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Phyllis Batchelor (1915-1999)

Random Audio Sample: Sonata : flute with piano by Phyllis Batchelor, from the CD Unearthly music

Pianist, composer and teacher Phyllis Batchelor (1915-1999) was born in Healesville, Victoria. As a child she showed talent in both music and painting. Her piano teachers included Eleanor Clapham, Harold Elvins and Waldemar Seidel. While studying with Seidel he recommended she submit a portfolio to Fritz Hart, composition teacher at the Albert Street Conservatorium, for an informal examination, after which Hart offered her a six-year scholarship to study composition with him.

Through the lessons with Seidel and Hart Batchelor developed well-rounded musicianship as a pianist and adept craftsmanship in her composing. Hart particularly guided her understanding of the relationship between words and music. Her compositional output includes many songs, chamber music - including sonatas for violin or flute and piano - and works for solo piano. The particular connection she had with text enabled her to set poetry with a great sense of color and expressive word painting.

Fritz Hart was a composer and teacher of composition for whom gender had no place. At the time Batchelor was working with Hart he was also teaching Margaret Sutherland, Peggy Glanville Hicks, Esther Rofe and Linda Phillips - women who were not censored but encouraged by Hart. Hart often said 'I can only guide you, I can't teach you. You can't teach composition, that is a gift' (Autobiography, unpublished, by Linda Phillips).

Batchelor had a career as a solo pianist and duo pianist with Douglas Gamley, Eunice Garland and Valda Johnstone. She also performed with singers such as Grace Angelau, Kathleen Goodall and, more recently, Loris Synan. On many occasions she performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was a regular accompanist for orchestral members and visiting soloists.

By her mid- twenties she begun teaching piano at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and later taught at the private Ivanhoe Girls Grammar. In the 1940s Batchelor was program coordinator on 3AR and had her own show on ABC where she presented her own compositions and those of other Australian composers. She often worked as a copyist to earn money.

Several of her compositions won awards. The song Night won a song competition sponsored by the Arts and Letters committee of the National Council of Women in 1943. The piano composition Variations on an Original Theme won an APRA award for 'Tonal work of the Year' in 1944. This set of variations was dedicated to Eunice Garland ' in appreciation of many superb performances of this work' and recorded in 1946.

In 1946 Phyllis Batchelor married violinist and conductor Ivan Pietruschka from Russia. Pietrushka was a violinist first with the 3DB orchestra under Verdon Williams and later with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. For Pietruschka she wrote and performed several violin sonatas, and they regularly played chamber music with other musicians from the MSO. Pietrushka was supportive of her career as a musician which enabled her to enjoy a family and continue performing, composing and teaching.

Batchelor's compositional language is, in the main, romantic in quality, her piano works virtuosic in style, demonstrating her own prodigious piano skills. In 1994 her Sonata for flute and piano (1972) was performed at the Second Composing Women's Festival and Conference in Melbourne and has subsequently been published by Currency Press. A larger work Isaiah 55, a setting of that text for soprano solo, four-part chorus of women's voices and piano was performed by the Tudor Choristers with Merlyn Quaife during the 20th anniversary celebration of the choir in 1982.

Other compositions by Batchelor include The Wind for soprano voice; Jenny kissed me for soprano (or tenor); Rain, Love is a sickness for tenor; The Dream Child for soprano; To a Fat Lady; I Dare not ask a Kiss; Hath no one seen my Heart and Little Boy Blue. For piano she wrote several sets of variations, and a sonata in four movements, as well as many smaller, single-movement pieces.

In June 1993 Phyllis Batchelor received the Honour Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in recognition of her services to the performing arts. She continued to teach and compose smaller works until her death in 1999.

Oxford Companion to Australian Music. ed. W Bebbington. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997
Geitenbeek, Monique - 'Composer-pianist Phyllis Batchelor: An Introduction' Sounds Australian, 41. (Autumn 1994) : 33-4.
Crotty, Joel and Makin, Tanya: Obituary in The Age, 9 November, 1999, p. 7.

© Jeanell Carrigan