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Horace Ernest Stevens (1876–1950)

by James Griffin

This article was published:

Horace Ernest Stevens (1876-1950), by unknown photographer, c1936

Horace Ernest Stevens (1876-1950), by unknown photographer, c1936

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4325

Horace Ernest Stevens (1876-1950), bass-baritone, was born on 26 October 1876 at Prahran, Melbourne, son of Horace Stevens, dentist, and his wife Fanny, née Gittins. At All Saints Grammar School and Anglican Church, St Kilda, in 1884 he began singing in a choir which trained voices for the opening of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1891. The 'silver-voiced' soprano (who had previously sung the Youth with (Sir) Frederick Cowen in Mendelssohn's Elijah at the Centennial Exhibition in 1888) then sang beneath the central tower while the walls were 'a mass of scaffolding'. At St Paul's fiftieth anniversary the 'silver-haired' Stevens, a lay clerk since 1898, had temporarily succeeded A. E. Floyd as choirmaster. Stevens resigned as chorister only in 1949. His treble, which did not break until he was 17, had a remarkably smooth passage to bass-baritone and, for some ensuing years as choirmaster at All Saints, he alternated in both ranges, probably accounting for his 'genuine bass trill' in later stentorian days.

Having been apprenticed to his father, Stevens practised as a Collins Street dentist for twenty years. On 26 August 1905 he married Nellie Chapman (d.1931) at St Paul's Cathedral; they were to have four sons. A Victorian champion sculler (1910-11, 1911-12), he also rode, shot and played tennis. Serving as a captain in the dental corps of the 14th Field Ambulance in 1915-18, he was mentioned in dispatches on the Western Front and was invalided to England. On Armistice night, after performing impromptu in a London café, he was offered a retainer and Sir Henry Wood suggested that he make singing his career. Sending his allotment to his wife, Stevens lived off his ten-guinea fee until his début in Elijah with the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1919, after Wood had him locally demobbed. Sir Edward Elgar dubbed Stevens the greatest Elijah of his age. It was an edifying role, suited to his grave demeanour—and to English taste. With meticulously reverent preparation he performed it 500 times. Over fifteen years he sang at major oratorio festivals in Britain and the United States of America, including in his repertoire Brahms's Requiem and Bantock's Omar Khayyam, as well as standard Bach and Handel.

Moving to opera, Stevens' massive voice and torso 'created' Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Hiawatha at its lavish London premiere in 1924. He thundered as Wagner's 'best British' Wotan and rollicked as Verdi's Falstaff and Gounod's Mephistopheles, but he could irk divas like Florence Austral with his pedantic re-chalking of movement variations on the stage floor. Returning to Australia in 1934 with Sir Benjamin Fuller's Grand Opera company, on 5 December at Scots Church, Melbourne, Stevens married Ella Elizabeth Hallam, née Davis, 'the only woman builder and contractor practising in Australia'. Looking to encourage music at home, he sang in 1936 in the first Melbourne performance of Alfred Hill's Auster. At the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 1938 to 1950 he gave sometimes crotchety tuition beneath the unyielding gaze of photogravures of himself as a full-feathered Hiawatha.

Stevens was a hearty Bohemian of the Savage Club in London as well as in Melbourne where, at the fiftieth jubilee in 1944, he sang Simon the Cellarer never 'with greater vigour and clearer diction'. Survived by his wife and three sons, on 18 November 1950 he died suddenly of a coronary occlusion at his South Yarra home. After choral obsequies at St Paul's Cathedral he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Dow, Melbourne Savages (Melb, 1947)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1934, 25 May 1935, 3 Oct 1941, 22 Mar 1948, 26 Aug 1949, 20, 21 Nov 1950
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 May 1935, 5, 11 May 1937, 26 Aug 1949, 20 Nov 1950
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 May 1937, 20 Nov 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 Nov 1938, 18, 21 Nov 1950
  • Glasgow Herald, 20 Nov 1950
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Stevens, Horace Ernest (1876–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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