Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Donald Richard Peart (1909–1981)

by Gwyneth Barnes

This article was published:

Donald Richard Peart (1909–1981), musicologist and educator, was born on 9 January 1909 at Fovant, Wiltshire, England, son of Herbert Edward Peart, artist, and his wife Ada Dorothy, née Cheesman.  After attending Cheltenham College, Don studied philosophy, politics and economics and music at Queen’s College, Oxford (BA, 1931; B.Mus., 1944; MA, 1952).  His dissertation on music for the viol and violin in seventeenth-century England earned him Oxford’s John Lowell Osgood memorial prize in 1932.  He furthered his studies at the Royal College of Music (ARCM, 1935), where he received composition instruction from R. O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  He studied violin with Arthur Bent, viola with Ernest Tomlinson and conducting with Constant Lambert and W. H. Reed.  His fascination with, and love of, early music led him to establish the Oxford Consort of Viols with Robert Donington and Richard Nicholson.  In 1937, having studied viola da gamba (1928-30) with Arnold Dolmetsch and Marco Pallis, he was appointed to the London Philharmonic Orchestra as a violist.  He had married Ellen Lilian Germon on 24 January 1935 at the Paddington register office.

On 9 March 1940 Peart was granted a regular emergency commission in the Gloucestershire Regiment.  Promoted to lieutenant on 9 September 1941, he became a temporary captain on 16 January 1944.  He was seconded to the Royal West African Frontier Force, serving in Ghana and Nigeria in 1942-44.  In Burma and India he was deployed with the 81st (West Africa) Division in 1944-46, before being released to the Unemployed List.  His fascination with non-Western music and culture began during World War II. As one of approximately 200 British among 25,000 Africans, he experienced first hand the magnificent sounds of African singing.

In 1948 Peart took up the post of foundation professor of music at the University of Sydney.  He introduced studies in performance practice (particularly that of the Baroque period), ethnomusicology and the sociology of music, subjects that had rarely been explored in academic circles.  He believed that Australia’s geographical position should lead to an investigation of the music of Asia.  Much of the research conducted into East-Asian music at this time was associated with Peart’s department.

Peart is particularly remembered for his work with performance ensembles, which began with recorder and string groups in his first year in Sydney.  While he strove for high levels of musicianship, he made a point of creating opportunities for music-making on a much broader scale.  In 1950 he founded the Pro Musica Society; its members included university staff, graduates, students and a group of professionals.  Wanting to provide the students with a practical knowledge of orchestration, in 1956 he established the Pro Musica Symphony Orchestra, concentrated on works that were not part of the standard repertoire for larger ensembles.  In the same year he helped to revive the Sydney branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Not only did he have a scholar’s mind, Peart was also a visionary.  He was committed to the study of vocal music, particularly opera, and was keenly interested in the performance of lesser-known works as well as first Australian performances, as seen in the staged presentations of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951).  Other premiere performances included the works of Pérotin, Dietrich Buxtehude and Pierre de La Rue, some of which were transcribed and edited by students and staff.  He also insisted on performances of contemporary works including those of the English composers (Sir) Peter Maxwell Davies, Benjamin (Baron) Britten, (Sir) Michael Tippett and Wilfrid Mellers, and the Australian composers Eric Gross, Trevor Jones, Helen Gifford, Ian Cugley, Anne Boyd and Peter Sculthorpe.  During the 1960s and 1970s helping young and struggling composers was a central issue for him.

Peart researched the influence of late-Renaissance tripartite dance-forms on the development of ternary structures, the figuration of concertising elements in the fantasies and sets of ayres of William Lawes (1602-1645), and the contribution of folk-song and buffo elements to the later eighteenth-century Italo-Viennese instrumental style.  By 1952 Peart had extended his area of interest to include the evolution of the continuo song in England (1610-60) and a critical edition of the organ pieces of Matthew Locke (c.1621-1677).  His research demonstrated that music was a serious study with significant intellectual content.

Later in life his research into early music included medieval and Renaissance choral music, early opera, editions and performances of instrumental music of seventeenth-century Bologna and of English consort music for viols, as well as consort songs and solo music for the viol, including its makers, history and literature to approximately 1700.

Peart’s strength lay in his ability to negotiate ways of achieving his plans, even if he was at times unorthodox.  It has been suggested that some of his eccentricity was a strategy for dealing with university red tape, which he loathed.  Regardless of how chaotic life became in the department, there was always an underlying sense of unity.  He retired in December 1974.  An honorary fellow of the Royal College of Music, London (1957), he was awarded the first honorary doctorate of music by the University of Sydney (1980).  Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 26 November 1981 at St Leonards and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Drummond (ed), Australian Directory of Music Research (1978)
  • G. Barnes, Peter Sculthorpe: An Australian Composer’s Influence (2011)
  • Australian Journal of Musical Education, no 30, April 1982, p 63
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1980, 'Good Weekend', p 9

Citation details

Gwyneth Barnes, 'Peart, Donald Richard (1909–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 January, 1909
Fovant, Wiltshire, England


26 November, 1981 (aged 72)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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