Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Norman Chinner (1909–1961)

by Elizabeth Silsbury

This article was published:

Norman Chinner (1909-1961), organist and conductor, was born on 7 August 1909 at Malvern, Adelaide, son of Charles Williams Chinner, a South Australian-born accountant, and his wife Winifred Maud, née Cowperthwaite, a singer and violinist from Victoria. With music on both sides of his family—Norman's father, uncle and grandfather had all been organists—he was taught to play the pipe organ by Fred Pilgrim at the local Methodist church. Chinner attended Prince Alfred College and in 1928 won a scholarship for organ to the Elder Conservatorium of Music; five years later he became a licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music, London. After working in a bank and being employed by a firm of woolbrokers, in 1932-39 he was musical director at his old school. While holding the posts of organist and choirmaster at Pirie Street (1939-47) and Kent Town (1932) Methodist churches, he began to make his mark as a conductor. A 'tall, dark, handsome, broad-shouldered young man', he had a modest demeanor which did not disguise the bulldoggishness of his jaw.

In 1940 Chinner joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission as musical presentations officer in South Australia. As part-time assistant to William Cade, he conducted the Adelaide Wireless Chorus and in 1946 was to take over its successor, the Adelaide Singers. They maintained a large repertoire, and broadcast part-songs and works by Britten, Palmgren, Bartok and Holst. In 1941 Chinner also assumed direction of the Adelaide Philharmonic Choir and over the course of the next twenty years made it Australia's finest. Although deputy-conductor (from 1942) for the A.B.C., he was merely chorus master for major works, except for the first Adelaide broadcast of the Messiah and a charity concert for the Australian Comforts Fund, both in 1942. By 1946, however, he was in full command for Canterbury Pilgrims, Elijah and Hiawatha.

Chinner directed many early Australian performances of English choral works, as well as premieres of Kubla Khan and Horace Perkins's Knight and Witchery. From 1949 he travelled regularly to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth where he conducted oratorios, invariably to glowing praise from the critics. His gestures were 'free and unrestrained', but never excessively indulgent. With the Adelaide Singers he recorded W. G. James's carols in 1955. Three years later, he again visited Melbourne with the Adelaide Philharmonic Choir for performances to celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of its foundation.

At the Malvern Methodist Church on 1 August 1953 Chinner had married a 25-year-old actress Cecilia Patricia Halcyon Sands; they separated soon afterwards and were divorced in 1959. Having assisted Dr Robert Dalley-Scarlett to make A.B.C. recordings of music to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Chinner supervised musical programmes for her visit to Adelaide in 1954, and for that of the Queen Mother in 1958. His excellence with choirs was not matched by his orchestral gifts and he was given responsibility for the Adelaide Light Orchestra on country tours only. For almost ten years he directed studio broadcasts of the popular 'Moods and Melodies'. Sponsored by the A.B.C., he twice visited England. In 1957 he was appointed O.B.E.

His name was so familiar in Adelaide that 'Chinner who conducts French' was used in 1952 as a crossword clue. He died of a coronary occlusion on 5 November 1961 in his sister's home at Netherby and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. From 1967 the Adelaide Philharmonic Choir has commemorated him by a scholarship.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. McCredie (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights (Adel, 1989)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Apr 1950, 4 Aug 1953, 9 Nov 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Dec 1952
  • newsclippings, 1927-61 (privately held).

Citation details

Elizabeth Silsbury, 'Chinner, Norman (1909–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 August, 1909
Malvern, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


5 November, 1961 (aged 52)
Netherby, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.