Back in Baroque times there were numerous instances of intergenerational musical families. The names Bach, Couperin and Scarlatti come to mind readily. The nearest Australia came to having a musical dynasty 100 years ago was with the de Cairos-Rego family.
Patriarch George composed mainly piano and organ pieces before he directed his skills to music administration becoming founding member and inaugural secretary of the Music Association of NSW in 1912 and doing much valuable work in that capacity until his retirement in 1934. He pioneered a method of using electrical means to mature the wood of violins to produce a better tone in 1920 and this treatment was endorsed by Australian violinists Daisy Kennedy and Dagmar Thompson, and by internationally renowned violinists Elias Breeskin, Jascha Heifitz and Henri Verbrugghen. He was also granted patent number 1,510,138 by the U.S. Patent Office early in 1926 for his invention of a massage vibrator. It sounds interesting, but I know not how it was marketed.
George’s son, Rex, was a fine baritone, pianist and teacher who composed chamber music and songs many of which he premiered with the most precocious musician in the family, his younger sister Iris.
Born at the family residence ‘Windermere’ on Illawarra Road in the inner city Sydney suburb of Marrickville on 31 January 1894, Iris developed her pianism at an astonishing rate. She passed the Trinity College, London senior examination in September 1903 aged nine, a record. A month later she performed two of her piano pieces at the Palings building in Sydney and one of them, her Romance in F was accepted for publication in London.
A little later, Iris was one of a group of musicians who performed at the YMCA Hall in Sydney on 2 November when she again played her Romance. It must have been a great thrill for the youngster, particularly after finishing, when she was presented with flowers, bonbons, a doll and a selection of fairy tale books.
More thrills were to come when her parents took her on a tour of England, France, Germany and Italy during the European summer of 1905 and two years later Iris was accompanied by her mother and brother to Berlin to study piano with Alberto Jonas. They resided in an apartment building but the summer holidays were spent at a large estate owned by a family member in Poland.
On 19 March 1910, Iris gave a successful recital in Berlin before crossing to England, giving two well received recitals there then returning to Sydney where she performed Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Town Hall on 17 September.
In 1912, Iris replaced Mirrie Hill in the Salon Trio but this arrangement was brief as Iris was the piano accompanist to French soprano Antonia Dolores when they toured New Zealand and Western Australia from February 1914.
Australia & beyond
Returning to Sydney, Iris gained steady employment at the NSW State Conservatorium in 1916 where she was engaged as assistant piano teacher on a salary of 260 pounds Australian. Her modest compositional output gained performances but was limited to piano works (which were sometimes adapted for organ) and pieces for violin and piano.
Financially she was doing well and in 1928 admitted that she lived in a home “with a very beautiful garden, a glorious view of Balmoral and the (Sydney) Heads and two dogs and a cat”. This was most probably her parent’s home ‘Glenrock’ on Little Street at Mosman where she suffered the shock of her mother, Lilian, dying on 2 July 1932.
A little later Iris performed her brother’s two Intermezzi for piano during a radio broadcast by 2FC on 25 September, before boarding the RMS Ormonde in Sydney on 16 October bound for England where she found lodgings in Sussex. During the two years she stayed she had some of her piano pieces published and attended a dinner party in London hosted by Roy Agnew during which she met with Vera Bedford, Dorothy Helmrich, Gertrude Johnson and Cyril Scott but missed her father’s re-marriage at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on 21 January 1933.
Iris paid a brief visit to Germany in July 1934 before sailing to Melbourne in September and resuming her duties at the NSW State Conservatorium in October.
Inspired by a train trip to the Blue Mountains, Iris composed a Toccata for piano in 1936. It became very popular and Miriam Hyde performed it many times.
Desiring to absorb more continental music, Iris travelled as the sole passenger aboard the freighter City of Pretoria to London in January 1939. Upon her return she became a teacher at Frensham College in Mittagong, NSW where she spent the rest of her professional life. Her father, who convinced Trinity College, London to include Australian piano compositions (including those of his daughter) in their syllabus in 1942, died in a private nursing home at Mosman on 4 June 1946.
Iris lived an increasingly sequestered life before dying at Kenilworth nursing home in Bowral, NSW on 1 May 1987. She never married.
– Stephen Pleskun