Page 1: Biography
Austin, Louis Daly Irving
Pianist, music teacher, conductor, composer, critical gadfly
This biography, written by John Mansfield Thomson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Louis Daly Austin was born on 20 February 1877 in Kensington, London, England, the son of Wilhelmina Jemima Robinson and her husband, Louis Frederic Austin, a successful journalist who had been a secretary and literary associate of Sir Henry Irving. The actor became godfather to Louis junior, who added Irving to his forenames. This association gave him entrée to the London theatrical world during its golden age in the late 1890s.
Louis was educated at St Paul's School, London, where he apparently played truant in order to attend concerts and theatres. His exasperated father sent him to schools of the Moravian Brethren in Germany and Switzerland. In 1893 he returned to London where eventually he taught music. He had learned the piano since boyhood and had acquired a widespread knowledge of the styles and achievements of the leading concert pianists of the day.
On 8 November 1906 at Eastry, Kent, Louis Austin married Hilda Emily Thomas, a licensed victualler's assistant at the Railway Hotel in Bromley. The couple emigrated to Australia in 1908. Louis played for silent films in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1909, then in an open-air cinema at Manly, near Sydney. Here his gifts in improvisation came to the fore. On one occasion, he later related, a southerly buster sprang up and blew away all the music. The orchestra stopped but he played on, being rewarded by an offer to become pianist at the new King's Theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The Austins arrived in 1910. After two years in Christchurch they moved to Wellington, where Louis became pianist-conductor of 'A Grand Symphony Orchestra' – cornet, violin and piano – which played for a cinema in the old skating rink in Vivian Street. On crowded nights the screen was placed in the middle of the rink and patrons sat on both sides, those behind it holding mirrors to correct the image. Austin's career took him to most of the cinemas in and around Wellington. It reached its peak when he became musical director of the De Luxe Theatre (later the Embassy). The cinema had excellent acoustics, and opened in Wellington in 1924. In this venue an orchestra of 14 players presented much of the classical repertoire, under Austin's direction. In 1926, when the orchestra was replaced by a Wurlitzer organ, he left for Dunedin and a position at the Octagon Picture Theatre.
Austin achieved the highest standards as a musical director and pianist. He also left invaluable accounts of what it was like to be at the centre of the chief musical activity of the day. But with the advent of the 'talkies' he was obliged to pursue an alternative career. He found this in music journalism: for nearly 40 years from 1929 he contributed a weekly column entitled 'Thoughts about music' to the Dunedin Evening Star over the initials 'LDA'. He also became New Zealand correspondent for two overseas newspapers, and was an indefatigable writer of provocative letters to the editor on a variety of subjects.
Austin's musical taste was anchored in the styles and composers of his youth. This was reflected in his own compositions – such as 'Romance' (winner of the 1946 Charles Begg and Company annual competition), 'Two improvisations' (1948 winner) and 'Valse impromptu' (winner of the 1953 Auckland Competitions Society prize) – some of which were performed in New Zealand by eminent visiting pianists. Most music after the romantics was anathema to him. He believed nothing worthwhile had been written in chamber music since Brahms, and he idolised Chopin as the greatest of all composers. He was proud to be classed as 'parochial and Victorian', and never ceased browbeating contemporary composers. New Zealand composers such as Douglas Lilburn came to regard the first performance of a new work as a failure if it did not provoke an angry letter from LDA. Although regarded by some as a 'trenchant and provocative' critic, Austin could more accurately be described as obsessionally retrogressive.
Austin's recreations were chess, billiards and walking. He had a slim, upright figure, with plentiful grey-black hair and a grizzled beard, a whimsical mouth and sharp mischievous eyes, usually hidden behind dark glasses, worn even inside. His most enduring contributions to New Zealand music were as a teacher – Lola Johnson was his best-known pupil – and as a leading (and highly paid) figure in the era of silent films, both as pianist and conductor. He died in Wellington on 7 April 1967 at the age of 90, survived by his wife, Hilda, three daughters and two sons.