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13 February 2008

Don Banks: A Composer Between Australia and Europe

Don Banks Image: Don Banks  

Current discourses surrounding Don Banks are increasingly fleshing the details of his significance to contemporary Australian music. Stefanie Rauch provides a European perspective on his music, with her research focussing on his part in the legacy of Arnold Schoenberg. This approach connects Banks with various traditions, operating within and beyond the centres of his residence in Australia and Britain, with which he engaged through studies with Mátyás Seiber, Luigi Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono; their acknowledgement is useful for understanding some aspects of his music.

Were I asked to name the most accomplished Australian composer in the under 50 age group, the first name to cross my mind probably would be Don Banks. (Sinclair 1970)

With these words Don Banks was welcomed back to Australia in an article published in The Herald (Melbourne) by John Sinclair on 18th March 1970. Don Banks’s importance as a personality of Australian musical life is based not only on the fact that he was a thoroughly trained and self-reflected composer but also on his involvement in various musical institutions. Because of his enormous versatility, his music is known to millions of people worldwide and his name deserves to be known consciously.

Born on 25th October 1923 in Melbourne, Banks’s musical education started very early when he began piano lessons at the age of five. Between 1947 and 1949 he studied piano and composition at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music with Waldemar Seidel and Arthur E. H. Nickson, graduating with first-class honours. At the same time he made a living as a jazz musician. Apart from the piano he also played saxophone, violin and trombone, and made recordings with various bands.

Banks followed Nickson's advice to go overseas for further training. Like so many other Australians who were later involved in their country's cultural life – especially in the first half of the 20th century – Banks continued his studies in London. This step could well be seen as characteristic of a trend in the Australian cultural life of a whole epoch:

The sense of exile in Australia must have reinforced the image of Britain as Home; the sense of (the tyranny of) distance from the Imperial centre…must have idealized the image of European cultural wealth… (Bader 1992, 41)

The cultural connections still existing with the former colonial motherland seemed to have an impact on the development of Australia's musical life partly through young people going abroad, coming back to Australia and spreading the ideas they had learned overseas – and of course mixing them with their own. In addition, Alphons Silbermann observes that, even in the second half of the 20th century, leading positions in Australia's musical culture were often occupied either by English people or people born in Australia but with UK training (Silbermann 2000, pp. 112-117). Continuing one's education in England could therefore be regarded as some sort of ‘covert’ necessity for a young Australian artist who wanted to gain importance.

Considering these aspects, Don Banks's decision to go to London to study with Arthur Benjamin can be regarded as typical of his generation. In London, Benjamin advised him to take lessons with the Hungarian composer and teacher Mátyás Seiber, who taught him privately between 1950 and 1952. He honed his aural skills and studied theory and form while supporting himself working as a pianist in hotels and teaching.

After finishing his studies, Banks, along with other Australians living in London, such as Margaret Sutherland, founded the Australian Musical Association (Harstein 2000, p.6) . In the years following, this institution promoted Australian compositions and attended to the needs of Australian performers and composers (Noone 1989, pp. 80). The organisation aimed not only at encouraging the performance of Australian music but also at starting a library of Australian compositions1. The founding of an institution like this can be seen as part of the striving after Australia's cultural independence from Europe. An irony, however, exists here: the very activities of these artists ensured that the cultural connection between Europe and Australia still continued. The people involved in this trend – part of the first generation of Australian artists after World War Two – themselves thought it necessary to spend some time abroad. Don Banks was therefore a central figure in a generation that still had a colonial or European background, but nonetheless was involved with questions of national identity and trying to find new artistic directions for Australia.

His [Banks’s] vision for music in Australia included a high level of professionalism for Australian composers, a steering away from self-conscious nationalism and an absorption of world music which he hoped would lead to the emergence of an Australian ‘sound’. (Sitsky 2007)

Don Banks became an important figure in musical life not only through his involvement with institutional developments, but also, to a large extent, through his compositions and his teaching. As a composer, three artists in particular – in addition to Mátyás Seiber – made him aware of different musical aspects. Banks probably first encountered the theory of dodecaphony through Milton Babbitt and Arnold Schoenberg’s Variationen für Orchester op. 31 – Schoenberg’s first orchestral work using this theory and a work that Banks got to know in the summer of 1952 in Salzburg. In the same and in the following year, he was given – presumably – free private lessons in composition2 by Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence. Two years later, the final formative experience was a summer course in Gravesano (Switzerland), where Banks met Luigi Nono and got to know Schoenberg's op. 31 even better. At the end of the course each of the participants had to submit a piece, and Banks composed the Episode for Small Orchestra. In this piece and in other music from the 1950s – for example, the Three Studies for Violoncello – Banks shows his preoccupation with these varying compositional styles.

This and three further aspects were important for his development of an individual and personal musical language. Firstly, he worked as a professional orchestrator in London and also composed commercial music for cinema and television; secondly, he was an experienced jazz musician, and thirdly, he was involved in various educational activities. Although he visited Australia, his centre of life was Britain until about 1970, when he started to work at various Australian universities. But it then took another three years before he returned completely to Australia.

When Banks died on 3rd September 1980, he left 56 musical works as well as the music for a large number of films and television series, miscellaneous music for commercial purposes and the media. It is the mastery of this great variety of music, embodying so many different styles, that illustrates Banks's extraordinary ability as a composer. During his lifetime his accomplishment was recognised by numerous awards such as the Queen's Jubilee Silver Medal and a Doctorate from the University of Melbourne.



Further Links

Don Banks (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=189)


Subjects discussed by this article:

Stefanie Rauch


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