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Peggy Winsome Glanville-Hicks (1912–1990)

by Suzanne Robinson

This article was published:

Peggy Winsome Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), composer and music critic, was born on 29 December 1912 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest child of English-born Ernest Glanville Hicks, journalist, and his New Zealand-born wife Myrtle, née Barley. Peggy began composing at the age of 7, encouraged by her mother, an amateur singer and artist, and her father, author of The Turn of the Tide and Other Poems (1932). Educated at Milverton, Methodist Ladies’ College and Clyde School, Woodend, she studied composition with Fritz Hart at the Albert Street Conservatorium, East Melbourne. In 1932, following a farewell concert in the Melbourne Town Hall, she left Australia and, over four years at the Royal College of Music, London, supported by scholarships, studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducting with (Sir) Malcolm Sargent and piano with Arthur Benjamin. Her early works included the opera Caedmon (c.1936), music for film, and the Spanish Suite (c.1935). The Octavia travelling scholarship enabled her to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna (1936) and Nadia Boulanger in Paris (1937).

After a brief visit to Melbourne in 1938, Glanville-Hicks (she later hyphenated her name) returned to London for the performance of two movements from her suite for female voices, oboe and strings (Choral Suite, 1937) at a concert of the International Society for Contemporary Music. She was the first Australian whose work was performed for the ISCM, and one of the youngest composers represented. Several of her songs were published that year by Louise Dyer’s Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre in Paris. Dyer’s recording company released the Choral Suite in 1940. On 9 November 1938 at the Kensington register office Glanville-Hicks had married Stanley Richard Henry Bate, an English composer. In 1940 a British Council grant allowed them to travel to Australia; in 1941 they sailed for the United States of America and settled in New York.

When in 1947 Glanville-Hicks reviewed an ISCM festival in Copenhagen for the Musical Courier, she embarked on a career as a respected critic and commentator on modern music. The composer Virgil Thomson, chief critic of the New York Herald Tribune, employed her as a `stringer’; the first of five hundred reviews appeared on 27 October 1947. Through the 1940s she also contributed major pieces to Music & Letters (on Paul Bowles), Musical America (on John Cage) and Musical Quarterly (on Thomson). In 1948 she travelled to the ISCM festival in Amsterdam to hear a performance of her Concertino da Camera and in 1950 she embarked on a lecture tour of universities in America’s mid-west. She became an American citizen in 1949, and in the same year obtained a divorce from Bate. On 4 January 1952 she married Rafael da Costa, a journalist, in a civil ceremony in New York; they divorced next year.

The 1950s brought Glanville-Hicks to prominence as a composer of `exotic’ music and as a catalyst for the performance of new music. Her most performed work, a sonata for harp, was premièred by Nicanor Zabaleta in Caracas (1951) and New York (1952); in 1953 her Letters from Morocco (1952), conducted by Leopold Stokowski, featured in one of the concerts she initiated as a member of the junior council of the Museum of Modern Art. Among the works that followed were the Etruscan Concerto (1954, written for the pianist Carlo Bussotti), Concertino Antico (1955, for the harpist Edna Phillips), Concerto Romantico (1956, for the violist Walter Trampler) and The Glittering Gate (1956), based on a story by Lord Dunsany.

In 1951-60 (except the 1955-56 season) Glanville-Hicks was director of the Composers’ Forum, an enterprise overseen by the most eminent New York composers. She contributed 106 articles on American and Danish composers to the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954). Until 1955 she worked for the Tribune from October to April each year and spent her summers composing and attending festivals in Europe, Jamaica and Australia.

In 1953 Glanville-Hicks won an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, and was offered a commission by the Louisville Philharmonic Society, through the Rockefeller Foundation, to write an opera—the first such offer, she claimed, made to a woman. This opera, The Transposed Heads, based on a story by Thomas Mann, had its première in Louisville (1954) and was staged in New York in 1958. It demonstrated her interest in Indian music and increasing desire to promote a fusion of Eastern and Western compositional methods. In 1956-58 she was supported by Guggenheim Foundation awards for composition.

After major surgery in 1956, and again in 1959, Glanville-Hicks moved to Athens. In 1960 she was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant to `study the relationships among musical forms in the West, the Middle East and Asia’; a Fulbright award (1961) was devoted to research into the traditional music of Greece. Her opera Nausicaa (1960)—with a libretto drawn from Robert Graves’s novel Homer’s Daughter and set in the ninth century BC—was performed at the Athens Festival in August 1961, after heroic efforts to arrange funding and import a company of Greek-American singers, a choreographer and conductor, as well as a marimba. It was recorded and broadcast in the USA, reviewed in major publications in several languages, and praised for its lyricism and ingenious orchestration.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera (and supported by a Ford Foundation grant), Glanville-Hicks’s next opera, Sappho (1963), derived from a play by Lawrence Durrell, was written to a punishing schedule; it was not produced and the composer remained unhappy with it. Her major works of the 1960s were ballets, devised in conjunction with the New York choreographer John Butler, including Saul and the Witch of Endor (1959) and Jephthah’s Daughter (1966) for CBS TV, and A Season in Hell (1967) for the Harkness Ballet. After years of failing eyesight, in June 1966 she underwent surgery in New York for a pituitary tumour; further surgery was required in April 1969. As well as robbing her of the ability to compose, the effects of surgery and radiotherapy undermined her health for the rest of her life.

In 1970 Glanville-Hicks travelled to Australia for a performance of The Transposed Heads in Sydney. In 1972 The Glittering Gate was performed at the Adelaide Festival. The works were heard jointly at the 1986 festival. She returned permanently in 1975, her affinity with the Asian inspirations of younger composers leading to a position as consultant for Asian Music Studies at the Australian Music Centre, Sydney. In 1987 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Sydney. On 25 June 1990 she died at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery, Ryde. She bequeathed her house at Paddington as a residence for young composers.

Glanville-Hicks was delicate and slight in appearance, but in character brilliant and articulate. Her works were often modal (demonstrating her interest in folk song), transparent in texture and colourful in instrumentation. She was a major figure in mid-twentieth century music, her profile formed as much by prodigious organisational skills and wit as by her elegant music.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Hayes, Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1990)
  • W. Beckett, Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1992)
  • J. Murdoch, Peggy Glanville-Hicks (2002)
  • Glanville-Hicks papers (National Library of Australia, State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Victoria)
  • Methodist Ladies’ College Archives, Melbourne.

Citation details

Suzanne Robinson, 'Glanville-Hicks, Peggy Winsome (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 July 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]

Alternative Names
  • Bate, Peggy
  • da casta, Peggy

29 December, 1912
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


25 June, 1990 (aged 77)
Darlinghurst, 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.