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David Lumsdaine (1931–2024)

by Michael Hooper

Portrait of composer David Lumsdaine, Sydney, 1998, by Bridget Elliot

Portrait of composer David Lumsdaine, Sydney, 1998, by Bridget Elliot

National Library of Australia, PIC/11417/12 LOC Drawer PIC/11417

David Lumsdaine was one of Australia's most significant composers, whose music is best known for its close engagement with the natural world. Although he spent most of his life in England, Lumsdaine remained tied to people and places in Australia.

Lumsdaine was born in 1931 in Paddington, Sydney, into a family of professionals, farmers and clergymen that had migrated to Australia in the early 19th century. He was educated at Glenmore Road Primary School and then Sydney High School. With the death of his father in 1942 Lumsdaine's family moved to Collaroy, and it is during this time that he sought solitude by camping alone in the bushland around Sydney's north.

As an arts student at Sydney University Lumsdaine was in the circle of Professor John Anderson and, therefore, part of the early years of what later became known as the Sydney Push. Like so many other composers of his generation he found the musical prospects of life in Sydney to be limited. At the suggestion of Donald Peart, Lumsdaine moved to England in 1953, ostensibly to study with Matyas Seiber. In London Lumsdaine also studied with Lennox Berkeley, and formed a close collaboration with the Australian poet Peter Porter.

Between 1958 and 1962 he was particularly active politically, joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, becoming a member of the Direct Action Committee, and then as a founding member of the Committee of 100.

As a composer he was writing a large amount of music, and honing his craft, though he subsequently destroyed most of the music from this time. Although his role as an activist was most prominent early in his life, he continued to be politically committed.

The first compositions that remain are from the middle of the 1960s. Works such as Annotations of Auschwitz, written with Porter, and Kelly Ground, a work for solo piano, are musical works that retain the force of a socially engaged imagination. These early compositions are technically virtuosic and meaningful.

By this time Lumsdaine had founded the Manson Room at London's Royal Academy of Music and then, from 1970, he established one of Britain's early electronic music studios at the University of Durham.

His electro-acoustic composition Big Meeting records the last of the miners' galas for which Durham was renowned. In the 1970s Lumsdaine was also an important mentor for many other musicians, and one of the UK's highest-profile composers.

In 1973, with Australia's withdrawal from Vietnam and at the invitation of his friend Don Banks, he returned to Australia for the first time in two decades and, from this time until 2018, he was a frequent visitor. Although he held residencies here, such as at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he eschewed institutional settings for time with his close friends, relatives - especially his elder brothers James and Geoffrey, and his cousin Hal Wootten - and the natural world.

The years between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s were especially productive, including the composition of several large-scale works for solo piano, orchestral pieces for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, as well as music for small ensemble, including the Australia Ensemble.

In the mid-1970s Lumsdaine began practising Zen, which become very important for him. It also made composition possible. He spoke of the balance between excitement and stillness that made the moment of meditation similar to the act of composition. In the music, excitement and stillness often occur at the same time, and before and after Zen the music he composed sounds lively, life-affirming and sure.

From the 1980s, when being a composer increasingly meant personally promoting the music, Lumsdaine found success more difficult. He was always a composer who thought music had to stand for itself and he was wary of people mistaking the music for the person. Although much of his music demands commitment from its listeners, those who know his music have always admired it.

His works tend to be lengthy, and compositions were often much longer than their commissioned duration, but the music's vibrancy makes it approachable for new listeners. He stopped composing in 1996, leaving a set of completed works that are vividly heard and beautifully made.

For most of his life he also made recordings of birdsong, and some of his last major works are the published soundscapes that are aesthetically rich and ornithologically authoritative. Lumsdaine's music for instruments and voice seldom imitate the sounds of nature; the music for people is informed from his experience listening to the interactions of birds in their environments.

His music was often written for the people he knew, too, and it was shaped by friendships with musicians such as Anthony Gilbert, Ian Mitchell, Don Banks and Jane Manning.

His last years were marked by deteriorating eyesight (in part due to the long-term result of his younger years spent studying on the beach), failing hearing, unrelenting curiosity and abiding generosity.

Lumsdaine was married three times, to Margery Van Clute, Edna Perry and the composer Nicola LeFanu, with whom he spent the second half of his long life. During the 1980s they shared a position at King's College London.

In 1994 LeFanu took up the Chair of Music at the University of York and they lived in York until Lumsdaine's death.

He is survived by LeFanu, his children Sarah, Naomi and Peter, and his grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Michael Hooper, 'Lumsdaine, David (1931–2024)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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