First published in the Anglican Messenger, March 2016.
Nearly every week from 1938 to 1972, an elegant lady clutching a music case caught a tram from Perth College. The tram trundled down Beaufort Street to the ABC then situated in the Stirling Institute buildings in the Supreme Court gardens. Dorothea Angus, Head of Music at Perth College made over 250 broadcasts for the ABC performing solo, as well as with contralto Phyllis Everett and violinist Vaughan Hanly. She played concerti with the WA Symphony Orchestra, for example under Henry Krips, Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K488).
Her night-time performances followed a long day of teaching from 7.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and a practice hour until 5 p.m.
She preferred to perform Australian composers like Miriam Hyde. As a star student in Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium she had made a compact with Hyde and other fellow-students to exchange new compositions. With advance access to Sydney-based composer Dulcie Holland’s piano music, Dorothea encouraged her students to learn Australian music for their exams.
But much more than that, Dorothea instilled in the girls at Perth College a love of music. With the WA Symphony Orchestra established properly in the 1950s, Miss Angus began a Friday night tradition of bussing girls to concerts. I was with the boarders in 1975 as they went wild for WASO’s rendition of Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’!
Dorothea opened up a bigger world up for her students. In the classroom she talked about music around Australia, and she introduced a world expressed in beauty and art. Her own person, always elegant and fashionable, impressed the girls. The stylish Miss Angus was a fascinating contrast to the Sisters dressed always in habit, veil and wimple.
Dorothea was not a straightforward Christian. In her previous appointment in Adelaide at St Peter’s Cathedral her talents as a world-class organist appear to have been eclipsed by the internal politics of male chauvinism. When I met Dorothea towards the end of her life, I found her always willing to engage in a robust and sceptical discussion about Christian faith. She was deeply interested in it but unable to admit to a commitment to it.
At Perth College, Sister Rosalie, the Principal, often crept into Dorothea’s practice room to enjoy her playing. I can imagine her friendship with Sister Rosalie included similar discussions.
‘Gus’ or ‘Fungi’, as Miss Angus was called, is still remembered with affection by former Perth College students nearly 40 years after her death. A half-dozen still meet annually to salute her memory.
Dorothea championed Australian music to the public. As an artist, she felt a responsibility to share generously her gift with the school and the church. When I met Dorothea she was playing hymns for services in Balga Parish despite a paralysis in her left arm. Her disability frustrated her. She could easily have excused herself, but would not.
To Perth College she brought not just music skills, but education in character. Through her own forceful personality, she modelled character. She opened a wider world to the girls in her care. She chewed into Christian faith, examining it, discerning the truth for herself. Agnostic she may have been, but her respect for Christianity was imprinted on those she met.
I am more optimistic than the Dean, who argued in the December Messenger that church schools were failing in their central task of Christian formation (he and I have been chaplains to the same two church schools!) I believe that our church schools have been deeply enriched by teachers of integrity and longevity – like Miss Angus – who have imbued Christian character in their students.