Haydn Beck was an acclaimed child prodigy from Whanganui. He was a talented violinist and performed publicly at an early age. Born in 1899, his first reported performance was in 1907. The Wanganui Chronicle wrote that he played J S Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor and, among other works, played a piece he had composed.

From here on, he gave many concerts in his hometown and in Marton, Palmerston North and Feilding. Later, he and his brother, Harold, performed throughout New Zealand and Australia. In 1909, a group of Whanganui citizens set up a trust fund to pay for Haydn to continue his musical studies in Europe.

Haydn came from a musical family. He was trained rigorously by his father, James Laurian Beck. Laurian, as he was known, taught violin, cello and musical theory from his premises named Harmony Hall in Bell St. He had studied violin and theory in England and graduated from the College of Violinists in January 1894.

Haydn Beck, violinist and child prodigy. Photo / Frank Denton, around 1905. 1965/1/5 Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui
Haydn Beck, violinist and child prodigy. Photo / Frank Denton, around 1905. 1965/1/5 Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui

Back in Whanganui, he taught all his children: Haydn on violin, younger brother Harold on cello and daughter Dorice on piano. Laurian organised concerts, gave violin recitals and composed, his most well-known effort being Zealandia Barn Dance. He was also leader of the Wanganui Orchestral Society.

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Haydn's mother Wilhelmina Susanne Beck died in April 2012. In October that year, Haydn and his brother Harold, along with their father, boarded RMS Remuera for England. From there Haydn crossed to Belgium where he attended the Brussels Conservatorium, achieving highest honours in the Second Prix and ranked as a senior student. World War I, however, interrupted his studies. He was visiting the city of Namur when nearby Liège was invaded by the German army.

The Wanganui Chronicle reported a series of incidents where Haydn was taken prisoner when he was sketching fortifications, suspected of being a German spy. He was released and ordered to leave Namur (which was besieged very soon after) and his violin was accidentally crushed at the railway station as he tried to leave. He managed to reach Ostend and sailed for England, diverted by a British submarine on the way, from Dover to Folkestone. He continued his violin studies in England.

By December 1915, Haydn was conducting a concert in His Majesty's Theatre in Whanganui for the benefit of the Wounded Soldiers Fund to which £43 was added. He was reported to have "… [p]roved himself a master conductor, controlling the orchestra of 50 players with ease and precision". In 1919, Haydn and Harold went on an acclaimed tour of the North Island. Haydn moved at some stage to Australia and his career successes were periodically reported in the press.

Haydn Beck concert advertisement, December 5, 1910. Whanganui Chronicle December 5, 1910.
Haydn Beck concert advertisement, December 5, 1910. Whanganui Chronicle December 5, 1910.

In March 1939, the Covent Garden Russian Ballet gave 10 performances conducted by Antal Dorati where "the orchestra was led by the New Zealand violinist Haydn Beck". Later he was leader of the Australian Broadcasting Company Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He became conductor of the Marrickville Municipal Symphony Orchestra in 1947. By 1953, he was leader of the Jay Wilbur Strings Ensemble, which broadcast on ABC twice weekly. Haydn married Adelaide Helena Barbosa Sottomayor Neuparth, from a Portuguese family in 1958. He died in Portugal in 1983.

Harold Beck was no slouch either. He joined the New South Wales State Orchestra in 1920. In 1922, he went to Christchurch where he became a highly respected and very active player and musical administrator.

He was a member of the first Broadcasting Trio and conductor of numerous broadcasting ensembles. In 1926, Laurian Beck also moved to Christchurch and established a music teaching practice. He died there in 1932.

In 1937, Harold moved to Australia and in 1938 became principal cellist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After moving to England, Harold joined the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonia, and in 1949 became principal cellist of the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli. In 1956, he became principal cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

• Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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