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William Adolphus Laver (1866–1940)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published:

William Adolphus Laver (1866-1940), violinist and professor of music, was born on 20 August 1866 at Castlemaine, Victoria, fourth of seven surviving sons of Jonas Laver, farmer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Fry. William (Willie to intimates) probably attended the local Castlemaine school. It is not known from whom he received his early violin tuition. In 1881 the famous German violinist August Wilhelmj heard Laver play and, impressed with the boy's potential, offered to have him trained in Germany. Jonas had died in 1880; his widow refused Wilhelmj's offer, but in 1882, she undertook the journey with William and three other sons Arthur, Rudolph and Ralph. They were accompanied by an old family friend Otto Jung who had become guardian of the under-age boys when their father died and who continued to care for them after their mother's death at Frankfurt-am-Main in 1885 or 1886.

At the Hoch Conservatory of Music at Frankfurt William's teachers were Professor Bernhard Scholz, Hugo Heermann, Bernhard Cossmann, James Kwast and Ivan Knorr. Laver was admitted to the intimate circle surrounding Brahms, and Frederic Lamond, considered the greatest Beethoven pianist of the day, became his closest friend. In 1882 Laver was the student chosen by the school to attend the first performance of Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth; later he became an authority on Wagner.

In 1887 Clara Schumann offered Laver a conducting post at Nottingham, England. He refused on hearing that Francis Ormond was to establish a chair of music at the University of Melbourne. Though not yet 22 and with his studies unfinished, he applied for the position, travelling to London to lobby the selection committee, and mounting a vigorous campaign in Australia through his brothers and their contacts. He arrived in Melbourne on 13 May 1889 with detailed plans for a conservatorium on the Frankfurt model. Neither the attempt to realize these plans nor his application for the chair was successful. He was declared below the age limit for the professorship and lost the appointment in 1890 to G. W. L. Marshall-Hall.

Laver established himself in Melbourne as a private teacher and on 7 March 1894 at Brighton, with Presbyterian forms, he married one of his pupils, Agnes Grant MacIntyre Robertson. Common interests had drawn him into friendship with Marshall-Hall, despite his own rather withdrawn temperament and Marshall-Hall's flamboyance, and in 1894 he offered his plans and private practice as a basis for a university school of music. The proposal was accepted and on 28 February 1895, when Laver was acting professor during Marshall-Hall's study leave, the university's Conservatorium of Music was opened in the Queen's Coffee Palace, Rathdowne Street, Carlton; within a few years it was rehoused in Albert Street, East Melbourne, and in 1910 in a new building in the university grounds. Two of Laver's students from the 1890s, Adelaide Burkitt and William Murdoch, won international fame, while Percy Grainger's attendance at the Hoch Conservatory may have stemmed from Laver's advice.

In 1900 when Marshall-Hall's dismissal resulted in the establishment of a rival conservatorium Laver, now in opposition to his old friend, resumed the acting professorship of the university conservatorium and then, unsuccessful in a second bid for the chair, became vice-director under F. S. Peterson. In this capacity he visited and reported upon European music centres in 1903. After Peterson's death in 1914 Laver's supporters fought a long and acrimonious battle for his succession as professor; but, instead, Marshall-Hall was reinstated. Laver finally became third Ormond professor of music after Marshall-Hall's death next year.

Laver toured Australia and New Zealand as a violinist in 1905 and frequently conducted, notably for the 1913 Wagner Centenary at the Melbourne Auditorium. He was a distinguished editor, mainly of Bach and Beethoven, and composer of a small number of orchestral and vocal works. He represented the university on the advisory committee of the Teachers' Registration Board of the Education Department and was chairman of the University of Melbourne Examination Board (Music). He also examined at interstate universities and for the (Sir William) Clarke-South Province scholarship founded at the Royal College of Music, to which he was elected an honorary member in 1936.

Late in 1925 Laver retired from the Ormond chair to his retreat, Eothen at Kinglake, where he lobbied tirelessly for the preservation of bushland. In 1938 as acting professor during (Sir) Bernard Heinze's sabbatical leave, he opened the Grainger Museum at the university. He died at Kinglake on 2 July 1940, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. A portrait by W. B. McInnes is held by the university.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • J. Bird, Percy Grainger (Melb, 1977)
  • T. Radic, G.W.L. Marshall-Hall, Portrait of a Lost Crusader: An Introduction to the Marshall-Hall Collection of the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne (Perth, 1982)
  • Melba Memorial Conservatorium, Con Amore, 10 (1943), 12 (1946)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1916
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 July 1940
  • G. W. Laver, The Consummation of a Youthful Dream, (manuscript, Archives), and J. Barrett, Professor Marshall-Hall (lecture, 21 Mar 1935, Grainger Museum), and University of Melbourne Conservatorium prospectus, 1898, and Council of University of Melbourne, minute book, 1888-89 (Central Registry), University of Melbourne
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Laver, William Adolphus (1866–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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