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George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862–1915)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published:

George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), by unknown photographer, 1891-1900

George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), by unknown photographer, 1891-1900

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1220

George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), composer, conductor and professor of music, was born on 28 March 1862 in London, son of Marshall Hall and his wife Mary Eliza, née Mammatt; he was a grandson of the physiologist Marshall Hall, discoverer of the principle of reflex action, and a great-nephew of Samuel Hall, engineer and inventor. George's father, a barrister, did not practise but used his inheritance to further an interest in natural science. He apparently in later life hyphenated his name to Marshall-Hall, the form used by his sons.

George was educated at Mr Creak's school, The Wick, Brighton, and the Blackheath Proprietary School, London. He studied the organ under Mr Lees, organist at St Margaret's Church, London, and also learned the violin. His interest in music, initially encouraged by his paternal grandmother, never waned, despite parental disapproval and a childhood illness which left him temporarily deaf and with tone sense distorted (possibly for life).

In 1878 he attended King's College, London, before moving to Switzerland with his family. Returning to London next year, he abandoned studies for the Civil Service and an intended career in the colonies when in 1880 he was appointed organist and assistant master in French and German at Oxford Military College. To prepare for the post he journeyed to Berlin to study privately under Carl August Haupt, director of the Royal Institute for Church Music there. In December 1882, however, he resigned his college position.

Marshall-Hall attended the Royal College of Music, London, in the latter part of 1883, studying organ with Walter Parratt, composition with (Sir) Hubert Parry and counterpoint with (Sir) Frederick Bridge; the director (Sir) George Grove regarded him highly, despite the brevity of his stay. On 5 April 1884 in St Matthew's Church, Bayswater, he married May Hunt and in August he became organist and choirmaster at Newton College, Newton Abbot, South Devon.

College work left Marshall-Hall no time to compose and at Christmas 1886 he and his wife left for London where they lived in poverty; it was later said that Marshall-Hall's father had cast him off as 'a damned fiddler'. He eventually found work as assistant to A. Gray at Wellington College and by February 1888 was director of the orchestra and choral society at the London Organ School and College of Music where he also taught composition and singing. He published articles in Musical World, Magazine of Music and School.

To this English period belong the operas Dido, written when Marshall-Hall was 15 and later reworked as the music-drama Dido and Aeneas (first performed 11 October 1899, Melbourne); Harold, written prior to February 1888; and the lost Leonard. Other works include the Harold Overture (1888), the sextet Die Blumen (1886) and the Soliloquy from Tennyson's 'Maud', written in 1890 for voice and orchestra (first performed 6 July 1896, Melbourne).

Marshall-Hall arrived in Melbourne on 3 January 1891 to take up the University of Melbourne's new chair of music established by Francis Ormond with a gift of £20,000, though without an attendant practical school. Tall, dark, bluff-mannered and idealistic, the new professor was not the expected standard organist-pedagogue, but rather a largely self-educated, flesh and blood Bohemian, who believed passionately in Art and in God not at all. The views he soon expressed in articles and lectures were considered outrageous. Opposed to pedantry, he spoke extravagantly of the power of emotive discipline—not a popular cause among strait-laced Melburnians; he expounded his socialist theories and declared his atheism. His wild public behaviour and loud speech made enemies; but his exuberant nature often redeemed lost ground in private.

In 1892, with George Allan's support, Marshall-Hall founded the Marshall-Hall Orchestra. It inherited standards, scores and some of its personnel from the Cowen 1888 Centennial Exhibition (later, Victorian) Orchestra which had disbanded the previous year. Over the next twenty years Marshall-Hall established a body of players recognized by visiting musicians as equal to the general order of those in Europe; he introduced much orchestral music new to the colony and gained a reputation as a conductor of the first rank. Until 1902, when a committee took over, Marshall-Hall met the orchestra expenses himself; eventually, in 1908, (Sir) James Barrett organized the Permanent Orchestra Trust Fund under the patronage of Lady Northcote. Marshall-Hall also paid the rent for the Melbourne University Conservatorium which, with William Laver, he established on 28 February 1895 in the Queen's Coffee Palace, Carlton; it was later housed in the Victorian Artists' Society premises, Albert Street, East Melbourne. The music course Marshall-Hall devised was centred on interpretative sensibility built on a basis of technical efficiency, stressing emotional response as opposed to the prevailing emphasis on pure technique. He abhorred examination systems and at various times tried to have those existing for music abolished.

Soon after his arrival in Melbourne Marshall-Hall formed close friendships with Arthur Streeton and other Heidelberg painters. There was clearly an exchange of ideas about current European Symbolism and Wagnerianism and mutual encouragement to creativity. Poet as well as musician, Marshall-Hall dedicated his Hymn to Sydney (1897) to Streeton.

In July 1898 Marshall-Hall published the fourth of his volumes of verse, Hymns Ancient and Modern. About the same time he spoke publicly in favour of war. On 5 August the Argus launched a full-scale attack on the book and on its author's morals, accusing Marshall-Hall of lewdness, animalism, lasciviousness and anti-clericalism, and asking the university why he should be permitted to 'lecture to the Young, especially the young Women, of Victoria'. On 12 August Marshall-Hall presented to the university council a written declaration on individual independence and the right to free speech: 'There is no toleration and no freedom when men must echo conventional views of life, religion and politics or hold their peace'. This widened the argument, enraged his opponents and resulted in petitions, for and against him, from musical and educational bodies, and in student demonstrations. Before the council came to a decision, however, Marshall-Hall recanted, asking for twelve months leave of absence and promising then to resign. He withdrew his resignation when the university made it a condition that he abstain from teaching in Victoria. In the two years of public debate which followed, Rev. Dr Alexander Leeper became Marshall-Hall's chief opponent: Marshall-Hall in 1898 had unwisely ridiculed Leeper, before and during the Trinity College play, Alcestis, whose full score by the composer outshone Leeper's production.

During the 1890s Marshall-Hall's wife spent much time in England where she died in 1901. In 1899 a whispering campaign suggested immoral conduct with female students by the music professor. His friends Lionel and Norman Lindsay retaliated with lampoons and satirical verse-plays in Outpost; but debate on the South African War fuelled the hysteria and on 25 June 1900 Marshall-Hall's tenure was not renewed. On 6 March 1902, with Australian Church forms, he married Kathleen Hoare who for some years had passed as his wife.

As the conservatorium lessee, Marshall-Hall was able to stay on, with loyal staff and students, in East Melbourne, renaming his institution the Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne (later known as the Albert Street and later still as the Melba Conservatorium). The university was obliged to begin again, using Australian Music Examinations Board funds and abandoning Marshall-Hall's teaching curriculum. The break in local musical life caused by the rivalry never mended.

Marshall-Hall spent August 1906 to May 1907 in Europe, possibly for eye surgery. His reports on musical events there were widely published in Australia. From this time the demands of the Musicians' Union that professionals refrain from playing in orchestras using amateurs (usually female) undermined the financial structure and morale of the Marshall-Hall Orchestra. Though he conducted Lohengrin in Sydney on 30 September 1911 for the J. C. Williamson-Melba company, Marshall-Hall refused permanent work with Williamson. His orchestra's last performance was on 5 October 1912. On 21 February next year he left Australia to pursue the production of his operas in London. His conservatorium passed into the hands of Fritz Hart who, with Melba, later consolidated its musical gains when her school of singing was founded there.

To Marshall-Hall's Australian period belong his overture Giordano Bruno (1891; dedicated to Streeton), the Symphony in C (1892), La Belle Dame Sans Merci for violin and orchestra (c.1894), Idyll (1894), Choral Ode (1898), Alcestis (1898; first performed Melbourne, 1898), An Australian National Song (1900), the opera Aristodemus (1902), the Symphony in E Flat (1903; first performed London, 1907), Phantasy for Horn (1905), Bianca Capello (a play published in 1906), two Violin Fantasies (1907), Caprice for violin and orchestra (1910), the String Quartett in F (1910), the lost String Quartett in D Minor and the operas Stella (1910; first performed Melbourne, 1912) and Romeo and Juliet (1912).

When the Ormond chair of music again became vacant on the death of Franklin Peterson in June 1914, a new campaign was mounted in Melbourne involving Laver, a contender for the post, and Marshall-Hall. The argument this time centred on open competition for public posts on the one hand and the need to redress the injustice done to Marshall-Hall on the other. The position was eventually offered to Marshall-Hall, who accepted and arrived back in Melbourne in January 1915.

The future looked promising as the public furore died down and an uneasy truce was called with Fritz Hart at Albert Street. Then, suddenly, on 18 July 1915 at Fitzroy, Marshall-Hall died from complications of appendicitis. He was buried in the Baptist section of Brighton cemetery survived by his wife, their son and his daughter Elsa, also a composer, of his first marriage. His scores and literary output were purchased from his widow by Percy Grainger in 1934-38 and were housed in the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, together with a 1901 portrait by Tom Roberts; a portrait by Streeton is in the National Gallery of Victoria; and another by Roberts (1898) is in the Performing Arts Museum, Melbourne.

As a conductor Marshall-Hall educated a whole generation of concert audiences through the high standards he achieved. His compositions, nearly all performed during his lifetime, have been revived by Richard Divall in Australian Broadcasting Commission recordings and his influence as composer has continued through his pupils, notably Margaret Sutherland. But Marshall-Hall has been remembered mainly for his ability to provoke controversy; attitudes to the role of music and the arts, freedom of speech, the meaning of academic responsibility and the purpose of the university were hammered out in Melbourne through argument which he generated.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Radic, G. W. L. Marshall-Hall, music monograph 5, University of Western Australia (Perth, 1982)
  • British Australasian, 22 July, 12 Aug 1915
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 16 Jan 1891
  • Evening Standard, 28 July 1894
  • Marshall-Hall papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • University of Melbourne central registry letter files box 1890/30
  • T. Radic, catalogue to the Marshall-Hall collection (Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Marshall-Hall, George William Louis (1862–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 June 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), by unknown photographer, 1891-1900

George William Louis Marshall-Hall (1862-1915), by unknown photographer, 1891-1900

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1220

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hall, George

28 March, 1862
London, Middlesex, England


18 July, 1915 (aged 53)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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