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Penberthy, Albert James (1915–1999)

by Margaret Seares

This article was published online in 2022

Albert James Penberthy (1915–1999), conductor and composer, was born on 3 May 1915 at Prahran, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Salvation Army officers Sydney Albert David Penberthy, from South Australia, and his New South Wales-born wife Florence Sarah, née Anlezark. James received his earliest musical instruction from his father and recalled his childhood as being ‘completely immersed in the idea of music and the arts’ (1988, 3). His parents’ calling took the family across Victoria, to New South Wales, Adelaide, and Perth. Finishing his education at University High School, Melbourne, he secured work as a schoolteacher at Mentone Grammar School. He then taught and formed orchestras at Wesley College, Perth, and later at Trinity Grammar School, Melbourne. On 30 August 1940 at Camberwell, he married Dorothy Kerin, a clerk, in a Salvation Army ceremony.

Penberthy was mobilised for duty in World War II as a seaman in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on 3 July 1942. Promoted to acting sub-lieutenant in October, he joined the corvette HMAS Bunbury in January 1943. The ship was engaged in escort duties in the South-West Pacific Area. An adverse report of his conduct—including that he was ‘not amenable to discipline’ (NAA A3978)—by his commanding officer resulted in his transfer briefly to another corvette, HMAS Doleraine (July–August), before chronic seasickness caused another posting, to HMAS Platypus berthed at Cairns, Queensland, as base ship. Platypus’s commanding officer had a better opinion of him. In May 1944 he was promoted to acting lieutenant and in November he was posted to the Naval Beach Commando (later Beach) Unit. On 10 June 1945 he headed a party of naval commandos in the invasion of Labuan Island, Borneo, but appendicitis prevented him from landing with his men. After hostilities ceased in August, he joined the Australian occupying forced in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), helping to recover prisoners of war and to affect the surrender of Japanese troops in the islands. While serving, he also began composing music, scoring marches for naval depots and writing hundreds of counterpoint harmony exercises. His RANR appointment terminated in Melbourne on 18 November 1946. The next year he commenced formal composition training at the University of Melbourne (BMus, 1952; DMus; 1974).

On 22 October 1947, having divorced a month earlier, Penberthy married Barbara Elizabeth Edith Newman, an artist, at St Leonards Presbyterian Church, Brighton Beach. Her family introduced him to the theatre administrator Gertrude Johnson, who appointed him musical director of the Australian National Theatre Movement (1947–51). During 1950 he worked closely with the dancer and choreographer Kira Bousloff on the ballet Prasnik; they soon became a couple. In May the next year he travelled overseas on a Victorian State government scholarship and trained with the conductor Sir John Barbirolli in England and the composer Nadia Boulanger in France. He returned to Melbourne in mid-1952 and soon afterwards moved to Perth. Bousloff recalled being persuaded to accompany him to Western Australia by the promise of good weather; they would marry in 1961. Finding work with the Adult Education Board at the University of Western Australia, his activities included helping to establish the Festival of Perth in 1953.

Establishing himself quickly within the local music scene, Penberthy became president of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Composers, and music critic for the Sunday Times, the latter post bringing him a degree of fame and notoriety. Of greater significance was his role as inaugural music director of West Australian Ballet (founded in 1953 by Bousloff), and his co-founding of West Australian Opera with Giuseppe Bertinazzo in 1967. In notes for his autobiography he wrote that ‘some time later’ he ‘ran from Perth’ (Reid 2019, 9). Whether this hurried departure was due to personal circumstances–his marriage to Bousloff had broken up–or to professional tensions, is unclear. Relocating to Sydney, he lectured at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. During the 1970s his work was supported by several Commonwealth fellowships.

Penberthy was one of the growing number of Australian composers who sought to reflect the spirit of the country in their music. In an article in Sounds Australian he wrote ‘Many composers have been inspired by the Aboriginal people. Those who have not are not really Australians of any kind and they sit uncomfortably in this wonderful country’ (1991, 24). While acknowledging the European heritage of his work, he noted that twenty-five of his compositions were ‘directly about the “First Australians”’ while many more were ‘inspired by the land itself’ (1991, 24). Among them was his opera Dalgerie (libretto by Mary Durack) performed at the Sydney Opera House in July 1973, prior to the venue’s official opening.

On 27 July 1974 Penberthy married the journalist Constance Bramley, also a divorcee, in a civil service at Hurstville, Sydney; the marriage would not endure. His next professional move was to the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (NRCAE), Lismore, in the mid-1970s, where he founded the School of the Arts Music Centre, precursor to the Northern Rivers Conservatorium. By then he had composed more than one hundred major works spanning orchestral, choral, and operatic pieces. His oeuvre revealed an eclecticism of compositional styles responding to the subject matter at hand, ranging from works grounded in tonal idioms, to those reflective of European polytonalism, expressionism or modernism, and, later, electronic music and jazz or popular idioms.

During the early 1980s, while on one of his ‘extended retreats from the Eastern States, back to the real Australia in the West’ (Reid 2019, 12), Penberthy began writing his memoirs. He regretted that he ‘never matched the generosity and kindness’ he had received from his personal relationships, but he also came to realise that ‘this unhappy man has had a very happy life’ (Reid 2019, 202, 12). Having retired from the NRCAE by 1981, he continued to write music for three to four hours a day, devoting his spare time to swimming, running, or cycling. He was appointed AM in 1994. In January 1999 his partner, the pianist and lecturer Isabel Doris Atcheson, predeceased him. He died on 30 March the same year at Maclean, New South Wales, and was buried in the Lower Clarence Lawn cemetery, survived by his two sons and one daughter. His character, one friend recalled, matched his ‘craggy features’; he was ‘direct, sometimes blunt, [and] totally honest … leaving behind an integrity of purpose’ (Sitsky 1999, 29).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Barkl, Michael. ‘Penberthy, James.’ In The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, edited by Warren Bebbington, 452–53. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Bousloff, Kira. Interview by Michelle Potter, 28–29 August 1990. Transcript. Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project. National Library of Australia
  • Glennon, James. Australian Music and Musicians. Adelaide: Rigby Ltd, 1968
  • Meyer, John. ‘James Penberthy.’ In Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century, edited by Frank Callaway and David Tunley, 81–87. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1978
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, PENBERTHY A J
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, PENBERTHY A J
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9748, Papers of James Penberthy, 1935–2003
  • Penberthy, James. ‘The Aboriginal Influence.’ Sounds Australian, Winter 1991, 23–24
  • Penberthy, James. Interview by Laine Langridge, 29–30 December 1988. Transcript. Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project. National Library of Australia
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Reid, David. James Penberthy: Music and Memories. [Parrearra, Qld]: Tablo, 2019
  • Sitsky, Larry. ‘James Penberthy, Composer, 1915–1999.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1999, 29

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Seares, 'Penberthy, Albert James (1915–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/penberthy-albert-james-32398/text40163, published online 2022, accessed online 3 December 2022.

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