Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Hannah (May) Brahe (1884–1956)

by Mimi Colligan

This article was published:

Mary Hannah (May) Brahe (1884-1956), composer, was born on 6 November 1884 at East Melbourne, daughter of Richard Dickson, Melbourne-born cordial manufacturer, and his wife Margaret, née Dickson, formerly of Glasgow, Scotland. May, as she was known, was taught piano by her mother, and continued her studies at Stratherne Girls' School, Hawthorn. When May was 12 her mother died, and three years later, when her father's business faltered, she left school to earn a living teaching piano. She took private lessons, first with Mona McBurney, who taught her accompanying, and then with the singer Alice Rebotarro, whose training in vocal technique later helped her to compose songs that were easy to sing.

On 12 November 1903, with Congregational rites, May married Frederick Charles Brahe, a clerk. After the birth of her two sons she continued her music, and by 1910 was playing in a trio organized by Marshall Hall and accompanying singers at recitals of her own songs. In 1912, encouraged by her publishers (G. L.) Allan & Co., she decided to go to London to establish herself as a composer, and left her children in the care of their father and paternal grandmother. After several months of struggle, during which she played piano in a cinema, her first success came with the song, It's Quiet Down Here; the publishers, Enoch & Sons, paid her a royalty of 2d. per copy. By early 1914 she had earned enough to visit Australia briefly in order to bring her family back to England. In 1919, soon after returning from war service, Frederick Brahe was killed in a motor accident. On 24 August 1922, at the registry office, Paddington, May married an Australian-born actor George Albert Morgan.

May Brahe's songs were performed at fortnightly concerts organized by her publishers. When the firm was taken over by Boosey & Hawkes in 1925, she became one of their few composers on an annual retainer. In the next eighteen years she published more than 400 compositions, mainly ballads, which were recorded by Dame Nellie Melba, Peter Dawson and other singers of the day. These rather sentimental songs with titles such as I Passed by Your Window, To a Miniature and The Piper from Over the Way, were also often chosen as items for school concerts in Britain, Australia and the United States of America. She collaborated with many lyric writers, including her sister Madge Dickson, and made settings of poems by Walter de la Mare, Dorothea Mackellar and others. However, she worked most successfully with Helen Taylor, whose appealing, if somewhat facile, rhymes blended with May Brahe's music to create songs that had 'a direct simplicity which went straight to the hearts of the people'. Helen Taylor wrote the words for Brahe's most famous song, Bless this House, which, published in 1927 and made famous by John McCormack in 1935, became even more popular in America during World War II.

Shortly before returning to Australia to settle in Sydney in 1939, May Brahe composed a musical comedy, Castles in Spain, with a libretto by Sydney and Muriel Box. From 1940 she lived in semi-retirement, becoming an enthusiastic contract bridge player, adding to her extensive library, and maintaining a constant, if reduced output of songs and piano pieces, many of which were composed for children. She often gave talks to women's clubs and over radio. She died at Bellevue Hill on 14 August 1956 of coronary vascular disease, and was cremated with Presbyterian rites; she was survived by two sons and a daughter of her first marriage and a son of her second.

Select Bibliography

  • Theatrecraft (London), May 1939
  • Woman's World, 1 Dec 1939
  • A.B.C. Weekly, 9 July 1949, 5 June 1954
  • Woman's Day and Home, 13 Apr 1953
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1912
  • letter from L. Boosey (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Mimi Colligan, 'Brahe, Mary Hannah (May) (1884–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 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]

Alternative Names
  • Dickson, Mary Hannah
  • Morgan, Mary Hannah

6 November, 1884
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


14 August, 1956 (aged 71)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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