Former SMH music critic Roger Covell dies aged 88

Roger Covell musicologist, author and chief music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald for 40 years, has died. He was 88.

Covell was born in Sydney in 1931 but was brought up and educated in Queensland, moving there aged one after his father died of war injuries.

After graduating from the University of Queensland he lived for a time in the UK working as an actor and with the BBC. He became chief music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1960, contributing reviews and articles in which he championed Australian composers and performers into the late 90s, when illness forced him to curtail his activities.

Covell’s role as a critic went beyond reviewing. He was a leading voice in the construction of a narrative around the emergence of a confident generation of composers in the 1960s, who drew inspiration from European modernism but wrote in a distinctly Australian voice.

His landmark 1967 book, Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society, charted Australian composition from colonial times to what he perceived to be the new creative energy and dynamism of the 1960s. It was a study that shaped thinking about Australian music for half a century, to the extent that even those today who challenge its teleological ascent towards post-war modernism, take it as a point of departure.

From 1966, Covell established music as a discipline at the University of NSW, establishing UNSW Opera in 1968 and co-founding, with clarinettist Murray Khouri, what is now known as the Australia Ensemble. In line with Covell’s enthusiasms, both have championed Australian composers, giving many first performances.

Covell is survived by his wife Patricia and children Dianna, Rod, Jason and Andrew.

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