Visited by the Virus

Music and the Influenza Epidemic of a Century Ago

Written by Paul Cooke

Bernard Heinze, praised by Thérèse Radic in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as “the dominant musical figure of twentieth-century Australia”, was also the first Australian musician of note to have been affected by the pneumonic influenza epidemic. Studying at the Royal College of Music, London, when war broke out in 1914, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. Sometime in 1918, stationed on the Western Front in France, he contracted influenza and was sent to an isolation ward in Rouen to recover. The illness, perhaps initially brought to Europe in a milder form by American servicemen, began to affect soldiers more and more severely throughout 1918. As they returned to their countries of origin, so the epidemic spread worldwide.

With 167,000 soldiers, as well as thousands of nurses, returning to Australia, it was inevitable that the nation would be affected. By the time the epidemic had run its course, 40% of Australians had become ill and up to 15,000 died; in Sydney, 300,000 became ill and nearly 4,000 died. New South Wales was declared ‘infected’ in late January 1919. Churches, schools and entertainment venues were closed, along with other ‘drastic precautions’: these were eased in February, strengthened in April and lifted in May.

What effect did the epidemic have on cultural life? Contemporary newspapers, together with memoirs, biographies and histories reflecting on music and theatre of that time, are mostly silent. Nevertheless, we know that many events at the Sydney Town Hall, probably including organ recitals, were cancelled and that its basement was commandeered as an inoculation depot. The Tivoli Theatre closed and its new show was postponed: changing attitudes to its war subject matter meant that the show ultimately failed at the box office. At the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, classes were cancelled and the concert season was affected. Its 1919 season, when it resumed, however, turned out to be its most successful yet, with guaranteed funding meaning that it could program both ‘popular’ classics on Saturday nights and great masters such as Beethoven on Thursday nights.

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