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Notable Residents: Denis Vaughan

Updated: May 10

Over my time running this blog, people have told me all sorts of anecdotes about musically-inclined individuals living and visiting in the area.

There’s the story of how in 1973 a surly 15-year-old named Nick Cave turned up at St Oswalds in Glen Iris to audition for a band called Concrete Vulture.  There he met Mick Harvey, the son of the vicar. They formed a fruitful and lucrative songwriting partnership.

Jim Keays c.1972

I’ve also heard that Jim Keays, the lead singer of The Masters Apprentices lived in the area for a long time. I can’t find any document that verifies that but I’m happy to take the correspondent’s word for it.

Sometimes the anecdotes get vague, yet oddly specific: there’s the one about how this guy “Mike” who lived in Donald Street was an early keyboardist for The Dingoes. And one about how Johnny Young and Ronny Burns used to visit the mother of their friend in the house next door to the basketball courts at St Michaels.

But it is arguably the world of classical music and the arts that benefitted most from a local resident. This came in the form of the immense talent and tenacity of an unassuming boy born in Glen Iris in 1926. His name was Denis Vaughan.

Denis as a young man in Glen Iris

Unlike Professor Lee Kwong Dow, Denis Vaughan was not inclined to write letters to newspapers. This means we don’t have any information on his childhood inclinations or exploits. However, there is a recollection of his teacher, Janet Tomkinson from 1978. It indicates Denis’ musical gifts were evident very early on.

‘I was fortunate enough to be on the staff [of Ashburton State School as it was then] for three years. In those days, I trained them for the centenary concert [1934] at Camberwell Town Hall. Grade 5 did a play with music and the boy who composed it was Denis Vaughan, who is now a famous conductor in Europe.’ Denis was eight years old.

After Ashburton State School, Denis went on to attend Wesley College in St Kilda Road. He continued to excel at his chosen instruments, the organ and the string bass. He also played piano and harpsichord. With the financial assistance of a prestigious bursary, the Melbourne University Conservatorium accepted him as a music student.

Denis Vaughan in 1954

Tall, dark-haired and quiet-mannered, Denis ably pulled off the sophisticated tailcoat attire expected of a classical musician in the late 1940s. But like most Glen Iris residents of this time, he was by no means wealthy. It took four years of full-time music teaching, bass-playing in bands and symphonies, and organ-playing for ABC Radio broadcasts to support himself through University and save the money to realise his dream: studying at the Royal College of Music in London. It is today still one of the most prestigious music conservatoriums in the world. In the meantime, he also became proficient at French and German and continued to write his own music.

Despite his exhausting schedule, Denis graduated first in his class at the Melbourne Conservatorium. But he still could not afford the fare to London. He spent months unsuccessfully trying to find a ship that would allow him to work his passage to England. But this was soon after WWII. Most of the ships were doing whatever it took to get out of England, not sail there.

To sit the entrance exams to the Royal College, Denis needed to be there by July 1947. Eventually, he gave up his quest for work and scraped every penny he had together to pay for his passage himself. It cleaned him out.

‘I will have to find a job to support myself,’ he cheerfully told a Herald reporter the day before he left in May 1947. ‘I’ll have to go carefully.’

On the ship over, Denis turned 21. Fortunately, his gamble paid off and the Royal College of Music accepted him to study organ. But he still had to find a way to support himself in post-War London.

Ever resourceful, Denis formed a dance band around his bass-playing skills with a Melbourne piano player called Douglas Gamley.* He also took work teaching music, as an English-German translator, and even as a cook.

Princess Elizabeth presenting Denis Vaughn with the Tagore Medal, 1949

Despite his financial challenges, Denis excelled at the Royal College of Music. In 1949, Princess Elizabeth presented him with the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal as the best student of the year. At the time, Denis proclaimed it ‘the greatest day of my life.’ He found Princess Elizabeth ‘charming’ and highly knowledgeable about music. The two shared an acquaintance: Bernard Heinze, the chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Prolific musical career

After the Royal College, Denis continued his studies in Vienna and France. He joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and commenced training as a conductor. Conducting required him to interpret musical scores in the way their composers instructed. Through his research, Denis discovered 27,000 discrepancies in the printed edition used to perform Verdi’s last opera “Falstaff”. This meant that performing from this edition would compromise the integrity of Verdi’s original intentions for the piece. Further research by Denis uncovered music for operas by Rossini, Puccini, and Bizet had also been compromised from their originals.

Denis set about lobbying to preserve and safeguard the integrity of the composers’ original works. It took considerable tenacity but eventually his campaign succeeded. The Italian Government changed its copyright laws to protect the composers’ original music. This success sent Denis on a path of advocacy for the protection and continuation of music as an art form.

During the 1960s and 70s, Denis Vaughan’s musical career went from strength to strength. By 1965, he was an associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic; had guest conducted for a Toscanini commemoration concert, and played organ for Igor Stravinsky. He moved to Italy to conduct for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra and lived there for many years. He would turn up in London for the Old Boys events for expatriate Wesley students and when he came to Melbourne, he happily obliged the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s invitations to guest conduct.

The National Lottery

Denis Vaughan in his later years

One day in 1986, while living in London in a flat opposite the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Denis Vaughan was looking out the window and probably thinking about some musical anomaly when he noticed a vacant lot next to the building. It suddenly occurred to him that it would be a great location for a cultural centre.

He immediately put on his coat and walked across the road to tell the Director of the Royal Opera House his idea. By this time, Denis Vaughan was such a renowned individual he could just walk right into the director’s office whenever the urge struck him.

When the director refused to entertain his idea, Denis asked him, ‘why don’t you hold a lottery to raise money for it? Sydney built its opera house with a lottery, why don’t you do the same?’

And that is how a kid from Glen Iris called Denis Vaughan thought up the idea for the UK’s National Lottery.

Unlike Australians, who had cheerfully embraced lotteries (legal or otherwise) since the 1850s, British law prohibited them by a statute dating to the late 17th century. But if we know one thing about Denis by now, it’s that he was not going to back down until he won. The Italian Government could already attest to that.

Putting his musical career on hold, it took him years of lobbying, gathering influential supporters, charming Margaret Thatcher, and faxing (it was the late 1980s after all) to get the idea before Parliament.

Denis realised quickly that to get 200-year-old legislation changed, no-one was going to vote for it if it was just arts. ‘So I included sport,’ he told The Age in 1992. ‘Then we added the environment. Everyone’s interested in that.’

Eventually, the British Parliament passed the legislation. But it came with limitations that seriously compromised Denis’ original idea. His dream was for a lottery that funded arts and sports independent of politicians with funds matched by Treasury. Instead, the Lottery turned into a profit-seeking private consortium of vested interests. Denis was furious.

‘There will be an inevitable scaling down of Arts Council subsidies once the lottery money comes in,’ he warned. He was, of course, right.

Since then, Denis Vaughan embarked on more ideological crusades. Yet his passion for music never waned. In 1996, he became the inaugural president of the Council for the Advancement of Arts, Recreation & Education. Now defunct, it was dedicated to using National Lottery resources to provide grassroots access to sport and the arts for every young person in the UK.

By the time Denis Vaughan died in 2017 at the age of 91, he had changed the course of cultural life in Britain and irrevocably altered the world of classical music.



* Gamley went on to a successful career arranging opera and orchestral pieces and writing music for TV shows like Doctor Who. Although not the iconic theme music, I checked just in case!

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