Story: Sheppard, Doris Gertrude

Page 1 - Biography

Sheppard, Doris Gertrude

1902–1982

Pianist, singer, composer, teacher

This biography was written by Adrienne Simpson and Kerry E. Cox and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Doris Gertrude Sheppard was born in Bromley, Kent, England, on 7 February 1902, the daughter of Georgiana Baker and her husband, Charles Valentine Sheppard, a builder. The family later lived in Sydenham, London. In January 1920 Doris entered the Royal Academy of Music, London, where she studied piano with one of Britain’s finest soloists and accompanists, Harold Craxton. She also took singing lessons from several different teachers. It was unusual for a student to combine two fields of study with equal success, but Sheppard won prizes for both voice and piano and received the 1925 Dove Prize ‘for general excellence, assiduity, and industry’. In September 1923 she became a sub-professor for piano, a usual progression for outstanding students. Despite finishing her studies in the summer of 1925, she retained this position until the following year. In 1928 she was elected an associate of the Royal Academy of Music.

Doris married Thomas Arthur Duckworth, a commercial traveller, on 30 November 1929 at Maidstone, Kent. This marriage ended in divorce. Little trace can be found of her for the next 17 years, although she apparently worked in India with the Hungarian–Australian violinist Robert Pikler during the 1930s. In 1946 she resumed teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, taking the Saturday school for gifted youngsters. There she met a young New Zealand baritone, Thomas Anthony Larsen, who was studying on a rehabilitation bursary following war service. They married on 1 September 1948 at Kensington, and she accompanied him back to New Zealand in January 1949. Wellington became her new home, and although she and Larsen later divorced, she remained there for the rest of her life.

Sheppard was nearly 47 when she came to New Zealand, yet she threw herself into the musical life of her new country with the vigour of a woman half her age. She soon became a national artist for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service and was heard regularly on radio, both as an accompanist and soloist. Her teaching credentials attracted students and her talents were put to good use by organisations such as the New Zealand Opera Company. She acted as vocal coach for several of the company’s productions, including the famous 1961 Tosca. A versatile musician, she played jazz as easily as classical piano and was also adept at accompanying herself in performances of her own songs.

She achieved notable success as a composer. Her song cycles Vain questioning (1957) and The living theme (1965) were broadcast, and her orchestral overture The puff was workshopped by the National Orchestra alongside pieces by David Farquhar and Larry Pruden in 1955 and played on radio the following year. The orchestra also gave broadcast and concert performances of her City square overture in 1958 and 1959. Of her smaller works, the best known was the Romanza for piano, which won the 1952 Alfred Hill Competition, sponsored by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Two years later it was one of a select number of New Zealand compositions published with APRA’s assistance.

During the final year of her life Sheppard’s activities were curtailed by ill health, although she continued to teach until shortly before her death on 12 September 1982 in Wellington. She is remembered as a strong personality whose forthright opinions and insistence on high musical standards sometimes ruffled feathers. Her greatest enthusiasm, outside music, was her love of cats, which some acquaintances felt she carried almost to the point of eccentricity. She belonged to no particular musical circle and was not even a member of the Society of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand, despite participating in many of their meetings as a performer and composer.

For more than two decades she gave pleasure to thousands of radio listeners with her eclectic and intelligently planned radio recitals, but her most important contribution to her adopted country was as the first woman to gain a measure of national repute as a composer. By writing successfully for symphony orchestra she effectively dispelled the myth that women could only produce small-scale works for drawing-room performance. Together with the younger Dorothea Franchi and Dorothy Freed, she led the way for many other women who have made their mark as composers in New Zealand since the mid 1960s.