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Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915–1963)

by Jeff Brownrigg

This article was published:

Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915-1963), by unknown photographer

Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915-1963), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L52086

Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915-1963), composer, was born on 19 April 1915 at Armadale, Melbourne, only child of Dorian Reginald Harold Ronald Le Gallienne, a French-born actor, and his wife Charlotte Edith Estella, née White, daughter of the assistant-astronomer at the Melbourne Observatory. Stella, as she was known, had studied piano and conducting with G. W. L. Marshall-Hall. A committed suffragette, she met Le Gallienne in 1914 at a meeting of the Women's Social and Political Union in Melbourne and married him that year. The relationship broke up in 1924, a year after the family had travelled to England. Stella returned home with her son in 1928 and enrolled him at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He completed the Intermediate certificate in 1930.

At the age of 16 Dorian was diagnosed as a diabetic. Excused regular attendance at school, he studied privately. The Le Gallienne home was 'a cultured household of refined values' and, under his mother's guidance, he took to reading, especially the poetry of Blake, Donne and Shakespeare. His imagination also ranged into an emerging world of musical possibilities, again prompted and encouraged by his mother.

In 1938 and 1939, following basic training at the University Conservatorium of Music, Le Gallienne studied at the Royal College of Music, London, first with Arthur Benjamin and later with Herbert Howells. Back in Australia, he worked during World War II for the Commonwealth Department of Information in the overseas broadcasting service. After the war he joined the staff of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and taught materials of music at the University Conservatorium.

From about 1937 Le Gallienne had composed intermittently. His early works included sonatas for flute (1943) and violin (1945), Contes Heraldiques (1947), and Four Divine Poems of John Donne (1950). He also wrote small ensemble pieces for amateur productions of Shakespeare. In 1951 he won a Commonwealth Jubilee music scholarship which enabled him to study (1951-53) with the English composer Gordon Jacob. Some commentators argue that this further exposure to English music had a debilitating effect, leading to a derivative and unsatisfactory musical style. There is no doubt that Le Gallienne was influenced by a pastoral Englishness, but his works show a sophisticated independent spirit and liveliness that was not present in many Australian composers who preceded him.

On his return to Melbourne, Le Gallienne taught harmony and composition at the University Conservatorium, wrote as music critic (1954-63) for the Age, and continued to compose. His most important compositions of this period included Overture in E flat (1952), a symphony (1953), Voyageur, a ballet (1954), Duo for violin and viola (1956), Sinfonietta (1956), and a trio for oboe, violin and viola (1957). In addition to these substantial compositions, there were numerous occasional scores and incidental music for plays.

Towards the end of his life Le Gallienne lived with Professor Richard Downing in a mud-brick house built for them by the architect Alistair Knox on 300 acres (121 ha) that they had jointly purchased at Eltham in 1948. Le Gallienne had known Downing for many years and had travelled with him in Europe in 1939. At Eltham, in conjunction with Tim Burstall and Patrick Ryan, who had formed Eltham Films, Le Gallienne had the opportunity of returning to the composition of occasional music. Eltham's cosmopolitan atmosphere, tolerance and gentle bohemianism suited the composer.

Le Gallienne's life at this time was stable and contented, qualities that are reflected in his self-assured film scores. His music for Burstall's The Prize (1960), a film which won a bronze medal at the Venice Film Festival, was the first of a number of significant film and television scores. The music for The Dance of the Angels (1962), which presented several ceramic sculptures of John Perceval in a stylish A.B.C. documentary, quickly followed, as did that for a similar documentary treatment of 'The Crucifixion' (1962), Matcham Skipper's sculptured Stations of the Cross. Both of these scores demonstrate a confident, eclectic style well matched to the filmed images: there is a raucous medievalism evident in the music for the dancing angels, while the score for 'The Crucifixion' is angular and scarifying. Working closely with the films' director, Le Gallienne was able to craft scores which became a crucial component of the whole conception. Music for an episode of an A.B.C. children's television series, 'Sebastian and the Sausages', was among his last compositions.

Suffering from coronary sclerosis, Le Gallienne died suddenly on 27 July 1963 at South Yarra and was buried in Eltham cemetery, below the towers of Justus Jorgensen's Montsalvat. In 1967 the music critic Roger Covell argued that Le Gallienne's symphony was 'still the most accomplished and purposive . . . written by an Australian'. The Sinfonietta and Contes Heraldiques were recorded by the A.B.C. and frequently broadcast in the 1960s and 1970s. One of Le Gallienne's earliest compositions, Nocturne for piano (1937), has remained popular and was recorded by Vera Bradford for the Columbia Co.'s Australian label. The Duo for violin and viola is still included in recital programmes. Sound recordings of the film music, the Voyageur ballet, the Four Divine Songs of John Donne (with the contralto Lauris Elms and the pianist Marie Van Hove) and a number of orchestral compositions recorded by the A.B.C. (under the baton of John Hopkins) have also helped to keep some of Le Gallienne's compositions alive in the years since his death.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Covell, Australia's Music (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers (Melb, 1972)
  • G. Loughlin, Cities of Departure (Melb, priv print, 1984)
  • J. M. Brownrigg, 'Seeking the Prize: Some Background to the Film Music of Dorian Le Gallienne', in N. Brown (ed), One Hand on the Manuscript (Canb, 1995)
  • Le Gallienne papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Jeff Brownrigg, 'Le Gallienne, Dorian Leon Marlois (1915–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915-1963), by unknown photographer

Dorian Leon Marlois Le Gallienne (1915-1963), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L52086

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1915
Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


27 July, 1963 (aged 48)
Eltham, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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