Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Horace Stanley Keats (1895–1945)

by Warren A. Bebbington

This article was published:

Horace Stanley Keats (1895-1945), composer and accompanist, was born on 20 July 1895 at Mitcham, Surrey, England, son of Charles William Keats, commercial traveller, and his wife Mary, née Clifford. He was a boy soprano at the Oratory, Brompton Road, South Kensington, and briefly learned the piano, but ran away to sea aged 13 and worked as a ship's pianist. He returned to England after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to enlist in the army, but was rejected for poor eyesight. Engaged as an accompanist by a singer, Nella Webb, on her tour of American and Pacific variety theatres, he arrived in Sydney with her in 1915.

Keats accompanied Ella Caspers and Peter Dawson in 1915, played incidental music to silent films for J. C. Williamson Ltd in 1916 and Greater Union Theatres in 1918-20, and led a restaurant trio at Farmer's department store, Sydney, in 1920-23. After Farmer's radio station 2FC opened in December 1923, he was heard on air regularly with his trio and as accompanist to the radio eisteddfods; by 1929 he was conducting a sixteen-piece broadcast ensemble.

In January 1930 Keats went to England to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation but ill health forced him to return to Sydney within six months. In 1932 he joined the Perth staff of the new Australian Broadcasting Commission but was dismissed next year; from 1934 he worked as a freelance accompanist in Sydney, sometimes for the A.B.C.

Married on 9 November 1918 to soprano Janet le Brun Brown, Keats described his wife as his 'critic' and 'guide'. As 'Barbara Russell' she also became the principal performer of his songs.

Keats's first published composition was for piano, Three Spanish Dances (1922), but most of his work was for voice, and dates from the last twelve years of his life. He wrote at least 115 songs, two choral works, incidental music for films and radio plays, and a musical, Atsomari (1935). Thirty of his songs were published (chiefly in Sydney by W. H. Paling & Co.) and some were recorded by Dawson, Harold Williams, Lionel Cecil and Anthony Strange; all are now rare. Keats believed that 'real music must first of all have a melody' and he wrote attractive, fluent tunes with economical, evocative accompaniments. His best-known work, She Walks in Beauty (1939), uses a Byron text, but he concentrated on setting Australian poetry, notably by Christopher Brennan, Hugh McCrae and early manuscript poems of Kenneth Mackenzie.

A tall and rather thickset man, Keats 'tended to “huddle” over the piano, as if he were “savouring” every sound'. Described by contemporaries as modest, amiable and gentle, he had a lifelong love for Australia and faith in Australian culture. He died of cerebral haemorrhage on 21 August 1945 at his Mosman home and was cremated with Christian Science forms. He was survived by his wife and by a son and daughter; his elder son Russell had been killed in action in H.M.A.S. Canberra in 1942. An anonymous etching of Keats, commissioned by Paling's, appears on the title pages of much of his published music.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Stone, A McCrae Miscellany (Syd, nd)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • ABC Weekly, 1 Sept 1945
  • Australasian Performing Right Association, APRAJ, 2 (1981), no 9
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1940, 22 Aug 1945, 22 June 1946
  • Bulletin, 29 Aug 1945
  • K. I. Mackenzie papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Keats musical manuscripts (National Library of Australia)
  • H. Keats family papers
  • private information.

Citation details

Warren A. Bebbington, 'Keats, Horace Stanley (1895–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1895
Mitcham, Surrey, England


21 August, 1945 (aged 50)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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