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Bertha May Jorgensen (1904–1999)

by Peter John Tregear

This article was published online in 2023

Bertha Jorgensen, c.1923–27

Bertha Jorgensen, c.1923–27

State Library of Victoria, 63543436

Bertha May Jorgensen (1904–1999), violinist, was born on 17 May 1904 at Castlemaine, Victoria, eldest of three daughters of Victorian-born parents Emil Hans Jorgen Jorgensen, baker, and his wife Anna Marie, née Ritter. Of Danish ancestry, her father played violin in a local amateur orchestra and cello in a string quartet, and he named her after the Australian soprano Bertha Bird. Her maternal grandfather had been a music teacher in Germany before migrating to Australia in 1853. Bertha received her first violin lessons from her father when she was four. Within a year she was performing in public, and she later competed regularly at the annual South Street Eisteddfod in Ballarat, winning the under-twelve violin solo competition in 1914.

Notwithstanding her father’s premature death in 1915, Jorgensen’s childhood was a happy one. She was not constrained from youthful pursuits by her precocious talent, but she never doubted that her life would be in music. Educated (1910–19) at St Catherine’s Girls’ College, Castlemaine, from the age of six she travelled weekly to Melbourne for violin lessons with Alberto Zelman junior. During World War I she also studied with the violinist Elise Steele, who had temporarily returned from Melbourne to her family in Castlemaine.

In 1920 Anna Jorgensen moved her family to Camberwell and Bertha accepted Zelman’s invitation to join the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), then a largely amateur ensemble that Zelman had founded in 1906. There Jorgensen had the opportunity to perform as a soloist and to accompany international performers such as Dame Nellie Melba. By 1923 she was leading the orchestra as first violin. She also joined Zelman’s British Music Society String Quartet and the Buckley and Nunn Studio Orchestra, the latter providing live studio music in the early years of radio broadcasting by the Australian Broadcasting Company (from 1932 the Australian Broadcasting Commission, or ABC).

For five decades Jorgensen was involved in almost all major symphony orchestra performances in Melbourne, with only two significant periods of interruption due to injury. In 1936 she broke her left wrist while ice skating, later recalling that it was only through sheer determination that she was able to perform again at the requisite standard. In 1959 she slipped during a rehearsal and broke her right wrist. In 1927 the MSO had merged with the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium Orchestra and by 1934 it was fully professionalised under the management of the ABC. During the transition, Jorgensen relinquished the leader’s chair in favour of the Belgian violinist Edouard Lambert. She did, however, take up the invitation to become leader of a newly created amateur ensemble, the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra, a position she held until 1944, when she was asked to serve as acting leader of the MSO. The management of the orchestra remained unwilling to appoint a woman permanently to the role.

During World War II Jorgensen formed an association with the French violinist Jeanne Gautier, who was stranded in Australia, deputising for Gautier on the teaching staff of the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music. Later, she inherited Gautier’s students and acquired one of her violins. She continued to teach at the conservatorium until 1958, when her increasing work for the MSO made it impractical.

In 1948, after members of the orchestra had lobbied on her behalf, the ABC appointed Jorgensen as permanent concertmaster of the MSO. At the time, some claimed that ‘no other major orchestra in the world is led by a woman’ (ABC Weekly 1947). Nevertheless, she continued to face prejudice from conductors on account of her gender, her lack of overseas experience, and even her short stature. She almost always won them over with her professionalism and musical reliability on stage, and her generosity as a host off it. Her no-nonsense attitude and willingness to stand up for herself balanced a dry sense of humour. She remained especially proud that she had been able to gain the approval and trust of the German-Jewish conductor Otto Klemperer when he toured Australia in 1949 and 1950, later recalling: ‘I felt perhaps I had struck a blow for women with Klemperer’ (Murdoch 1994, 10).

From 1949 to 1965 the MSO was renamed the Victorian Symphony Orchestra. Appointed MBE in 1960, Jorgensen remained leader until 1962 when a new chief conductor, George Tzipine, requested that a man take the role. When she retired in 1969, she was assistant leader to her former student Leonard Dommett. Jorgensen had lived with her mother at Camberwell until her mother’s death in 1961, after which she moved to a smaller house at Caulfield South. Although she lived alone, in retirement she remained socially active, meeting friends for meals, attending the theatre, and playing violin in amateur ensembles and in homes for the elderly. In 1989 the MSO bestowed on her a life membership; she became only the second person so honoured, following the English pop singer (Sir) Elton John in 1986. Her mind remained sharp until her death from cancer on 11 January 1999 at Bethlehem Hospital, Caulfield South. The University of Melbourne established a Bertha Jorgensen Exhibition for a senior violin student and in 2015 a street in the Canberra suburb of Moncrieff was named after her.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • ABC Weekly (Sydney). ‘Australia’s Symphony Orchestras Compare with the Best Overseas.’ 8 October 1949, 5
  • ABC Weekly (Sydney). ‘Symphony Leader Bertha Jorgensen Has Unique Job.’ 27 September 1947, 5
  • Australian Musical News (Melbourne). ‘Miss Bertha Jorgensen.’ 1 August 1924, 43
  • Beeby, Rosslyn. ‘A Fiddler’s Life.’ In Symphony Australia: Guide to the ABC’s 1992 Concert Season, 22–23. Darlinghurst, NSW: Mason Stewart Publishing, 1992
  • Buttrose, Charles. Playing for Australia: A Story about ABC Orchestras and Music in Australia. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1982
  • Fairweather, Don. Your Friend, Alberto Zelman: The Story of Alberto Zelman and the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra. Melbourne: Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra, 1984
  • Jarrett, Pat. ‘The Leader of the Orchestra.’ Herald (Melbourne), 2 October 1948, 7
  • Jones, Philip. ‘Orchestra Leader Beat Gender Bar.’ Australian, 27 January 1999, 11
  • Jorgensen, Bertha. Interview by Dianne Reilly, 9 December 1997. State Library of Victoria
  • Jorgensen, Bertha. Interview by Margaret Hetherington, 20 March 1979. ABC Archives
  • Jorgensen, Bertha. ‘Recollections of My Life.’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Copy held on ADB file
  • Murdoch, Anna King. ‘The Art of Disarming Otto Klemperer.’ Age (Melbourne), 10 September 1994, Arts Extra 10

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter John Tregear, 'Jorgensen, Bertha May (1904–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 22 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Bertha Jorgensen, c.1923–27

Bertha Jorgensen, c.1923–27

State Library of Victoria, 63543436

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