Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Summers (1839–1917)

by Robin S. Stevens

This article was published:

Joseph Summers (1839-1917), musician, was born at Charlton Mackrell, Somerset, England, youngest son of George Summers, mason. He was a chorister at Wells Cathedral and studied under H. J. Gauntlett and W. Sterndale Bennett; he fulfilled the requirements of the bachelor of music degree at the University of Oxford about 1863, but it was not conferred until April 1887. He composed many hymn tunes and anthems and was organist at St Andrew's College, Bradfield, from 1861; Holy Trinity Church, Weston-super-Mare, in 1864; and St Peter's, Notting Hill, London, in 1865. On 21 July 1863 at the parish church of St George, Bloomsbury, he married Constance, daughter of William Henry Summers, a solicitor.

In 1865 Summers and his wife migrated to Melbourne where his brother Charles was making his name as a sculptor. He soon won renown both as pianist and as composer. He held posts as organist at St Peter's, Eastern Hill, in 1868-79 and at All Saints, St Kilda, until 1896; he was also organist for the Melbourne Philharmonic Society in 1869 and its conductor in 1872-74, and organist for the Metropolitan Liedertafel in 1882-83. He became an examiner of music teachers under the Board of Education in 1867. As inspector of music in the Education Department from 1878, he advocated the staff system of notation and opposed the Tonic Sol-fa method of teaching music, then being propagated by Dr S. McBurney. Summers visited England in 1887 and reported on music in elementary schools in London for the Education Department. In December 1887 he was admitted to the degree of Mus. Bac. (ad eund.) by the University of Melbourne and in March 1890 the degree of doctor of music was conferred on him by the archbishop of Canterbury.

A mining speculator, Summers had become insolvent in 1872 and again in 1891, when he forfeited his post as music inspector. Upon obtaining a certificate of discharge, he applied for reinstatement but was accused of misappropriation and other irregularities; after an inquiry in November, the minister of education decided not to reappoint him. In 1893 he sued the Age newspaper in vain for £500 for printing a satirical review of one of his musical productions. Next year he took charge of the Melbourne examination centre of Trinity College of Music, London. He was also an examiner in music for the Tasmanian Council of Education, the University of Tasmania and the University of Adelaide.

In early 1897 Summers moved to Perth, Western Australia. Late in 1899 he was commissioned by Fr James Duff to compose music for a dramatized version of Milton's poetry, to be called 'The Two Worlds'. Summers completed twenty-seven pieces of music, which he assessed at £10 10s. each, but Duff had already turned to another composer; in a court case in March 1901 Summers won public performing rights, but in August he failed to obtain payment from Duff of money which he claimed was still owing to him. He continued to compose and to teach music in Perth and under his conductorship a Philharmonic Society and a Liedertafel were established. In 1910 he published Music and Musicians: Personal Reminiscences. Aged 78, he died of heart failure on 10 October 1917, predeceased by his wife in April 1901 and survived by a son and a daughter. He was buried in the Anglican section of the Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lightfoot, The Music of the Methodist Hymn-Book (Lond, 1935)
  • W. A. Carne, A Century of Harmony (Melb, 1954)
  • A. H. Kornweibel, Apollo and the Pioneers (Perth, 1973)
  • Royal Commission on Education, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1884, 3 (47)
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 6 Jan 1880
  • Australasian Schoolmaster, Jan 1894
  • Australasian, 13 July 1872, 30 May 1891, 15, 22 July 1893
  • Musical Herald (London), Nov 1890
  • Age (Melbourne), 6, 13, 28 Nov 1891
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 2, 5 Mar, 20, 23 Aug 1901
  • M. T. Radic, Aspects of Organised Amateur Music in Melbourne 1836-1890 (M. Mus. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968)
  • Education records (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Robin S. Stevens, 'Summers, Joseph (1839–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Charlton Mackrell, Somerset, England


10 October, 1917 (aged ~ 78)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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