Roy Agnew: composer, pianist, teacher

Rita Crews and Jeanell Carrigan

This book takes its title from one of the few orchestral works by Australian composer Roy Agnew (1891-1944), largely unknown in Britain despite having spent two four or five year sojourns here between the wars. As a young man he took a keen interest in the music of Scriabin and Bax when they were still considered ‘difficult’ and his style is compared to that of the former, with construction along the lines of Liszt. A brilliant pianist, his music was championed by fellow countryman William Murdoch, played by Moiseiwitsch and recorded by Walter Gieseking among others. Publishers included Augener and OUP. 

The volume, affectionately compiled by Australian musicologists Rita Crews and Jeanell Carrigan, documents Agnew’s life and music. No claim is made to analyse his works but copious music examples give a clear indication of his style. Seven Piano Sonatas form the most important part of his output, each a single movement but with contrasting sections that produce the tension associated with sonata form. Perhaps the most valuable aid to understanding Agnew’s music is the inclusion of Quick Response codes (a technique new to this reviewer) from which the music may to be heard on a smartphone. 

There are also many illustrations (a few of which appear to have originated in old newspapers or amateur snapshots and might have been omitted). I also noticed a couple of errors: Winthrop Rogers was the London music publisher, and there is a ‘p’ in ‘Hampstead’.

Sadly, shortly after being appointed to a post at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Agnew developed tonsillitis which led to septicaemia and he died in his early fifties from something that antibiotics could have cured only a few years later. This well written book encourages  investigation of the music.  

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Review by Christopher Redwood