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Henry Tate (1873–1926)

by John Carmody

This article was published:

Henry Tate (1873-1926), musicologist, was born on 27 October 1873 at Prahran, Melbourne, son of Henry Tate, a London-born accountant, and his Tasmanian wife Eliza Ann, née Mathews. Educated at St Kilda State School, he later attended night-school while working as an office clerk. His interest in music began as an Anglican choirboy at Christ Church, St Kilda; when the University of Melbourne opened its Conservatorium of Music in 1895, he enrolled as a student under George Marshall-Hall.

Although Tate was to become a poet, essayist, teacher, composer and critic, his importance was as a thinker and writer about the essential character of Australian music. Some of his ideas have yet to be fully assimilated by contemporary composers: he collected Aboriginal music and bird calls (of which he had a catalogue exceeding one hundred); long before Olivier Messiaen drew so productively on birdsongs, Tate indicated their importance as raw material for composers. In the pamphlet, Australian Musical Resources (1917), he wrote: 'Contrapuntal methods seem in accord with the mystery of the bush with its hidden past … Effort to incorporate our bird calls … in contrapuntal combinations of all degrees of intricacy should reap a rich reward'. His extended essay was received with hostility by Melbourne's musical establishment, but was favourably reviewed in the United States of America. He also devised a 'deflected scale' (a major scale with second and sixth notes flattened) and in 1924 elaborated upon his ideas in Australian Musical Possibilities. That year he became music critic for the Age and, until his death, repeatedly stressed the importance of indigenous inspiration in music, while championing the causes of Australian musicians and musical craftsmen.

As an active member of the Australian Institute of Arts and Literature, Tate collaborated with his friends Louis Esson, William Moore and Bernard O'Dowd. Typical of the lectures he gave for the institute was the series on 'The romance of music and life'; several of his musical works premièred there, including a sixteen-part piano cycle, The Australian, first performed in 1915. He also wrote 'The Dreams of Diaz', a musical play about a mythological Portuguese discovery of Australia; his Songs of Reverie were settings of poems by Furnley Maurice. Joining Moore and Dora Wilcox in an elaboration of their play, The Dangerous Moonlight, Tate declared: 'It will be the first production of its kind here, that is, in which drama, music, poetry, art, acting, singing and dancing will be blended in one production'. In 1926 his rhapsody, Dawn, based on Australian bird calls, was performed by the university symphony orchestra. His music, however, was less interesting and accomplished than his theories.

Tate wrote a significant quantity of poetry and literary criticism. His slim volume, The Rune of the Bunyip, appeared in 1910. He published short stories in the Bulletin and the Sydney Sun, as well as in Melbourne papers. A prolific writer on chess for the Australasian (1914-15), Weekly Times (1913-14) and Leader (1912-15), he corresponded with international authorities, devised more than sixty original problems and represented Victoria in interstate competition. He was also a leading bowls player at the Hawthorn and Camberwell clubs.

Katharine Susannah Prichard, who thought highly of Tate's poetry, described him as 'a slight, cadaverous man with great luminous eyes'. Another contemporary saw him as 'one of the well-beloved, whose failures spelt sorrow and whose successes brought elation to his friends. He was a gentle and kindly soul … a patriot in the truest and finest sense of that word'. That patriotism made him hostile to the attitudes and presence of visiting English music examiners and made the 'job he had set himself nothing less than the creation of an Australian school of music'.

Survived by his wife Violet Eleanor, née Mercer — an accomplished violinist whom he had married with Presbyterian forms at Malvern on 1 September 1919 — Tate died of streptococcal septicaemia complicating tonsillitis on 6 June 1926 at South Yarra and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £41. He had no children. A posthumous volume, The Poems of Henry Tate, was published in 1928.

Select Bibliography

  • Spinner, July 1926
  • Manuscripts, Nov 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 June 1926
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 June 1926
  • Bulletin, 17 June 1926
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 July 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1932
  • H. Tate papers (State Library of Victoria and State Library of New South Wales and Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne)
  • Hince papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Tate, Henry (1873–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 October, 1873
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


6 June, 1926 (aged 52)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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