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Elizabeth Ellinor Morcom (1909–2000)

by Ken Barelli

This article was published online in 2023

Ellinor Morcom, by N.L. Harvey and Sons, n.d.

Ellinor Morcom, by N.L. Harvey and Sons, n.d.

Royal South Street Society

Elizabeth Ellinor Jane Morcom (1909–2000), musician, was born on 5 June 1909 at Cambrian Hill, Victoria, younger daughter of Edwin Morcom, teacher, and his wife Ellen, née Osbourne, both Victorian-born. Ellinor attended Magpie Primary School, where her father taught, and Ballarat High School. Her family was prominent in the Burnbank Street Methodist Church, Ballarat North, which is likely to have influenced her musical interests. She played the piano and organ at local functions, and from 1927 studied at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music (Mus. Bac. 1932) under James Steele and (most probably) the exacting organist Arthur Nickson. Despite having a voice which she described as ‘like a corn crake’ (Winkler 2000, 30), she included singing in her studies to develop her understanding, as an accompanist, of vocalists’ requirements.

Though Morcom was a sufficiently proficient pianist to give recitals on radio for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the 1930s and 1940s, she set her sights on a career as an accompanist and teacher. She pursued what she judged best suited her talents, and preferred collaboration and cooperation to showmanship and fuss. In later years she was known to say, ‘I am an accompanist—not a concert pianist!’ (Reeves 2000, 17). Her chief interest was promoting music in the community and the church. From 1931 she was organist or choir director, and sometimes both, at churches around Ballarat, including the Burnbank Street Methodist, Barkly Street Methodist, the Congregational, and St Andrew’s Presbyterian (later Uniting) churches. Her Christian faith was important to her. She considered church music an aid to worship, with anything distracting, flamboyant, or noisy to be avoided.

In 1941 Morcom was appointed official accompanist for the South Street Society’s annual competition, by then well-established as the grand national eisteddfod of Australasia. Her role included accompanying for the eisteddfod’s most prestigious component, the Sun Aria competition for emerging opera singers, the finals of which were held in the Melbourne Town Hall. When the competition was suspended in 1942–44, during World War II, she and others ran a smaller, interim version, the Ballarat Patriotic Eisteddfod, and donated proceeds to the war effort.

Morcom’s workload as official accompanist was vast, technically demanding, and often insufficiently recognised. In the postwar heyday of the competition, at each annual event she accompanied more than one hundred singers over a few weeks, including in rehearsals. She was skilful as well as hard-working, playing piano reductions of orchestral scores across a range of genres, from grand opera to popular music, with lyrics in several languages. As well as singers, she supported instrumentalists, displaying sight-reading skills of a high order, and having the uncommon ability to transpose at sight. Struggling competitors benefited from her sympathetic and adaptable support, even if some thought her too interfering. She was also in demand as an accompanist for interstate competitions and as an adjudicator.

As a sought-after teacher of piano, voice, and organ, Morcom chose music to suit the student’s temperament and to promote enthusiasm, rather than simply to hone technique. She taught from rooms in Allan’s Music Shop in Collins Street, Melbourne, but it was mostly at Ballarat that she supported music in the community. In the late 1950s she helped to acquire a grand piano for the South Street Society’s competitions when they moved to the new civic hall. She accompanied community singing, and was involved in concerts for the Ballarat Music Lovers Club, where she was a driving force, and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Even when she took a year away from her local responsibilities to tour Europe in 1955–56, music remained her focus, as she spent time with the Ballarat-born soprano Elsie Morison and other Australian musicians studying and working in London.

In 1980 Morcom was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to music. She gradually stepped down from her official accompanist’s responsibilities, ceasing her role with the Sun Aria event in 1972, and by 1992 with the Royal South Street Society’s competition (the society had attained royal patronage in 1962). In the late 1990s she initiated a scheme to assist students from Ballarat and surrounding districts to attend the University of Melbourne, and in 1999 the Ellinor Morcom Scholarship Fund was launched with a local committee’s guidance. To support the initiative, she organised fund-raising events and made a significant bequest herself. The fund, which was ultimately administered by Ormond College, subsidised students’ residential fees.

Morcom was still teaching, and directing the St Andrew’s church choir, until shortly before her death. She died on 5 July 2000 in the house where she had lived since childhood, having arranged for her private cremation to be conducted ‘without fuss or bother’ (Reeves 2000, 17). Her ashes were interred with her parents’ remains in the Old Ballarat cemetery. Lilian Evelyn, her one sibling, predeceased her.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Bowman, Calvin. Interview by the author, 31 January 2023. Copy of notes held on ABD file
  • O’Connor, Shaunagh. ‘Grand Lady Holds Key to Future.’ Herald Sun (Melbourne), 13 January 1999, 41
  • Royal South Street Society: The First One Hundred Years. [Ballarat, Vic.: Royal South Street Society, 1979]
  • Reeves, Rev. John.Ellinor Morcom.’ Saint Andrew’s Parish Magazine, September 2000, 17
  • Winkler, Margaret. ‘Ellinor Morcom, BEM.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 2000, 30

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken Barelli, 'Morcom, Elizabeth Ellinor (1909–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morcom-elizabeth-ellinor-33279/text41527, published online 2023, accessed online 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ellinor Morcom, by N.L. Harvey and Sons, n.d.

Ellinor Morcom, by N.L. Harvey and Sons, n.d.

Royal South Street Society

Life Summary [details]

Birth

5 June, 1909
Cambrian Hill, Victoria, Australia

Death

5 July, 2000 (aged 91)
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

pneumonia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Awards