Australian musicologist, author, critic and educator Roger Covell has died in Sydney at the age of 88. The Australia Ensemble, which Covell co-founded alongside Murray Khouri, and the University of New South Wales, where Covell was Emeritus Professor, paid tribute to Covell’s “immeasurable” contribution to Australian music in a statement on its website.
Roger Covell (1931–2019)
“His achievements and honours are many, and contributions even more extensive, establishing UNSW Opera in 1968, the commissioning of dozens of Australian works for opera and chamber ensemble performance, and championing works unknown to Sydney audiences,” the statement said. “Those fortunate enough to have experienced Roger as an academic, colleague, critic, mentor, and generous host have undoubtedly marvelled at his ability to bring vivid colour to language, and enliven the musical life of Australia. We are forever indebted. UNSW and the Australia Ensemble extends its sympathies to Roger Covell’s family.”
Covell was born in Sydney in 1931 but grew up in Queensland and worked as a journalist with the Courier Mail during his studies at the University of Queensland, returning to the newspaper in 1955 after several years in Britain.
Covell taught at the University of New South Wales from the 1960s, establishing the music school, the Australia Ensemble, the Grainger Singers – a consort led by Gerald English – and the chamber opera company UNSW Opera, which launched in 1968 with a performance of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Covell was Head of School until his retirement in 1996.
Covell was the chief music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald for four decades, beginning in 1960, and his 1967 book Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society is considered a benchmark in Australian musicology, with a revised edition published in 2016. He also wrote libretti for several works by Peter Sculthorpe.
Covell was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1986, awarded the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing in 1993, the Long-Term Contribution to the Advancement of Australian Music at the AMC and APRA AMCOS Classical Music Awards in 2006 and Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award, presented by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Friends of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, in 2013.
The Australian Music Centre has echoed the sentiments expressed by the Australia Ensemble. “The staff and the board of the AMC would like to express our deepest condolences to Roger’s family, colleagues and many friends.”
“He brought opera and Australian music to the fore,” remembers composer and musicologist Vincent Plush, who recorded an extensive oral history with Covell for the National Library of Australia in March this year. “We didn’t always appreciate him at home, but Covell had an international reputation among the best of them.”
“In September 1982, I found myself at the International Stravinsky Symposium in San Diego,” he says. “At a reception, I was sitting on a couch jammed between Charles Rosen and Louis Andriessen. Hearing my accent, Rosen asked where I came from. When I replied I was from Sydney, he asked if I knew Roger Covell. I said yes, I had been a tutor in his music department. ‘How lucky you are,’ he said, with a broad grin. ‘Roger Covell has to be one of the handful of the best writers about music on the planet.’”