Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur Ernest Howard Nickson (1876–1964)

by Joe Rich

This article was published:

Arthur Ernest Howard Nickson (1876-1964), musician, was born on 1 March 1876 at Collingwood, Melbourne, third child of Frederick Thomas Nickson, storeman, and his wife Jemima Hunter, née Snowball, both English born. Arthur was educated at a nearby school. His parents were active members of St Michael's Anglican Church, North Carlton, at which he became Sunday School organist. Ernest Wood, his first organ teacher, taught him at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne: the 'beautiful tones' of its instrument, Nickson recalled, had 'ever since made me discontented with inferior sound'.

Appointed organist of St Mark's Church, Fitzroy, in 1893, he demonstrated his considerable talent two years later by winning the (Sir William) Clarke scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music, London (A.R.C.M., 1899). The chief organ teacher Sir Walter Parratt described him as 'a brilliant executant'. Yet, although Nickson gained a prize for extemporization and had his scholarship extended by a year, his piano teacher complained that he was unpunctual and his industry 'only moderate'. In 1896, while continuing his studies, he became organist and choirmaster of St Andrew's parish church, Farnham, Surrey. There he embraced the mystical, neo-platonic Anglo-Catholicism that was to be the guiding force of his life.

Home again in 1901, Nickson threw himself into church activities, becoming Australian secretary of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta, and organist and choirmaster, first at Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, then, from 1903, at St Peter's Church, East Melbourne, where he introduced plainsong and personally helped to pay for a new organ. He travelled to London in 1911 to supervise its construction. On returning, he began a series of recitals that did much to familiarize Melbourne audiences with modern composers, especially the German mystic Sigfrid Karg-Elert. At St Peter's on 29 December 1914 he married Beryl Florence Bennie, a 23-year-old student at the University Conservatorium. From 1916 he was organist and choir-master at St John's, Toorak, but he returned to St Peter's, his preferred spiritual home, in the early 1930s and remained there, nominally, until 1947.

Nickson had given private lessons, served (1906-26) as Melbourne Church of England Grammar School organist, choirmaster and music-teacher, and (from 1904) taught organ, piano and theoretical subjects for the University Conservatorium. Stressing the importance of music in preparing a congregation for the sacraments, he urged its study in association with other arts. This, paradoxically, reflected the influence of the aggressively anti-Christian Professor G. W. L. Marshall-Hall, whose Melbourne concerts Nickson had attended when young and whose teaching, he said, 'sent me to the Cathedrals [and] Galleries as well as the Concert Halls' of Europe. Immensely energetic, Nickson also published three booklets, composed songs, enjoyed walking and worked as music critic (1927-47) for the Age newspaper. To him, the function of critic was primarily educative. He often gave less attention to evaluating performances than to elucidating the emotional significance of the music and placing it in its historical context.

During his teaching career of almost sixty years, many of Nickson's students achieved distinction. Clive Douglas and Dorian Le Gallienne studied composition under him; (Sir) William McKie, organist at Westminster Abbey, London, stated that he owed Nickson 'more than I can possibly say'. The University of Melbourne awarded Nickson an honorary doctorate of music in 1959. A fellow (1901) of the Royal College of Organists, he was elected an honorary fellow of the R.C.M. in 1963. But his influence, while potent, was not entirely benign. Dismissing jazz as 'the lowest form of music', he also held that 'the powers of the Artist reach their fullest extension only in the Christian Faith' without which 'our music would be similar to that . . . [of] non-progressive races such as India, China & Japan'.

An unashamed elitist, Nickson was convinced that 'appreciation of the sublime . . . is denied to all but a few'. Although he was a fundamentally kind man, he was at times stern and irritable in temperament. There were complaints about his brusque, unsympathetic manner as an examiner. None the less, he was partial to fun. One ex-student, though sometimes 'in awe of him', recalled that 'the wry smile and . . . hilarious aside were never far away'. Nickson praised Beethoven's eighth symphony for its 'explosive laughter' and 'horse play'. When walking with friends he would interrupt conversations to doff his hat to, or hurl abuse at, statues of people he admired or abhorred. Such eccentricity extended to his clothes. Tall, slim and straight-backed, with prematurely white hair, he continued to wear a Homburg and high Edwardian collar long after both had gone out of fashion. He died on 16 February 1964 at Mont Albert and was cremated; his daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bazely (ed), Retrospections A. E. H. N. (Melb, 1996)
  • C. Holden, From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass (Melb, 1996)
  • P. J. Tregear, The Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne (Melb, 1997)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, 10 July 1964
  • Victorian Organ Journal, vol 7, no 5, Apr 1979
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1964
  • Nickson collection (Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joe Rich, 'Nickson, Arthur Ernest Howard (1876–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 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

Life Summary [details]


1 March, 1876
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


16 February, 1964 (aged 87)
Mont Albert, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.