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Alex Lithgow

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Alex Lithgow

Biography

Alex F. Lithgow (1 December 1870, Glasgow, Scotland - 12 July 1929, Launceston, Australia) was known as the so-called March King of the Antipodes. Although born in Scotland, his family moved to Invercargill, New Zealand, when he was six years old. New Zealand had been made a British crown colony in 1840, gold was discovered in 1861, and many of the emigrants from Scotland and England who were attracted by the two events took their instruments and music along. Both Alex and his older brother, Tom, were tutored in music by a local musician named Jack Black; Alex began studying cornet at age nine and violin at 11. He was admitted to the Invercargill Garrison Band when he was only 11. At 16 he became the principal cornet soloist, and four years later, after winning the cornet solo championship at the first national band contest (in Dunedin, 1890), he was promoted to bandmaster.

He repeated his cornet solo victory at the 1892 contest. In 1894 he left New Zealand to become director of the St Joseph’s Total Abstinence Society Band at Launceston, on the Australian island of Tasmania. The St. Joseph’s Band was founded in 1845 and was reputed to be the oldest band in Australia.

Lithgow married while he was in Launceston and in 1899 returned to New Zealand with his bride; three years later they were back in Tasmania where, except for a season with the Woolston Brass Band in Christchurch in 1904, Lithgow directed the St. Joseph’s Band until 1907. He also conducted several other bands in his career, including the Campbell Town Band, the Launceston City Band, and the 12th Battalion Regimental Band. During the outdoor concert seasons, large audiences flocked to the City Park or Cataract George on Wednesday and Friday afternoons to hear the bands of Launceston perform Lithgow’s newest works. Then, as now, most of the bands in New Zealand and Australia were composed of brass and percussion instruments only. Both countries have long honored their brass band winners as some nations revere their athletic champions. Lithgow’s winning record as a bandmaster at age 30 was nine first prizes, two seconds, one third, and two fourths.

In addition to cornet, he was also an excellent violinist and, beginning when he was 15, he worked with several symphonies during his career. Although the Launceston Orchestral Society, which he founded in 1898, and the Launceston Musical Union Orchestra, which he was appointed to conduct in 1910, were both short lived, he finally succeeded in forming an orchestra in that city in 1923 which was both musically and financially successful.

Lithgow’s first published march, Wairoa, was written when he was 15 and a second cornet player in the Invercargill Garrison Band. The work received its title from a Capt. Fox, who was the skipper of the flagship Wairoa, at the Bluff Regatta in New Zealand in 1884, after he heard the band play the march and learned that it had no name. From Lithgow’s more than 50 marches, his Invercargill March became a worldwide success after an arrangement for wind band by L. P. Laurendeau was published by Carl Fisher in 1913. In addition to his marches, Lithgow composed music for orchestra, piano, voice, and concert band. From among his many concert works, band researcher Stanley Newcomb of New Zealand considers the suites In Sunny Australia and At the Movies; the march intermezzo Australia Today; and the waltzes Tasma’s Beauties, Besssica, and To Vera to be among his better compositions.

However, the composer’s royalties did not provide a living for his family. In addition, many of the manuscripts which were sent to Germany to be printed were lost during the First World War; others were not copyrighted or were protected only within the British Empire. Lithgow’s health began to fail in his early 50s, and he was forced to give up most of his conducting activities (he did make a successful comeback with the St. Joseph’s Band of Launceston for a time in 1923). Determined to continue composing, he worked as a printer for the Examiner newspaper by day and composed his music at night. The strenuous schedule soon took its toll; he became an invalid and died in 1929, leaving his widow, one son, and two daughters. Highly respected as a cornetist, composer, and conductor and beloved as a kind and patient person, Lithgow’s funeral service was attended by thousands of people who walked the three miles to the cemetery. Since his death, memorial plaques have been erected in both Tasmania and New Zealand.


Works for Winds


References

  • Smith, Norman E. (2002). Program Notes for Band.’’ Chicago: GIA Publications. pp. 382-383