History of the Conservatorium

The distinctive castellated Gothic shape of the Conservatorium today derives from Governor Macquarie’s unauthorised decision to commission convict architect, Francis Greenway, to design a stables building for a projected Government House. The stables were completed in 1821, and their “useless magnificence” was strongly criticised by Commissioner Biggs from the UK, Government House itself not being completed until 1847. The decision in 1912 to convert the stables to a Conservatorium was also not without controversy. Some wanted a restaurant, the dispute being characterised by one wag as the battle of the sonata and the sausage[1]. When the State Conservatorium of Music was officially opened on 6 May 1915, its stated aims were “providing tuition of a standard at least equal to that of the leading European Conservatoriums”. The reference to European standards and the appointment of a European director caused criticism, but it subsided when the first director, Belgian conductor and violinist Henri Verbrugghen arrived. “A regular dynamo” according to Joseph Post, he persuaded the NSW Government to fund Australia’s first full-time orchestra, made up of a mixture of professional players and Conservatorium students. Enrolments in 1916, the first year of teaching, were healthy with 320 “single-study” students and a small contingent of full-time students, and the first diploma graduations occurred four years later. A specialist high school (theConservatorium High School) soon followed in 1918, establishing a model for music education across the secondary, tertiary and community sectors, which has survived to this day. Verbrugghen was the only salaried member of staff; the teaching staff, employed on a variable hourly rate, were forbidden to teach their instrument within a fifty-mile radius of the Con.

Verbrugghen resigned in 1921, but the Conservatorium Orchestra remained Sydney’s main orchestra for much of the 1920s, accompanying international artists such as violinist Jascha Heifitz, who donated money to the Conservatorium library for orchestral parts. Under Verbrugghen’s successor, Dr Arundel Orchard (director from 1923-1934), tensions emerged with another emerging professional body, the ABC Symphony Orchestra (later to become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), driven by the young, ambitious and energetic Bernard Heinze, Director General of Music for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

The directorship of Dr Edgar Bainton (1934-1948) saw the foundation of the Conservatorium Opera School in 1935. However, it was under Sir Eugene Goossens (director from 1948-1955) that opera at the Conservatorium made a major contribution to what Roger Covell has described as ” the most seminal years in the history of locally produced opera…”, producing major works including his own Judith with a young Joan Sutherland in the title role. Goossens was then the most significant musician to have worked in Sydney. Richard Bonynge, who graduated in 1950, said Goossens turned the Conservatorium into a genuine world-class institution, lifting standards and exposing students to sophisticated twentieth century scores.

The directorships of Sir Bernard Heinze (1957-1966) and Joseph Post (1966-1971) saw more salaried staff appointments, the opening of the Newcastle Branch Conservatorium and building expansions on the northern and eastern sides of the Greenway building.

Under Rex Hobcroft  (director from 1972-1982), the Conservatorium took on the modern educational profile recognisable today with the focus on tertiary students in degree programs and a flourishing visiting artists program. Hobcroft enunciated a vision of the Conservatorium as a “Music University” in which a range of specialised musical disciplines—performance (both classical and jazz), music education, composition and musicology—enriched each other. The next two directorships, that of John Painter (1982-1985) and John Hopkins (1986-1991), took the Conservatorium up to its most challenging structural change since the early 1970s in its amalgamation with the University of Sydney in 1990 as part of the Dawkins higher education reforms. The responsibility of meeting these challenges was carried on by Associate Professor Ronald Smart (principal from 1992-1994).

During the tenure of Professor Sharman Pretty (principal and dean from 1995-2003), the Conservatorium overcame longstanding accommodation problems, which had seen it occupy unsuitable city office space for several decades. In a re-enactment of the “sonata and sausage” battle 90 years earlier, some wanted the Greenway Building restored as a visitors centre for the Botanic Gardens; but in 1997 Premier Bob Carr announced a major upgrade of the existing site, realizing the vision of Eugene Goossens of a music precinct extending from the Conservatorium to an opera house on Bennelong Point. The redevelopment added three new halls, major library facilities, sound-proofed studios, practice rooms and offices while removing 1960s additions to allow the castellated Gothic style of Greenway’s building to be seen from a distance. The extensive building process necessitated temporary relocation of some units and the Conservatorium High School to the Australian Technology Park in Eveleigh until 2001.

A final plank in the amalgamation with the University of Sydney, merging the Conservatorium and the Department of Music into a single unit, was completed under Professor Kim Walker (dean and principal from 2004-2011). An early music program and a contemporary music ensemble were introduced in 2007, and in 2008 the Conservatorium was one of ten elite music schools world wide to take part in a Musicathon in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. A combined undergraduate degree between music and medicine was introduced in 2009. Dr Karl Kramer began his tenure as Dean and Principal in April 2012 and finished in July 2015. The current Head of School and Dean, Professor Anna Reid, commenced her tenure in June 2016.

The Conservatorium celebrated its centenary in 2015.

There is more about the Conservatorium’s history in these books:

  • The Centenary of the Con: A history of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music 1915 – 2015 by Peter McCallum (published 2015, hardcover with photos, $79.95)
  • Sounds from the Stables—The Story of Sydney’s Conservatorium by Dr Diane Collins (published 2001, hardcover with photos, $10).
  • Con Brio: A Pictorial essay of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music by Meldi Arkinstall, photographs by Claude L. T. Ho (published 2004, hardcover with photos, $10)

All books and other merchandise are available for purchase from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Reception Desk.

[1] Diane Collins, Sounds from the Stables (Allen and Unwin: Sydney 2001) 12.