Page 1: Biography
Violinist, orchestral leader
This biography, written by Peter Averi, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Vincent Aspey, popularly known as Vince, was the first leader of New Zealand’s National Orchestra. He was born in Hindley, Lancashire, on 5 January 1909, the second of two sons of Thomas Aspey, a coalminer, and his wife, Alice Berry. The family came to New Zealand in 1911 and settled in Huntly.
At the age of seven Vincent showed signs of musical talent, which over the next two years led him to successfully pester his mother to buy a violin he had seen in a second-hand shop. His first lessons were with Allen McLachlan, a Hamilton violin and cello teacher who came to Huntly regularly to play in the picture theatre. With Herbert Farrimond (‘Uncle Bert’) at the piano, Vincent was soon playing regularly in the Huntly theatre for a five-shilling fee. He appeared in local concerts, of which the most notable was a performance at a civic reception for the governor general, Lord Jellicoe.
Aspey was educated at Huntly School, but this was of secondary importance to his dual passions for music and fishing. His daily routine included violin practice and fishing in the nearby stream. (Later in life his fishing exploits became widely renowned, especially among visiting overseas musicians.) The headmaster eventually advised the family that having reached standard five Vincent might as well leave: he had learned everything he needed to know, and music would always be his chief interest. Alice Aspey had already made it clear to the school that her son’s hands were not to be ruined by giving him the cane.
In the early 1920s Vincent auditioned for Henri Verbrugghen, conductor of the visiting New South Wales State Orchestra. His offer of lessons in Sydney was beyond the family’s means at the time. In 1921, in Auckland, Vincent was given a private audition with the visiting violinist Jascha Heifetz. This made a deep impression, especially when Heifetz demonstrated the fingering of double octaves and showed him how to practise these difficult manoeuvres. They met again in 1927 when Heifetz made a return visit to New Zealand.
The family moved to Auckland in 1924 to give Vincent opportunities to advance. At first he was employed in a string trio at the Victoria Theatre in Devonport, but he soon joined the orchestra at the new Majestic Theatre in Queen Street. He was deputy leader until 1927, when he took up an engagement at the Strand Theatre. At this stage of his career, he had little knowledge of the orchestral repertoire but a prodigious ability to sight-read.
The advent of sound films meant less work for theatre orchestras. Australia appeared to offer better prospects, so Vincent and his parents moved to Sydney in May 1928. Vincent’s brother, George, remained in New Zealand, but regularly sent money to help support the family. Vincent was given work at the Drama House theatre, after refusing an offer to join a tour back to New Zealand.
He studied under Gerald Walenn at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music from August 1928 until February 1929, and sat the term examinations in violin, chamber music and harmony. Concurrently he won the New South Wales Radio Eisteddfod, which enabled him to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto in the Sydney Town Hall in December 1928. A three-year scholarship was made available, which he could not accept as it prevented him from earning extra money to support himself. A recommendation that he look for opportunities in Europe was not only beyond the family’s resources, but also conflicted with his desire to be near home.
Aspey gained valuable experience in orchestral repertoire in Sydney. He was leader of the New South Wales Broadcasting Company Orchestra until 1930, when he went to the National Broadcasting Orchestra of Sydney. In 1929 he also became leader of the Rose Bay Garden Theatre Orchestra. While in Sydney, Aspey acquired the 1760 Giuseppe Gagliano violin which he played all his professional life.
Late in 1931 the family resettled in Auckland, where Aspey again became absorbed in the musical scene. Solo recitals were now in demand and he also took pupils to earn a living, supplemented by playing with his Tudor Trio at Milne and Choyce’s tearooms. In 1935 he was invited to broadcast performances with the radio orchestras in each main centre. The repertoire included Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole , in addition to chamber music. The following year he became the leader of the IYA Studio Orchestra in Auckland. He married Elspeth Jean Clarkson, a talented cellist–pianist, in Auckland on 7 January 1939; they were to have two sons.
In 1939 Aspey joined the orchestra formed for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition. Maurice Clare, an eminent English violinist, had been invited to set up this ensemble, and he quickly assessed Aspey as ‘a most gifted violinist and a very skilful handler of human beings. He had natural diplomatic gifts and a brilliant sense of fun and humour’. When the National Centennial Orchestra was disbanded in 1940, the string players were retained, with Aspey as leader of the National Broadcasting System String Orchestra and the string quartet drawn from it. The orchestra was based in Wellington through the war years and it provided entertainment at military camp concerts, and performed in radio broadcasts and theatre tours.
When the National Orchestra was created in 1946, Vincent Aspey was the obvious choice as leader. His kindly manner, described as persuasion by example rather than instruction, was a vital element in the development of New Zealand’s first fully professional symphony orchestra. The unobtrusive way he carried out the demanding duties of orchestra leader underscored his innate musicianship whenever he was required to play the solos assigned to the first desk. He also appeared with the orchestra on numerous occasions as soloist, most notably in concertos by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bruch, Sibelius and Hamilton Harty. It was, however, Svendsen’s Romance for violin and orchestra that Aspey himself regarded as a particular highlight when he performed it at a concert celebrating the visit of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1958. He was made an MBE that year.
Vincent Aspey chose to step down from the leader’s chair in 1967 and for the next six years was content to play as a rank and file member; his musicality and knowledge continued to benefit the orchestra and its members. In 1973 he retired, at least from the demands of orchestral life and the rigours of touring. For several years Vincent and Jean Aspey were popular teachers in the local colleges on the Kapiti Coast. Vincent was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Victoria University of Wellington in 1974. The citation referred to him as ‘a superb interpreter, leader and performer of music’.
Vincent Aspey died at his home in Raumati on 18 April 1987, survived by his wife and sons. A commemorative radio programme in 1974 had praised his ‘tremendous humility, noble character, quiet strength and tremendous integrity’. He considered himself an individualist who never wanted to be anything other than a violinist.