Gordon Watson (pianist)

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Gordon Watson AM (28 February 1921 – 16 April 1999) was an Australian classical pianist and teacher. He taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music from 1964 to 1986, retiring as Head of the Keyboard Department.


Gordon Charles Watson was born in Parkes, New South Wales in 1921. He served with the Australian Imperial Force for four years in World War II.[1]

He studied piano under Laurence Godfrey Smith in Sydney, and later had advanced studies at Mills College, Oakland, California with Egon Petri (piano),[2][3][4] and Darius Milhaud (composition).[5][6]

As early as 1943, commentators such as Neville Cardus were noticing that his piano playing, while showing great skill and promise, revealed the soul of someone other than a performer (Cardus suggested composing or conducting might be Watson's natural bents).[7][8]

Watson spent some years living in the United Kingdom as a touring performer. On 22 October 1951, to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt, he performed the complete Transcendental Études in a concert at the Wigmore Hall. On that occasion he also premiered Humphrey Searle's Piano Sonata, Op. 21, written for the occasion.[4] (The sonata was loosely based on Liszt's Sonata in B minor and has been described as "probably, both the finest and most original piano work ever produced by a British composer".[9]) Watson later recorded the sonata, but the recording was quickly deleted.[10] In 1957 he was able to introduce Searle to his teacher Egon Petri.[11] Watson wrote the sleeve notes for the LP recording of classic Egon Petri performances issued by EMI in 1967 as number 7 in its Great Instrumentalists series.[12]

In 1951 he was chosen by Constant Lambert to play the difficult piano part in the premiere of his final ballet, Tiresias.[13] In late 1952 he gave the premiere performance of Darius Milhaud's 1st Piano Concerto, in London.[1]

In 1954/55, Watson commissioned a piano concerto from Humphrey Searle (his first), but was unable to be the soloist at the premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1955 as he was touring in Australia.[4] He did, however, premiere Searle's 2nd Piano Concerto, Op. 27, on 14 August 1956, at the Royal Albert Hall, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under John Hollingsworth.[9] On 20 August 1956 Watson and Thea King gave the first performance of Humphrey Searle's Suite for Clarinet and Piano.[14]

In 1958 on a visit home to Sydney he was asked by Winifred Burston, a renowned piano teacher at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to assess the young Larry Sitsky's skills. He did so, and he and Burston jointly formed the view that Sitsky would benefit from study with Egon Petri, who accepted him as a pupil. Sitsky went on to study with Petri for over three years, from May 1958 until the end of 1961.[15]

Gordon Watson played the solo piano part of Brian Easdale's score for the controversial 1960 Michael Powell film Peeping Tom.[16][17]

In 1964 Sir Bernard Heinze appointed Watson to succeed Winifred Burston on the teaching staff of the Sydney Conservatorium.[5] He was the head of the Keyboard Department until 1986, being succeeded by Elizabeth Powell.[18][19] His students included: Gerard Willems,[20] Michael Kieran Harvey,[21] Stephanie McCallum[22] (she dedicated her album "Perfume: The Exquisite Piano Music of France" to her teacher Gordon Watson),[23] Elena Kats-Chernin,[24] Carey Beebe, Barry Walmsley,[25] Brennan Keats,[26] Garry Laycock (1944–88; who also used the professional name Leon Gibbons),[27] and Peter Carthew.[28]

He was a juror for the Sydney International Piano Competition.[29]

The Australian pedagogue and composer Alex Burnard (1900–1971), a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, wrote a set of Twelve Folk-Songs Settings for Watson.[30]

Gordon Watson died in Sydney on 16 April 1999. An obituary appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 27 April.[31]


Gordon Watson was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Honours of 1987, for his services to music as a performer and teacher.[32]


Gordon Watson recorded:


  1. ^ a b The Courier-Mail, 2 January 1953
  2. ^ Sitsky: Conversations with the Composer
  3. ^ Sorabji Resource Site
  4. ^ a b c Music Web International, Quadrille With a Raven: Memoirs by Humphrey Searle, Chapter 11, "Lesley and Rosie's Pub"
  5. ^ a b The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1964
  6. ^ Music Web International, Quadrille With a Raven: Memoirs by Humphrey Searle, Chapter 15, "Two New Continents"
  7. ^ Neville Cardus, "Young Pianist of Promise", The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1943
  8. ^ The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 1947
  9. ^ a b David C F Wright, Humphrey Searle
  10. ^ The Music Parlour
  11. ^ Music Web International, Quadrille With a Raven: Memoirs by Humphrey Searle, Chapter 12, "Breakthrough"
  12. ^ World Cat org
  13. ^ Graeme Skinner, musicologist
  14. ^ Arts and Humanities Research Council
  15. ^ Current Issues in Music, Volume 2 (2008), In Search of New Worlds: A Festschrift for Larry Sitsky
  16. ^ Cast of Peeping Tom (1960) at IMDb
  17. ^ Gordon Watson at the Internet Movie Database
  18. ^ Sydney Conservatorium of Music
  19. ^ Elizabeth Powell.com
  20. ^ Southern Highlands International Piano Competition
  21. ^ University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music
  22. ^ David C F Wright, A Second Set of Pianists
  23. ^ Stephanie McCallum
  24. ^ Sydney Symphony Orchestra
  25. ^ Music Teachers Association of NSW
  26. ^ Wirripang
  27. ^ State Library of New South Wales
  28. ^ Australian Piano Teachers
  29. ^ SIPCA
  30. ^ Larry Sitsky, Australian Piano Music of the Twentieth Century, p. 76
  31. ^ Ryerson Index; Retrieved 4 May 2013
  32. ^ It's an Honour
  33. ^ Delius Society Newsletter, September 1969
  34. ^ British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content
  35. ^ Australian Music Centre, Echo: The Songs of Horace Keats
  36. ^ Symposium Records
  37. ^ Klassic Haus Restorations
  38. ^ allmusic
  39. ^ University of Newcastle