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Bainton, Edgar Leslielocked

  • Michael Jones

Bainton, Edgar Leslie (1880–1956), composer and conductor, was born on 14 February 1880 at 2 Florence Villas, De Beauvoir Square, Hackney, London, the second son among the three children of the Revd George Bainton, a Congregational minister, and his wife, Mary Cave, both Londoners by birth. They moved to Coventry shortly afterwards, where Bainton started learning the piano at the age of four and made his first public appearance as a pianist at nine. At eleven he was awarded a musical scholarship to King Henry VIII Grammar School in Coventry, and at sixteen an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London, to study the piano with Franklin Taylor. He was later awarded the Wilson scholarship to study composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and won the Hopkinson gold medal in 1900 and the Tagore medal in 1901.

In 1901 Bainton was appointed to the Newcastle upon Tyne Conservatoire of Music as a teacher of piano and composition. He worked there for the next thirty-two years, becoming principal in 1912. One of his students, Ethel Frances Eales (1885–1954), became his wife on 31 July 1905; their two daughters, Guendolen and Helen, were born in 1906 and 1909. During this time Bainton became increasingly important in the north-east of England, particularly as conductor of the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra and as pianist and annotator of programme notes for the Newcastle chamber music society. Works by Bainton such as The Blessed Damozel, a setting of D. G. Rossetti's poem, and Prometheus were performed at major local festivals in 1907 and 1909. Also during these years he came into regular contact with a group of Georgian poets, including Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Gordon Bottomley, and Robert Trevelyan, who provided texts for his songs and operas.

In the summer of 1914 Bainton was intercepted in Germany en route for the Bayreuth Festival, which he visited yearly, and interned in a prison camp for British civilians in wartime Germany at Ruhleben, near Berlin. During the next four years he took charge of all the musical activities in the camp, from conducting orchestral concerts and supervising music examinations to writing music for productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. Early in 1918 he was invalided out to The Hague because of ill health, and on 8 December 1918, shortly after the armistice, he became the first British conductor to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in a concert of all British music.

During the 1920s Bainton's reputation as a composer continued to rise, with works such as Three Pieces for Orchestra, Eclogue, and the Concerto fantasia being performed at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra concerts. Commissions were completed for the Three Choirs Festival, and his orchestral rhapsody Epithalamion was featured by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in its festival of British music in 1931. He was also one of the first recipients of the Carnegie Trust's British music awards, for his choral symphony Before Sunrise in 1917 and for his Concerto fantasia in 1920. His work as a teacher, lecturer, adjudicator, and conductor was officially recognized with the award of a fellowship of the Royal College of Music and an honorary doctorate of music from Durham University, both in 1934.

In 1934 Bainton was appointed as director to the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, Australia, and he remained in that country until his death in 1956. In addition to fulfilling his duties as director, he was much in demand as a conductor of the recently founded Australian Broadcasting Corporation Sydney Symphony Orchestra and introduced much new British music to Australia. The climax of his career was the highly successful production of his opera The Pearl Tree by the conservatorium opera school in Sydney in 1944. After retirement in 1946 he continued in his career as conductor, teacher, and composer, even venturing into film music for a brief time.

It is as a composer that Bainton deserves primarily to be remembered. His music is characterized by richness of feeling, lyricism, and imagination inspired by literary sources. His orchestration in particular is noteworthy for its delicate clarity of expression, which reflects the composer's sensitivity and disciplined mind. His first symphony, Before Sunrise, for contralto, chorus, and orchestra, is a setting in four movements of poems by Algernon Swinburne dating from 1907. His second symphony of 1940 is more innovative, being cast in one extended movement in twelve sections. In his third symphony, completed in 1956, shortly before his death, Bainton reverted to a four-movement structure, but its character reflects the ruggedness of the Australian landscape that Bainton had come to know so well on his many walking tours.

Bainton's three extant chamber works are also of interest. His string quartet in A was completed in Ruhleben in 1915 as a work in three movements, of which the third returns to the theme and mood of the opening; in 1920 this work was heavily revised, and a finale added. The viola sonata of 1922 is one of Bainton's very finest works and also one of the great viola sonatas of its time. Written in three movements, it displays a dark and autumnal mood, with considerable harmonic flexibility and simultaneous use of contrasting metres in the second movement, which combines the functions of slow movement and scherzo, and in the finale, where the opening folk-song-like theme of the second movement's unaccompanied viola melody floats above the military ostinato of the piano part, again with simultaneous contrasting metres, a most striking and original concept. The cello sonata of 1924, also in three movements, is less innovative but still striking in its lyricism and harmonic sensitivity; the second movement's final cadence is original.

Among Bainton's three large-scale operas, Oithona (after Ossian) was completed in 1905 and first performed at the 1915 Glastonbury Festival but was later withdrawn. His two most important operas were The Crier by Night (libretto by Gordon Bottomley) of 1912, broadcast from Australia in 1942, and The Pearl Tree (libretto by Robert Trevelyan) of 1925, premiered at the New South Wales Conservatorium opera school in 1944. Both works utilize the leitmotif method of composition familiar to Bainton from hearing Wagner's operas during his annual visits to the Bayreuth festivals. Bainton also composed several works for chorus and orchestra, inspired by the excellent standard of choral singing throughout Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. These are The Blessed Damozel of 1907, Sunset at Sea (Reginald Buckley) of 1910, The Vindictive Staircase (W. W. Gibson) of 1913, A Song of Freedom and Joy (Edward Carpenter) of 1920, The Tower (Robert Nichols) of 1924, The Dancing Seal (Gibson) of 1926, and A Hymn to God the Father (John Donne) of 1926.

Literary connections form an important feature of Bainton's shorter orchestral works, notably in Pompilia of 1903 and Paracelsus of 1904 (both inspired by Robert Browning), The Golden River of 1908 (John Ruskin), Prometheus of 1909 (Shelley), and Epithalamion of 1929 (Edmund Spenser). Bainton wrote over 100 each of songs and partsongs but only four church anthems, of which 'And I saw a new heaven', completed on 13 June 1928, remains his single most famous work. Edgar Bainton died while taking his regular swim at Point Piper Beach, Sydney, on 8 December 1956.


  • H. Bainton, Remembered on waking (Sydney, 1960)
  • M. Jones, ‘E.B.—musical and spiritual traveller’, British Music, 12 (1990)
  • D. Tunley, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart [entry on Bainton]
  • [Edgar Bainton Society], 12 July 2000, 1 March 2002
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.


  • BL
  • Mitchell L., NSW, papers, letters, diaries, MSS, ML MSS 452
  • Australian Music Centre, Sydney
  • New South Wales Conservatorium Library, Sydney
  • NL Aus.


  • Screensound, Canberra


  • Screensound, Canberra


  • double portrait, photograph, 1942 (with Helen Bainton)
  • A. Fleischmann, bust; formerly in New South Wales Conservatorium, 1944
  • photograph, repro. in Bainton, Remembered on waking

Wealth at Death

£8899 6s. 3d.: 28 May 1957, supreme court of New South Wales (probate division), Australia

S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)