Page 1: Biography
Pianist, recording director, conductor
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000, and updated in July, 2011.
Gilbert Thomas Pinfield (later known professionally as Gilbert Dechelette or Gil Dech) was born at Yardley, near Birmingham, England, on 3 February 1897 to Clara Ann Davies and her husband, William Pinfield, a journeyman bricklayer. Beginning formal musical training when he was 10, Gil had advanced sufficiently in three years to be accepted as a pupil in Birmingham by the eminent concert pianist Irene Scharrer. In 1919 he studied piano and harmony for a term at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then received tuition from the distinguished piano teacher Tobias Matthay.
After establishing himself in the British concert world and taking the professional name of Dechelette, a desire to travel brought about tours of Holland and South Africa. In 1926 a contract with the Tivoli Circuit took him to Australia and New Zealand with the tenor Maxim Brodi. At the completion of this engagement in 1927 the Columbia Graphophone Company invited him to become director of music for the recording studio it had opened in Sydney the previous year. In this executive position he was to make more than 80 solo piano recordings as well as conducting studio orchestras, dance bands and countless instrumental accompaniments for many of Australia’s finest singers, the most notable being the soprano Gladys Moncrieff.
It was during his early days with the Columbia company that he again changed his surname. ‘Dechelette’ was considered inappropriate for the more popular type of recordings with which he was becoming associated, so the shortened version ‘Dech’ was devised. With only a few exceptions, he used it from that time onwards.
In 1930 Gil Dech spent three months in New Zealand directing recordings by the Rotorua Maori Choir. The resulting 48 titles made history as the first large-scale recording session of Maori choral music ever to be undertaken in New Zealand. The set became a prototype for future Maori recordings and copies were reported to be still selling well 30 years later.
In addition to his recording assignments, the early years of the 1930s were taken up with concert tours as piano accompanist to Moncrieff and with work as musical director for radio station 2GB in Sydney. In March 1936, at the conclusion of an eight-month tour of New Zealand with Moncrieff, Dech resigned from Columbia and accepted employment with the New Zealand Broadcasting Board as musical supervisor and conductor of the 4YA concert orchestra in Dunedin. A year later he was temporarily transferred to similar duties in Christchurch, but continued his associations with Dunedin, returning to live and work there in October 1938. In each city he was an integral and important part of musical life and was greatly respected for his skills in recording and broadcasting techniques, performing, teaching and vocal coaching.
Dech frequently accompanied distinguished international artists during their appearances in New Zealand. In the Second World War he conducted or played solo piano in Auckland and Wellington at a number of celebrity orchestral concerts mounted for war charities. In 1946–47 he was associated with the formation of the National (now New Zealand Symphony) Orchestra, which he was to conduct in broadcast studio concerts. He retired from regular musical life in 1964, but continued playing the piano and making occasional solo broadcasts until 1972. He lived out his retirement in Wellington, where he died, unmarried, on 1 November 1974.
Of a quiet, almost retiring nature, Gil Dech contributed considerably to the development of music generally and orchestral music in particular in New Zealand, more notably in the years preceding and following the Second World War. His background of sound musicianship, combined with tact and a resolutely professional attitude, created a spirit of loyalty and enthusiasm among his players and students that helped raise performing standards to levels not previously attained. To the public at large, however, he was undoubtedly better known for his many popular solo piano recordings that were regularly played on radio. Older listeners in particular always associated him with his version of ‘Remembrance’, made in Sydney on 28 October 1931.