the Victorian School Music Association. He sat on the music panel of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, and on the A.B.C.'s advisory committee for youth and educational broadcasts. In 1943 he began discussions with Ruth Alexander, music mistress at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School, which led to the establishment of the National Music Camp for orchestral students, at Point Lonsdale, in 1948. This, in turn, led to the formation of the Australian Youth Orchestra which, under Bishop, gave its first performance in the Sydney Town Hall on 9 March 1957. The Sydney Morning Herald critic wrote that the orchestra 'proved resoundingly its right to be taken seriously'.

Having applied unsuccessfully in 1938 for the chair of music at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and in 1945 for the directorship of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, in 1948 Bishop returned to Adelaide to succeed E. H. Davies as Elder professor of music and director of the Elder Conservatorium. His lack of academic qualifications caused initial hostility, but his charm, tact, and superb abilities soon won over the detractors. He revitalized a tired department, introduced new courses, established an honours degree, built up a music library and engaged excellent staff. As a Carnegie travelling fellow, in 1952-53 he made a thirteen-month tour of Britain and America to investigate music education. He formed the Elder String Quartet as a permanent ensemble (1959) and laid foundations for the University of Adelaide Wind Quintet (1965). In 1960 Bishop began to devise a new degree course which included musicology and electronic music, and made the first appointments for these subjects in Australia. Regular staff and student recitals were held; there were festivals of Australian, Czechoslovakian, contemporary and other music; the University Music Society, a university choir and a madrigal club were formed.

Extra-curricular concerns crowded his well-organized life. By 1963 he was chairman of the A.M.E.B., a member of the Adult Education Board and of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization's (Australian) committee for music, president of the Adelaide Film Festival and federal president of the Arts Council of Australia, while continuing as director of the National Music Camp Association and the A.Y.O. Bishop's honours included his appointment as O.B.E. (1953), a fellowship of the Royal College of Music (1957), the Dvorak medal (1959), and honorary doctorates of music awarded by the universities of Melbourne (1963) and Adelaide (1964).

After visiting the International Festival of Music and Drama in Edinburgh in 1952, Bishop had been fired with the idea of a similar festival for Adelaide. 'I love festivals', he remarked, 'because they give us cause to rejoice'. Following discussions in 1958 with Sir Lloyd Dumas, a committee was formed, £15,000 was guaranteed and Bishop became the first artistic director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. He was also on three of its special committees and conducted four concerts with the A.Y.O. during the first festival in 1960. He continued as artistic director for the 1962 and 1964 festivals, planning ahead while running the conservatorium.

From about 1961, Bishop's health had caused concern—rheumatic fever as a child had probably affected his heart; by 1963 he had to rest daily on his office sofa and during the 1964 festival was confined to bed with laryngitis. But he maintained his demanding schedule. In October-November he was in Paris with the Australian delegation at the general conference of U.N.E.S.C.O. and then spent a fortnight visiting institutions in Germany before travelling to England. He died suddenly of hypertensive cardiovascular disease on 14 December 1964 in the foyer of Australia House, London, and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him. Margaret died in 1966, three weeks after attending an Adelaide Festival of Arts performance of Berlioz's Requiem Mass in his memory. 'A few people, like yourself', she had written to Ruth Alexander, 'knew . . . how deeply we lived in unison'.

Bishop's contribution to Australian music was immense. Under his dynamic direction, Adelaide's conservatorium became the finest in the country. His driving artistic force had initiated significant, national cultural movements. A small, elegant man, with an artistic shock of white hair, piercing but kindly blue eyes and a sense of humour, he could wield a mailed fist in velvet. He gave the arts, especially music, prominence in Adelaide in the 1950s, and was a leader in society, as well as at the university. He astounded businessmen with his commercial astuteness, and delighted students by his informality and understanding.

'Prof', as he was known, aroused love and loyalty. 'He owed more to one woman's intelligence, patience and love than to any other source of support.' To his close-knit family, he was a devoted father and husband, and their home reflected shared tastes in art, music and gardening. Income from the Advertiser's gift of £5000 is used by the university to commission a musical work in his honour for the Adelaide festival. A bronze bust of Bishop by John Dowie and a portrait by Wladislaw Dukiewicz are held in the Adelaide Festival Centre boardroom which bears his name; another bust by Valerie Hicks stands in the foyer of the university's Elder Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • D. Whitelock, Festival! (Adel, 1980)
  • A. Hewlett, Cause to Rejoice (Adel, 1983)
  • C. Symons, John Bishop, a Life of Music (Melb, 1989)
  • News (Adelaide), 14 Aug 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Mar 1957
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Dec 1964
  • family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Brissenden, 'Bishop, Lionel Albert Jack (John) (1903–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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