Story: Page, Frederick Joseph
Page, Frederick Joseph
University professor of music, pianist, critic
This biography was written by John Mansfield Thomson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Frederick Joseph Page profoundly influenced New Zealand musical life through his teaching, writing, broadcasts and concert performances. He was born in Lyttelton on 4 December 1905, the son of David Joseph Page, a coal and produce merchant, and his wife, Olga Marguerite Smith, who was born in Lemberg, Poland (now Lvov, Ukraine). He had one sister, Olga, and two brothers, Laurie (later a double international in rugby and cricket) and Leo. The Page family had no piano until Frederick’s precocity revealed itself through his note-perfect rendition of the popular song ‘Underneath the gas light’s glitter’. Lyttelton, with a population of just over 4,000, had six piano teachers, and following lessons with his grandmother, Frederick studied with Alice Henderson, sister of the caricaturist and editor Kennaway Henderson.
He attended Lyttelton West School and in 1918 became a pupil at Christchurch Boys’ High School. At the age of 15 he began lessons with the well-known pianist Ernest Empson. Frederick’s flair for contemporary music at that time embraced the English school of Arnold Bax, John Ireland, Balfour Gardiner and Percy Grainger, but he soon moved on to Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz and Falla. The music of Frederick Delius , above all the piano concerto, then captivated him. He performed the concerto in a two-piano version with Empson in 1927, and played it on 5 December 1928 with the Christchurch Orchestral Society conducted by Angus Gunter. He persuaded the conductor of the Christchurch Harmonic Society, Victor Peters, to mount performances of Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande for choir, solo piano, brass and jazz percussion in May 1934, to enthusiastic audiences and glowing reviews.
These musical discoveries were accompanied by his absorption in the literary avant-garde through overseas magazines and books. He had begun studying law at Canterbury College in 1925, but abandoned thoughts of a legal career and enrolled as a music student in 1927. He found himself under the conservative regime of J. C. Bradshaw, with a concentration on academic analysis. For his MusB degree, conferred in 1934, he wrote at high speed an extended work for chorus and orchestra, which he described as ‘a pastiche of Vaughan Williams and Delius’. His English examiner, Percy Buck of the Royal College of Music, recommended strongly that Page be enabled to study in London. At the instigation of James Hight, rector of Canterbury University College, a special grant was made by the Senate of the University of New Zealand to a student of ‘exceptional creative ability’. Page knew he was no composer, but could not let such an opportunity pass.
In 1935 at the Royal College of Music he studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, counterpoint with his mentor R. O. Morris (whose methods of teaching harmony he admired), orchestration with Gordon Jacob and conducting with W. H. Reed. A warm friendship with Vaughan Williams continued until the composer’s death. Little of the Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, or of Stravinsky, could then be heard in London, but Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Delius and Mozart, and there was a succession of notable artists and operas. Page’s English sojourn was marked by the diagnosis and successful treatment in 1937 of hydatids, a condition which, unrecognised, had debilitated him for many years. He was nursed by a Christchurch friend of several years standing, the painter Evelyn Margaret Polson, then visiting Britain.
In 1938 he returned to New Zealand, where at St Cuthbert’s Church, Governors Bay, on 9 April, Evelyn and he were married. They rented an old colonial-style house, Waitahuna , ‘with five acres of tumbledown fruit orchard’ for 25 shillings a week: they ‘lived like kings on a pittance’, amidst friends, artists, musicians and gifted academics. (The atmosphere is captured in Evelyn Page’s luminous paintings.) In 1939 Frederick made contact with the composer Douglas Lilburn and arranged a performance in Christchurch of his prize-winning Phantasy for string quartet. This initiated a lifetime association.
Page became a temporary lecturer in music at Canterbury University College in 1941. He was unsuccessful in gaining the chair on Bradshaw’s retirement, and late in 1942 resumed his free-lance activities. He continued the lunch-hour concerts he had started before leaving for England, often joined by the pianist Noel Newson, who became the regular accompanist of the violinist Maurice Clare. After Newson’s untimely death in 1944 Page took his place. In 1945 he and Clare gave a memorable series of concerts which included works by Bach, Schubert and Mozart. Another of Page’s musical achievements was his public performance of Alban Berg’s piano sonata.
Page wrote music criticism for the Christchurch Press until 1945, when he was sacked for his uncompromising stand. The following day he learned that he had been appointed as lecturer to found a new department of music at Victoria University College in Wellington. There he abandoned the traditional textbooks, and in 1947 invited Douglas Lilburn, then working as a free-lance musician in Christchurch, to join him as a part-time tutor. Lilburn was appointed a full-time lecturer in 1949, the first composer in New Zealand to hold such a post.
In Wellington Page soon began an enterprising series of lunch-time concerts, which included many premières of New Zealand works, especially by Lilburn, and visits by notable artists, such as Lili Kraus, Isobel Baillie and Richard Farrell. Through its encouragement of composers and contemporary works, the Victoria music department, the first to be led by a New Zealander, became a beacon to the young, a powerful force within the musical community and something of an irritant to more traditional institutions. Its overseas connections were strengthened when in 1950 Page and others formed a branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Wellington. Its programmes traversed a worldwide spectrum and provided further opportunities for many New Zealand composers. Page was made a professor in 1957.
At the urging of the musicologist Richard Hoffmann, in 1958 Page visited the summer music school at Darmstadt, Germany, and the music festival at Donaueschingen. Both of these had become potent symbols of new music and attracted musicians from all over the world. The conviction of the players and the enthusiasm of the students deeply impressed him: ‘Darmstadt gave my ears a good shake-up’. On his return to New Zealand Page wrote a series of articles on the avant-garde for Landfall and gave broadcasts introducing several new composers, such as Pierre Boulez, who had also become his personal friends. In 1960 Page visited China and in 1982 he taught at the Shanghai Conservatorium.
Page retired from Victoria University in 1971. He revisited Britain and Europe several times, and began writing regularly for the New Zealand Listener in 1975. His column rapidly became a focal point of his life. He encouraged an open-minded attitude to contemporary music, an appreciative and discriminating assessment of the distinguished artists who visited New Zealand, and a greater awareness of native gifts and talents. His friendship with the Australian pianist Roger Woodward led to his serving on the jury of the Sydney International Piano Competition in 1982. No New Zealand honours ever came Page’s way, but the Polish government awarded him an order of merit in 1970.
The Page house at 20 Hobson Street, Thorndon, became a mecca for musicians and artists of every kind. The partnership between painter and musician had created an ambience of a remarkable warmth and spirit, well captured in a television documentary about the Pages screened in 1982. Frederick Page died suddenly at home on 29 November 1983, leaving his widow, Evelyn, a daughter and a son.
Page’s personality had elements of the gadfly – he loved needling individuals and institutions he considered pretentious. He never ceased to provoke the examiners from the English colleges of music, and his barbs could irritate many contemporary New Zealand composers. Recorded music was anathema to him, but in his latter years his extreme attitude softened. Above all, his dedication to music and the other arts, especially painting, sustained and fired him, as did his contact with philosophy, largely through a long friendship with Professor George Hughes of Victoria University. His combination of qualities and gifts has proved unique in the musical life of New Zealand.