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Alexander Hmelnitsky (1891–1965)

by Larry Sitsky

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Alexander Hmelnitsky (1891-1965), pianist, was born on 16 April 1891 in Kiev, Russia (Ukraine), son of Ilya Hmelnitsky, a musician. After studying music at the local conservatory, Alexander transferred to the Moscow conservatory, and occasionally performed at the court of Tsar Nicholas II, accompanying a resident czimbalom player. Becoming musical director for the dancer Anna Pavlova, Hmelnitsky played the piano and conducted a ballet orchestra on her tours. He was a founding member of the Moscow Trio, which toured extensively and accompanied Pavlova. During World War I, serving in the Russian army, he lost the sight in one eye. He married Ludmila Estrin, a professional cellist, on 30 April 1917 in Moscow.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hmelnitskys and Alexander's friend the pianist Paul Vinogradov escaped through China to Hong Kong. Alexander opened a music academy in Shanghai. Late in 1919 he and Ludmila moved to Java, the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), where their eldest son Igor (1920-1987) was born on 27 December 1920. After the birth of a second son, the family arrived in Sydney on 27 September 1925 and Ludmila's parents followed.

Vinogradov had preceded them. He and Hmelnitsky taught at a private conservatorium of music and made piano rolls for G. H. Horton, who owned Mastertouch. They also recorded some material as duets, including Rossini, Weber, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky overtures, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen. Among Hmelnitsky's solo recordings were works by Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt and Debussy and items by Kreisler, Moszkowski, Raff, Scott and Bendel. Vinogradov had been a friend of Scriabin's, and music by Russian masters was a feature of the repertoire, including pieces by Liadov. Hmelnitsky was among the first to perform such works in Sydney. From 1929 he was the music director for radio station 2FC.

In February 1930 the Hmelnitskys went back to Java where a third son was born. The two elder boys returned to Sydney in August 1938 and Ludmila and the youngest child in May 1941; Alexander followed in February 1942 and resumed teaching, based at the W. H. Paling studios. Alexander and Ludmila were naturalized in 1948 and lived at Neutral Bay, where he enjoyed fishing at Kurraba Point. As a teacher, Alexander brought to Sydney the broad sweep and big sound of the Russian Romantic school and the classic methods and strict training of the Moscow conservatory. His pupils included his son Igor, Maureen Jones, Laurence Davis, Robert Kolben, Elizabeth Hunt, Roy Cross and Rachel Valler. He was one of the first pianists in Australia to play the music and transcriptions of Leopold Godowsky, whom he venerated. Late in life, when he was semi-retired and almost blind, his family helped him to memorize one of the fearsomely difficult Bach-Godowsky sonatas.

An interviewer in 1954 described Hmelnitsky, known familiarly as 'the professor', as short, slim and energetic with thick, brown hair, greying slightly. His English had a strong accent—the family spoke only Russian at home. The couple retired to Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains, where they lost home and possessions in a bushfire on 2 December 1957. Alexander died on 25 January 1965 at Katoomba and was buried in Rookwood cemetery with Russian Orthodox rites. His wife and three sons, all of whom were musicians, survived him.

Igor, who was 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, thin, with fair hair and greenish eyes and a moustache, had served in the Royal Netherlands Air Force during World War II. Back in Sydney, he continued the grand Romantic pianistic tradition, performing Chopin sonatas and the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. In 1972-85 he taught at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, undertook extensive medical studies—to assist his music teaching—and performed for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He was a staunch champion of the composer Raymond Hanson, whose challenging piano works he played widely. Igor died of cancer on 27 September 1987 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst; his fifth wife and four children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Bebbington (ed), Oxford Companion to Australian Music (Melb, 1997)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1925 p 9, 5 March 1940, p 10, 2 May 1954, p 70, 3 Feb 1965, p 2
  • Sun (Sydney), 31 March 1959, p 15
  • series A261, item 1925/259, series A12508, item 53/139, series A435, item 1948/4/276, series A12508, item 53/142, series ST 1233/1, item N3375 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal information.

Citation details

Larry Sitsky, 'Hmelnitsky, Alexander (1891–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 April, 1891
Kiev, Ukraine


25 January, 1965 (aged 73)
Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia

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