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Percival (Percy) Jones (1914–1992)

by Renn Wortley

This article was published:

Percival Jones (1914–1992), Catholic priest and musician, was born on 10 January 1914 at Geelong, Victoria, eldest of five children of Percy Jones, music teacher, and his wife Ethel May, née Bourke, both Victorian born. Percy senior was a devout Catholic, talented musician, and champion cornetist who had been reared in St Augustine’s Orphanage, Geelong. He trained in Europe before returning to conduct the municipal band. Taught by his father, Percy junior also excelled in music examinations and competitions. He was educated at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ College, Geelong, where he shone academically (sub-intermediate dux 1926) and in team sports. In the 1929 public examinations he secured an exhibition in music and a free place at the University of Melbourne, but he chose to enter the priesthood instead.

Archbishop Daniel Mannix, sensing Jones’s potential as a future music director for the Melbourne archdiocese, facilitated his theological studies at the Pontifical Athenaeum Urbanianum de Propaganda Fide, Rome, and at All Hallows College, Dublin. While living in Ireland Jones also developed an interest in folk music. He was ordained on 13 March 1937 in Rome and undertook further studies at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra (MusDoc, 1941). His research was on the traditional use of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony in the liturgy, focusing on the ninth-century Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena (published 1957). After submitting his thesis he returned to Melbourne in late 1939.

Within a short time Jones began providing advice on musical education in the archdiocese, as well as organising festivals and special celebrations. From 1940 he was production director of the influential Sunday evening ‘Catholic Hour’ broadcast on radio station 3AW, educating his audience in liturgical music. Two years later he was appointed president of the archdiocese’s committee for sacred music and choirmaster (until 1973) of St Patrick’s Cathedral. In training choristers he used a French voice-production technique that achieved clarity of diction and a Spanish method of producing the voice on the hard palate to deliver resonance, emotional contrast, and drama. He compiled and edited The Australian Hymnal (1941) and The Hymnal of Blessed Pius X (1952).

During 1940 Jones began searching for distinctively Australian songs to teach a girls’ choir. Unsuccessful, he appealed to Jerry Waight, the Sun News-Pictorial columnist known as ‘Jonathan Swift.’ The publicity produced hundreds of letters from readers, with the words, but not the music, of old Australian songs. Although Jones visited several informants to transcribe the music and arrange some songs, he had little opportunity for research and published only his preliminary findings. In 1952 the touring American folk singer Burl Ives performed and popularised some of the songs Jones had amassed, including ‘Click Go the Shears.’ The following year a selection of the music Jones had collected and arranged was published as Burl Ives’ Folio of Australian Folk Songs.

In 1947 Jones had formed the Catholic Philharmonic Society. Despite his lack of orchestral experience, he chose Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ for the society’s inaugural concert, a memorable performance by a 250-voice choir and a symphony orchestra at the Melbourne Town Hall. Five successful productions of sacred choral works followed. During the 1940s he was involved in the Victorian School Music Association and then the National Music Camp Association (chairman 1965–78). He would also direct tours of the NMCA’s offshoot, the Australian Youth Orchestra, to Japan (1970) and the United States of America (1976). In 1950 he was appointed vice-director of the conservatorium of music at the University of Melbourne.

Working under the directorship of Sir Bernard Heinze, Jones carried a heavy administrative and teaching load. He restructured and then taught the music history course, as well as conducting the conservatorium choir and the university choral society. He recalled that it was ‘an exhausting life by any standards’ (Cave 1988, 61). In 1957 the university conferred on him the degree of master of arts. He was appointed a reader in 1975, served as associate dean of the faculty of music (1975–77), and was president of the staff club, University House (1976–77). He retired from the university in 1978 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music in 1987.

From 1953 to 1972 Jones had been parish priest of the Church of the Sacred Heart, Carlton. Fluent in Italian, he was popular with a congregation that was dominated by migrants from Italy. In 1960, while on sabbatical leave, he joined a preparatory commission advising the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on liturgy, and later became a member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. He engaged in detailed research to produce translations and sought to adapt them to their music, a challenge he discussed in his book English in the Liturgy (1966). In 1973 he organised the musical and artistic elements of the international Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne.

Jones was short, corpulent, and ruddy faced, with a ready smile and bright eyes. He was enthusiastic and affable, which helped him to get things done swiftly in his active life. His occasional irascibility quickly passed. In retirement he often lunched at University House with academic and cultured friends. They were known as the ‘Glee Club’ for their ‘love of good humour, good conversation and, to the scandal of not a few, good wine’ (Cave 1988, 128). For services to religion and music, he was appointed MBE (1968) and elevated to OBE (1979). In 1988 his reminiscences, edited by his friend Donald Cave, were incorporated into a biography published as Percy Jones: Priest, Musician, Teacher. After a long illness, he died at Newtown, Geelong, on 17 November 1992 and was buried in the local Sacred Heart Convent cemetery.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Cave, Donald. Percy Jones: Priest, Musician, Teacher. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1988
  • Griffin, James. ‘Obituary: Percy Jones 1914–1992.Eureka Street 2, no. 11 (December 1992–January 1993): 35
  • Hazell, T. A. ‘Percy Jones 1914–1992: Priest and Musician.’ Footprints 10, no. 3 (September 1993): 17–20
  • Hince, Kenneth. ‘Musician Who Revived a Sacred Tradition.’ Age, 19 November 1992, 14
  • Jones, Dr Percy. Interview by Gwenda Davey, 18 February 1991. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • McKenry, Keith. ‘Percy Jones: Australia’s Reluctant Folklorist.Overland, no. 186 (Autumn 2007): 25–33

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Renn Wortley, 'Jones, Percival (Percy) (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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