Australian Jewish Musicians

Australian Jewish musicians have left their mark on Australian society and are continuing to shape the music of the nation. The Jewish convicts who arrived with the First Fleet surely brought their Jewish musical heritage with them from their place of origin and that of their ancestors. These first convicts, such as George Harris, the first Australian policemen, and Esther Abrahams, included petty thieves, transported with other victims of extreme poverty in Britain. We know the names of sixteen Jewish convicts who arrived in 1778, but nothing about their musical ability. As Anglican services on Sunday were obligatory for all, they may have added their voices to the singing of Anglican hymns. The first Australian Jewish musician of note was Isaac Nathan, who reached Australia in 1841.

Isaac Nathan

On the 21st December 1990, The Australian Jewish News featured an article commemorating the bicentenary of the birth of Isaac Nathan, the first professional composer and musician to work in Australia. Born in Canterbury, England round 1790, to Polish-Jewish parents, Nathan studied under Solomon Lyon, a noted Hebrew scholar and tutor, at a Cambridge school. Nathan's father was a chazan at the local synagogue. Although destined by his parents to enter the rabbinate, Nathan went to London in about 1810, where he began a career as a singer, composer and music teacher.

While in London, Nathan became friendly with the English poet Lord Byron, whose Hebrew Melodies were written at Nathan's request, so he could set them to music. Nathan worked with John Braham in composing the music. It was this work that shot Nathan to instant fame, as Hebrew Melodies proved to be very popular with the public. Some items had biblical themes, but the rest of the pieces included love songs, lyrics and five songs showing evidence of 'proto-zionist' themes.

At a fairly young age, Nathan eloped with a Christian girl whom he married, notwithstanding parental objections on both sides. It is said that she converted to Judaism and that the marriage was solemnised in the Synagogue as well as the Church. According to Sydney historian Morris Forbes, Olga Somech Phillips who published a biography of Nathan in 1940, was unable to identify the actual synagogue, but said she had seen a copy of the Ketubah (marriage contract) in the British Museum. Nathan's first wife died in London in 1824.

Over the years, Nathan acquired a name as a composer and expert in musical theory. He eventually was appointed music master to Princess Charlotte of Wales and music librarian to George IV. In addition, he was employed by William IV to perform a mysterious mission, but was never paid. The resulting financial embarrassment forced him to emigrate with his family to Australia in 1841. By this stage he had remarried after the death of his first wife and had become the father of numerous children, none of whom was Jewish.

When Nathan reached Melbourne, he immediately gave a concert which featured the Hebrew Melodies. In 1841, Melbourne had only been established five years. Not long afterwards, he settled in Sydney, where his talents won general recognition. His musical expertise was enlisted when the York Street Synagogue was opened on 2nd April 1844. He became the choir master of St Mary's Cathedral. In Sydney, Nathan organised musical performances, and composed the first opera written and produced in Australia, Don Juan of Austria (1847). Jacob Levi Montefiore provided the libretto. Nathan also wrote other operas. In addition, he studied the music of the Australian aboriginal people, writing on that subject and giving concerts.

Nathan's songs include several traditional Jewish melodies, as well as some reworked aboriginal melodies. He conducted concerts, lectured and trained choirs for the Church of England, and St Mary's Cathedral.

Perhaps not commonly known is that Nathan had a well developed sense of humour. On being asked to stand for Parliament in 1856, he wrote to the Herald:

'1st, I have neither the ambition to become a member nor the inclination to incur the expense of its attainment; 2nd, my political notions are so firmly fixed and determined that I would not have any man indulge the crotchet in his head that I would pledge myself to any particular party... I bar every attempt to force me into a promise to perform a solo or take part in canon, fugue or chorus of any composition not in unison with my theatrical notions of harmony and time.'

Nathan's life was one of exceptional vicissitudes and ended rather abruptly. When returning to his home, he died from an accident on 15th January 1864 after alighting from Sydney's first horse-drawn tram. Just as he was about to step from the carriage, he fell and was drawn beneath the wheels, sustaining fatal injuries. The accident occurred at the intersection of Pitt and Goulburn Streets. He lived nearby at 442 Pitt Street.

Nathan left behind a large family of twelve children. Although he remained a Jew, his children had him buried privately in the churchyard of St Stephen's, Camperdown, where his modest gravestone can be viewed today. In the same graveyard is buried the tragic bride who was jilted on her wedding day. Charles Dickens is thought to have modelled Miss Haversham on this unfortunate lady, in his novel, Great Expectations .

Nathan's grandson, Harry Alfred Nathan is credited with having composed 'Waltzing Matilda', but this is disputed. Archives and manuscripts from the life of Isaac Nathan can be viewed in the Mitchell Library in Macquarie Street, Sydney. Catherine Mackerras' biography supplies more details. See The Hebrew Melodist. Sydney, Currawong, 1963. In general, Australian music owes a great deal to Jewish musicians. The names of other notable Australian Jewish musicians include: Felix Werder, Larry Sitsky, Werner Baer, George Dreyfus, Sam Podjarski, and Ruby Rich-Schalit (better known for her social activities and as the founder the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The music world has benefited also from the diverse talents of Isador Goodman and Linda Phillips. Ida Ferson, a Holocaust survivor, whose widower Alex Ferson is a gifted sculptor, presented the music of Werner Baer and other Jewish musicians on Radio National for many years.

Werner Baer

Werner Baer (1914-1992) (composer, arranger and conductor) was born in Berlin of Jewish middle class parents and gravitated to music. He was playing the piano at three years of age, composing at six, playing concertos at ten, and commenced organ lessons at thirteen. He studied piano at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin with Artur Schnable, composition with Professor Bumoke and conducting with Professor Gross. Later he studied organ with Professor Straube, Cantor of the historic St Thomas' Church Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach had played in earlier years. In 1935 at the age of 21, he was appointed the youngest ever choirmaster of one of the great Liberal Synagogues in Berlin, and shortly afterwards Junior Music coach and repetiteur with the Berlin Municipal Opera. At this time he made recital tours of Germany and several European countries, as accompanist and associate artist, with Richard Tauber, Joseph Schmidt and Alexander Kipnis. However, the Nazis caught up with him and he was interned in Sachsenhausen for a short period, managing to secure his release with the help of friends and escaping to Singapore. His musical talents were immediatley recognised, and he was appointed Municipal Organist and lectured in piano, harmony, countepoint and instrumental studies at Raffles College. At the beginning of the war in 1939 he was interned again, and in 1940 sent to Australia aboard the Queen Mary with 300 other internees. On arrival, he was interned and sent to a camp in Tatura, Victoria. In 1942 he was allowed to join the Eighth Australian Employment Company (army). After the war he became involved in Australia's musical life, becoming director of the Australian Amateur Hour for eighteen months, and then joined the Sydney Savage Club in 1947, an organisation dedicated to the encouragement and support of young performers in all branches of the Arts. In 1951, he joined the ABC as supervisor of Music, New South Wales, retiring in 1979.

Among posts he occupeed are conductor of the Sydney Male choir and musical director of the Sydney Jewish choral Society. Werner Baer's contribution to Australian music is vast, and encompasses many aspects of the musical spectrum: composer, conductor, orchestrator, arranger, accompanist, pianist, organist, adjucator, broadcaster, lecturer, music critic, journalist and coach. His compositions include numerous songs, choral and liturgical works, ballet suites, piano works and film music. Of his many songs and compositions the most frequently played are: Test of Strength, Life of the Insects, Harvester's Song and Psalm 8. His settings for the prayers Adon Olam and Mah Tovu are the more frequently used of his liturgical compositions.

George Dreyfus (b. 1928)

George Dreyfus (composer and arranger )is regarded as one of Australia's finest contemporary composers, specialialising in film music. He was born in Wuppertal, Germany and migrated to Australia in 1939. After being educated at an orthodox Jewish school and Melbourne High School he entered the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music where he studied clarinet, cor anglais and bassoon.At this time he wrote his first arangements, which are said to reflect both his culture shock and his Jewish background. In 1947 he wrote his wind Quintet for two oboes, horns and bassoons. The next eight years were spent touring with theatre orchestras, one year with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra and then moving to Vienna where he studied the bassoon. After returning to Australia in 1956, He joined the Perth Symphony Orchestra as first bassoonist and his Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon was performed. Three song cycles followed, one of which, Songs Comic and Curious, a setting of Walter De la Mare's poems for baritone and wind quintet won the Louis Lavater prize. In 1963 he received public notices for his From Within Looking Out, a setting of a street song from Amman, for soprano, flute, vibraphone and viola, and was commissioned to write the scores of two films, Sebastian the Fox and a television series on Australian Painters. He wrote eight more film scores and developed several of them into full-length orchestral works. After spending time overseas on a UNESCO scholarship, returning in November 1968 he accepted a music followship at the Australian National University where he continued to write film scores, his Symphony no 1 and opera Garni Sands and a short children's opera, Song of the Maypole and a children's work, Jingles. In the 1990s two major operas were premiered in Germany: Rathenau, based on the life of Walter Rathenau, a German Jew who was assassinated while serving as Foreign Minister in the Weimar Republic (1993), and Die Marx Sisters, whose theme was the private life of Karl Marx in Soho, London (1996). In 1996 his musical production on the theme of the Holocaust: Surviving, had its premier performance at La Mama theatre in Carlton. His children's opera The Takeover, based on the Aboriginal land rights issue, was given its European premiere in Germany in 1997. Dreyfus's most notable music for the screen is the theme from Rush, a television series from the 1970s. He has also been very involved in the area of community music-making.

In 1991, he was awarded the Australia Council's Don Banks Fellowship and in 1992 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to music. In 2002 he was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz 1. Klasse. His memoirs: Don't Ever Let them Get You !, Black Pepper: 2009 contains essays on his music and a complete catalogue of his work . In 2011 he published Brush Off, which relates his negotiations with Opera Australia to have his opera Gilt-Edged Kid performed. He continues to compose.


Leo Rosner (1918-2008)

Leo Rosner was born in Cracow, Poland and was one of nine children from a musical family. His father was a violinist. During the Olympic Year in Berlin in 1936 Rosen was composing music and at the age of fifteen was playing the accordion in his own dance band. During the Holocaus,t Rosner played in a ghetto orchestra, meeting the drummer and guitarist Coc Schuman who was part of the “Ghetto Swingers.”The big orchestra survived largely through luck and ingenuity. He and his wife Helen were deported separately to the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp in 1943, Leo on his wedding night. The camp was run by the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth. Rosner, an accordionist credits this instrument with saving his life and had to perform for Goeth on many occasions. Eventually, the German industrialist Oscar Schindler took in Leo as “house musician” and moved him to an enamelling factory in Brinnlitz, Czechslovakia in 1945. Schindler also reunited him with his wife Helen who had been transported to Auschwitz in the meantime. After their liberation in 1945, Leo Rosner moved to Paris, where he worked with such artists as Maurice Chevalier, Mistingett, George Ulmer and the brilliant guitarist Django Reinhart.

In 1949 Rosner came to Australia and joined Denis Fairington’s Orchestra in Melbourne. They played for social events, radio, television and made records. Rosner played for every occasion as well as for the Jewish community. In the 1970s, Rosner and his wife opened a reception house in Elsternwick. Rosner continued to play music all over Melbourne till his mid 80s. Stephen Spielberg consulted him during the production of “Schindler’s List” in 1993. Many of his records are in the National Library of Australia.


Larry Sitsky

Larry Sitsky was born in 1934 of Russian Jewish parents in Tientsin, Northern China. He came to Australia when he was seventeen. and studied at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music with Winifred Burston for piano and Raymond Hanson for composition, graduating in 1955. Subsequently, he studied in San Francisco from 1958-61 with Egon Petri, returning to Australia to join the staff of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. In 1965, a Myer Foundation Grant gave him the opportunity to research the music of Ferruci Busoni. In 1966 he was appointed head of keyboard studies at the Canberra School of Music, and in 1978, head of composition and electronic music. In 1977 he visited Russia as part of the Australia-USSR Cultural Exchange Programme.

Sitsky has been attached to the Canberra School of Music, at the Australian National University for many years. He is a brilliant pianist and prolific composer with an international reputation. His opera Lenz was one of the pair of one act pieces to become the first Australian opera presented at the Sydney Opera House in the 1970s. The opera, which opened for a single night, was The Affair, by Felix Werder, and the libretto was by Leonard Radic. Their appearance was the outcome of a set of commissioned operas over which there has been a considerable debate for some years. One of the commissioned operas that was not produced was by George Dreyfus. The latter continues to compose and perform, and has been on occasions joined by his son.

Sitsky's eclectic background is reflected in his diverse interests and influences which include the folk music, spirtualism and philosophies of Judaism, Eastern Europe and Asia, Romanticism, nineteenth century composer pianists (Chopin and Liszt), Bach, Beethoven and Bartok, and the Second Viennese School. These diverse influences have resulted in a great variety of compositional styles ranging from the aggressivley avant-garde (String Quartet No, 1, 1969) to the neo-Romantic (Trio, No. 4, 1986).

Sitsky's most significent output is dramatic music, piano and chamber music, and concertos. He is prolific in all genera and is one of Australia's most commissioned composers. In addition, he has written three books on piano music and published a large number of articles. Larry Sitsky has established himself as one of the major Australian composers of his generation. Some of his works include:

  • Fall of the House of Usher
  • Apparitions
  • Violin Concerto
  • Mysterium Cosmographicon
  • Concerto for Two Solo Pianos
  • Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Orchestra
  • Sinfonia for Ten Players
  • Music in the Mirabella Gardens

More details on Larry Sitsky and several other Australian Jewish musicians can be found in the Oxford Companion to Australian Music and the Currency Companion to Australian Music .


Anderson, John Henry. The Ways of the Hebrews. E. Elland's Music Saloon, Sydney, 1844? 5p. A selection of Hebrew melodies as sung at the consecration of the Sydney Synagogue, arranged for pianoforte.

Ashton, Thomas L. Byron's Hebrew Melodies. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972, 234p. Includes text of the Hebrew melodies and information about Isaac Nathan who set Byron's poems to music.

Australian Zionist Youth Council. Songs of Israel. The Council, Melbourne, 1959, 6lp.

Bergman, George Frederick Jack. Isaac Nathan, Father of Australian Music. B'nai Brith Bulletin, vol.7, no.3, April 1959, pp.3-5 and 13-15.

Bertie, Charles Henry. Isaac Nathan: Australia's First Composer. Foreword H. Verbrugghen, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1922, 24p. Lecture delivered at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney.

Bishofswerder, Boaz.. Mi Addir, and, Sheva B'rochoth with the accompaniment of the piano or organ Sydney, Archive of Australian Judaica, University of Sydney Library, 1996. Published with a grant from the Ethnic Affairs' Commission.

Fantasia Judaica with the accompaniment of the piano or organ and flute. Sydney, Archive of Australian Judaica, University of Sydney Library, 1996. Published with a grant from the Ethnic Affairs' Commission.

Brasch, Rabbi Rudolph. Australian Jews of Today. Includes George Dreyfus, Isador Goodman and Herbie Marks.

Burwick, Frederick (ed.). A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern , by Isaac Nathan and Lord Byron. Co-ed. Paul Douglass, University of Alabama Press, Thscaloosa, 1988, 246p. Accompanied by cassette tape and the songs.

Callaway, Frank (ed.). Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century Co-ed. D.E.Unley, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1978, 248p. Contains chapters on George Dreyfus, Larry Sitsky and Felix Werder.

Came, William Albert. A Century of Harmony. The Official Centenary History of the Royal Philharmonic Society Melbourne, 1954, 3O5p. Came was the assistant secretary of the Society.

Cohen, Rabbi Francis Lyon Adon Olam Sydney, 1928, 9p. A mediaeval Hebrew hymn put into English and set to music: a cappella.

Ancient Musical Tradition in the Synagogue In Proceedings of the Musical Society 1892-1893, Sydney, 1893.

The Borrowed Element in Jewish Music. Eastern European Fund Souvenir Programme, pp. 21-2 and 25,1928.

Dreyfus, George.The Last Frivolous Book. Sydney: 1984 (autobiography).

Forbes, Morris Z . 'Isaac Nathan's Bicentennial', The Great Synagogue Journal, v.46, no.5 (June 1990), 10.

Nathan, Isaac, 1792-1864. The Aboriginal Father: a Native Song of the Maneroo tribe /[music] :versified from the original words by Mrs E.H. Dunlop ; the melody as sung by the Aborigines by I. Nathan. Sydney,T. Bluett [1844?]

The Aboriginal Mother [music]/ poet Mrs. E.H. Dunlop; composer I. Nathan. [Sydney : s.n.,between 1838 and 1845] .

Sitsky, Larry. Larry Sitsky's Rythms, Cords & Elbows: Piano compositions from his Century Collection /[music]:edited by Ben Thorn. Sydney, Currency Press, 1997.

Wood, Elizabeth, "George Dreyfus', The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, V, p. 634.

Links from jewishaustralia.com with information on Australian Jewish music

See also Albrecht Duemling's Uncovering Traces of German Speaking Refugee Musicians in Australia


Comments on contents to Marianne Dacy.