The Elder Conservatorium of Music was formally constituted in 1898 as the result of a major philanthropic bequest from the will of the Scottish-Australian pastoralist, Sir Thomas Elder, whose statue stands outside Elder Hall. The history, however, goes back further than 1898. An earlier philanthropic donation from Sir Thomas Elder had helped to establish the Elder Professorship of Music in 1883, with the first incumbent taking up the post in 1884. At the same time, Sir Thomas Elder had established endowment funds in parallel for the Royal College of Music in London and the Music Board of the University of Adelaide to support the Elder Overseas Scholarship (in Music). 1883 was also the year in which the privately owned and run Adelaide College of Music was jointly established, by the young Cecil Sharp (later to become famous as collector of folk songs) and the Leipzig-trained pianist, Gottfried Immanuel Reimann. For the first few years the new school of music at the University of Adelaide (which focussed on composition and theory) and the Adelaide College of Music (which focussed on practical training in performance) complemented each other. In 1898 the two schools were merged.
In its current form, then, the Elder Conservatorium of Music is a product of three mergers: one in the late nineteenth century (1898) with the Adelaide College of Music; one in the late twentieth century (1991), with the School of Performing Arts of the then South Australian College of Advanced Education; and one at the beginning of the twenty-first century (2001), with the School of Music of the Adelaide Institute of TAFE (aka Flinders Street School of Music). Formerly a Faculty of the University (the Faculty of Music) it is now constituted as a professional School within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Since 2002 it has been an associate member of the Association of European Conservatoires (AEC), and is also a partner school of the Helpmann Academy, an umbrella body created by the State Government of South Australia to promote collaboration between various schools of visual and performing arts.
There have so far been only seven incumbents of the Elder Professorship of Music, all of whom have also served as Director and/or Dean of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and have provided the artistic and academic leadership for the institution: Professor Joshua Ives (1884–1901); Professor Matthew Ennis (1902–1918); Professor Dr. E. Harold Davies (1918–1948); pianist and arts administrator, Professor John Bishop, OBE (1946–1966); the tenor, Professor David Galliver, AM (1966–1983); German conductor, Professor Heribert Esser (1986–1993); and composer, Professor Dr. Charles Bodman Rae (since 2001). Since the late 1970s the administrative position of Director of the Conservatorium has from time to time been occupied by a Staff member other than the Elder Professor of Music. In this category can be included: the clarinettist, David Shepherd; the pianist, Clemens Leske; the horn player, Patrick Brislan; and the pianist, David Lockett. Since 2010 the Director has been the noted choral conductor, Carl Crossin, OAM.
In 1886, Professor Ives established the first Australian public music examinations system, modelled on that of the Guildhall School of Music in London. This directly led to the establishment of the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). In 1898, through the Elder Conservatorium, the University of Adelaide was the first in Australia to establish regulations for the degree of Doctor of Music (DMus), and in 1902, Edward Harold Davies was awarded the first Australian doctorate of music. In 1918 the University became the first in Australia to award a doctorate in Music to a woman, Ruby Davy. In addition to Davies and Davy, recipients of the DMus award have included: Tristram Cary, OAM; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBE; Graeme Koehne; Bodman Rae; David Lockett, AM; and Ross Edwards, AM.
In addition to the Elder Professors, many distinguished composers and performing musicians have been members of staff, including: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (composition fellow); Prof. David Cubbin (flute); Clive Carey (singing); Jiří Tancibudek (oboe); Gabor Reeves (clarinet); Beryl Kimber (violin); Clemens Leske (piano); James Whitehead (cello); Lance Dossor (piano); Richard Meale (composition); Tristram Cary (electronic music); Janis Laurs, cello; Keith Crellin, OAM (violist, resident conductor and head of strings). In the 1990s Prof. Andrew McCredie held a personal chair in musicology. The Australian String Quartet was established in 1985 and since 1991 has been quartet-in-residence at the Elder Conservatorium. In 2011 a new contemporary music ensemble, the Soundstream Collective, was established as ensemble-in-residence.
The Bishop years are generally considered to have been some of the most exciting and progressive in the history of the Elder Conservatorium, with initiatives such as the appointment of the University of Adelaide Wind Quintet, and the establishment of the Adelaide Festival of Arts (of which Bishop was the inaugural Artistic Director). The years since the appointment of Bodman Rae in 2001 have also witnessed transformational changes that have re-established the position of the Elder Conservatorium as one of Australia's leading music academies. In 2005 the Elder Conservatorium received a Classical Music Award (from the Australasian Performing Rights Association) for "outstanding contribution by an organisation" (the only Australian music academy to have won such an award), in recognition of its music program for the 2004 Adelaide Festival of Arts (curated by Bodman Rae). In 2007, 2009 and 2011 the Elder Conservatorium hosted the National Music Camp (Australian Youth Orchestra's annual summer school, founded by Bishop).
In 2010 the Australian federal government, through the Australian Research Council, carried out the first comprehensive assessment of research in all Australian universities. The submission from the Elder Conservatorium of Music was assessed, along with the musical research of all other Australian music academies, tertiary music schools, and music departments, in the category of 'Creative Arts and Writing' (category 19). The Elder Conservatorium submission for Music (together with the sister discipline of Creative Writing) was awarded the highest possible rating (grade 5), signifying that it "...well exceeded world standards..." for its research. It was the only Australian music academy to receive this accolade of the highest possible rating for its research.
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