Story: Jensen, Arthur Owen

Page 1 - Biography

Jensen, Arthur Owen

1907–1997

Musician, music tutor and promoter, critic, broadcaster, composer

This biography was written by John Mansfield Thomson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Arthur Owen Jensen was born in Auckland on 5 August 1907, the son of Olaf Jensen, a motorman, and his wife, Elizabeth Ellen Burfoot. Owen was educated at Grey Lynn School and Seddon Memorial Technical College, where he studied engineering, but he soon turned to music through an initial passion for vaudeville. His greatest ambition at the age of nine or ten had been to conduct at John Fuller and Sons’ vaudeville theatre in Auckland. Piano studies followed (he eventually gained his LRSM), and by the age of 14 he was conducting the college orchestra and later leading his own dance band. As a free-lance musician he played in orchestras for silent films. He began, but did not complete, work for a BMus at Auckland University College.

On 24 March 1934, at Hamilton, Jensen married Irene Amy Millicent Scherer; they were to have three daughters. He organised popular and enterprising lunchtime concerts at the Tower Tea Rooms in Auckland and became radio accompanist for 1YA from 1935 to 1945. In 1940 he founded the Auckland String Players and the Auckland Choral Group, and in 1941 launched the spirited journal Music Ho , which appeared first in cyclostyled form, presenting important articles on composers (including Douglas Lilburn), performers, music publishing and criticism. It lasted until 1948.

Jensen was appointed specialist music tutor for the Auckland University College Adult Education Centre in 1945. From this position he gained a platform for the most influential and important achievements of his life. In 1946 he played a prominent part in the formation of the Community Arts Service, which toured exhibitions, music and drama, not only to the main cities but to remote towns such as Te Aroha and Tirau. That same year he inaugurated the Cambridge Summer Schools of Music. He invited Douglas Lilburn to talk to the students, resulting in a memorable address entitled ‘A search for tradition’. The writer and music critic Dorothea Turner described this initial school as ‘perhaps the first break in the circle of frustration...[It] was so highly representative that it seemed to be the whole musical world in miniature’. The following year (1947), Jensen began a class for composers, inviting Lilburn as tutor. Almost every composer now well known in New Zealand worked with him in those early schools.

Jensen directed the first 12 Cambridge music schools, but in 1957, following policy disagreements with Stuart Morrison, the new director of adult education, he was replaced. He moved to London, and in 1959 became adviser for the telecasts given by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli in Manchester. On his return to New Zealand the same year there began a long association with the Evening Post in Wellington as a columnist and music critic. His lively style embodied warmth and enthusiasm tempered by bouts of magisterial disapproval, with constant support for New Zealand composers and performers. This won him widespread esteem, epitomised by the presentation of the 1979 Composers’ Association of New Zealand Citation for Services to New Zealand Music. Only in his latter years did his critical perceptions falter. His regular radio feature ‘Music Ho’ attracted a large audience and in 1986 gained him the Mobil Radio Award for outstanding contributions to broadcasting in New Zealand.

Jensen’s own compositions included incidental music for many radio and television plays, although he never regarded himself as primarily a composer. His early knockabout years as a professional musician struggling to earn a living gave him an earthiness and ease of communicating with others which stood him in good stead throughout his life: ‘people are far more interesting than butterflies or postage stamps’, he once said. Above all he believed that ‘The greatest art is the art of living – exploring and discovering all the time’, a precept he followed with zest and fidelity.

Irene Jensen died in 1969. On 15 September 1978, at Paremata, Jensen married Margaret Ann MacEnulty (née Bruce). After he retired in 1987, they lived for some time on Waiheke Island before Owen returned to Wellington, where he died on 5 January 1997. He was survived by his daughters and his second wife.

Owen Jensen had a profound effect on the development of New Zealand music at a crucial period following the end of the Second World War. A memorial concert to honour him was held in Wellington on 7 May 1997, when a large audience heard musicians and ensembles associated with him. A daughter paid tribute to his love of literature, astronomy, art, science, philosophy and Eastern religions. Violinist Donald Armstrong played an elegiac Con anima , composed for the occasion by Lyell Cresswell.