As a talented performer, conductor, composer and an outstanding director and organiser, French musician Léon Caron made a valuable contribution to Australian musical life during the late nineteenth century, at a time when there were few professional orchestras. In addition to the above activities he founded and co-founded a number of Australian institutions such as the Professional Musicians’ Association in Sydney, the Orpheus Club and the Musical Association of Victoria, now The Musical Society of Victoria.
Léon Francis Victor Caron was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer, near Calais, on January 13, 1850 to Louis Victor Abel Caron, contractor, and his wife Louise Josephine, née Rimel. The little boy displayed unusual musical talents and began learning violin at an early age, becoming known, according to his son-in-law journalist, M. P. Greenwood-Adams, as ‘l’enfant Paganini’.
In his early teens, after nine years at the municipal conservatorium, Léon Caron became an instructor at the school and then, in 1869, he competed, as was usual, with other outstanding students for the chance to be sent to study at the Paris Conservatoire. In Paris Caron studied composition with Victor Massé and violin with Lambert Massart, who had been a student of Rodolphe Kreutzer and was himself an exponent of the virtuosic French violin school.
Paris, London and America
Due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Caron cut short his music studies and left Paris for London, ‘catching the last train but one to Dieppe, before the line was captured, and fell into the hands of the Prussians’ (Melbourne Table Talk 1889). The English music critic, Herman Klein has described this period as a golden age for the London musical scene so perhaps Léon was fortunate in beginning his music career there. It was through his position as violinist in Riviere’s eighty-piece orchestra at the Alhambra Theatre, London, that Caron was next invited to join the French Opera in New Orleans.
Most of Léon Caron’s American career was spent with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra where he also composed a number of works. In May 1876, the Thomas Orchestra participated in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition Celebrations—for a variety of reasons, these concerts were a financial failure and the Thomas Orchestra was abandoned, leaving Caron and many other musicians out of work.
Early days in Melbourne
The New York based composer Charles Horsley had lived and worked in Australia as a composer, organist and critic during the 1860s and, according to The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, he was to become a co-founder of the Musical Association of Victoria which later became the Musical Society of Victoria. Horsley advised Léon Caron to try his luck in Australia. Caron arrived in Melbourne in 1876 just in time to play a leading role in Melbourne’s boom days, following the discovery of gold in Ballarat in the 1850s.
His first professional solo violin appearance was during the interval of La Belle Hélène at the Melbourne Opera House in mid-1877 when he included some of his own works. Soon after this Caron was offered work as a virtuoso violinist for W. S. Lyster’s Royal Italian Opera Company; Alberto Zelman, the conductor of the Lyster Opera Company became ill suddenly and Léon Caron was able to take his place, conducting the entire score of Carmen from memory. He was then appointed conductor for the last New Zealand tour of Lyster’s Italian Opera Company.
Caron was an adaptable, professional musician—he composed songs for concerts, scores for comic operas, pantomimes and ballets as well as instrumental music, church music and, in his role as musical director or choirmaster, was responsible for organising and teaching. There seemed always to be problems finding enough instrumentalists for the many orchestras needed to provide the wide array of entertainment offered at this time, so composers and musical directors had to improvise and create their own arrangements as well as compose songs and/or instrumental pieces for interludes or other requirements. They were Australia’s musical pioneers and, through their dedicated work and sometimes remarkable musical and organisational skills, contributed greatly to the establishment of a professional music scene in Australia. Immersed as they were in the Viennese classical tradition, they tried to transplant it in the new colony and few of them thought of adapting their style of music to specific Australian influences such as Aboriginal music or native birdsong.
1880 Melbourne International Exhibition and other state ceremonies
In 1880 Caron won first prize of $100 for his Victoria Cantata, which was performed at the inauguration of the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition, with Caron himself conducting a choir of 1000 singers. During his Australian musical career, Caron participated in a number of state occasions—his National Cantata gained second prize in the competition for the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition and was presented there on March 14.
These colonial exhibitions were modelled on the Great Exhibition of London at the Crystal Palace in 1851 and were indeed ‘marvels’ of the Victorian era as they displayed all kinds of things, from inventions and artwork to produce and ideology. The daily music programmes also provided an opportunity for the public to hear some European symphonic music, rarely heard in Australia because of the difficulty in assembling sufficient musicians to form symphony orchestras.
Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, New Zealand and the Montague-Turner Opera Company
In 1881 Caron conducted for the American Montague-Turner Opera Company, travelling between Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and New Zealand and in 1882 he also became conductor/choirmaster for St Mary’s Cathedral (Sydney). Whilst working in Sydney in 1883 he met Tasmanian singer Eliza (Elsa) Sherwin who had recently joined the Opera Company—they married and she continued performing, sometimes using the name ‘Tasma Sherwin’. Their daughter Leonie Irma Sherwin, born in 1891, also became an opera singer, performing usually under the name of ‘Irma Caron’.
At this time he would have met his fellow countryman, pianist and composer, Henri Kowalski, who visited Australia twice, once in 1880 and again from 1885 when he settled in Sydney for fourteen years. Together they formed the Orpheus Club, organising promenade concerts and private soirees promoting chamber music.
Caron composed a choral symphony and an incomplete version was performed at the ‘New Opera House’ in Sydney in 1885. Caron’s symphony was a noteworthy precursor to Marshall-Hall’s Symphony in E flat of 1903, usually considered the first important symphony composed in Australia.
J. C. Williamson’s Royal Opera Company and Djin-Djin
In 1888, after unsuccessful attempts to set up his own opera companies, Léon Caron accepted the offer to conduct Yeoman of the Guard for J. C. Williamson’s Royal Opera Company at Melbourne’s recently opened Princess Theatre. He remained with J. C. Williamson, with occasional time out, for the rest of his life.
During the 1890s, when many Australians were struggling because of the depression, all theatres were finding it difficult to attract audiences and, in 1895, Williamson decided to recoup his losses with a ‘grand spectacular pantomime’ to be launched on Boxing Night. This was a last resort and Williamson told his players that if it failed, the players would be out of work and he would be ‘down and out’. The pantomime was Djin-Djin, the Japanese Bogie Man, or, The Great Shogun Who Lost his Son and the Little Princess Who Found Him: A Fairy Tale of Old Japan. The pantomime was a great success—it drew huge crowds and the takings filled the coffers of J. C. Williamson and his partners, Arthur Garner and George Musgrove.
Caron also wrote a grand opera Mati-Mati based on Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales but it was not performed as a whole. A trio from the opera was performed at the Orpheus Club. However, he also composed in other music forms including three string quartets; a choral symphony (Symphonie Poème I’Idéal); a violin concerto; and several orchestral works, including Souvenir Patriotique or An Episode of ’93 (which evokes the mood of a mob of revolutionaries in Marseilles), and Birds of the Forest, an overture described in the Sydney Morning Herald (1899) as a ‘vivacious pastoral’.
Caron’s multi-faceted role in Australia’s music community
Marmion Adams writes that Caron’s role as conductor entailed much more than rehearsing and performing—he had to orchestrate the music for whatever musicians were available and ‘taught the chorus and principals and wrote interpolated ballets and songs’. One of his colleagues praised his writing for the ballet and said he ‘did more and better work than any other musician in this part of the world’. He was said to bring out the best in the musicians he trained and he seems to have been popular with both musicians and audiences.
As well as his operatic and theatrical work Léon Caron continued to organise and conduct concerts such as the Camilla Urso tour and a series of Sunday concerts at the Sydney Opera House (later at the Criterion Theatre). He also founded the Professional Musicians’ Association in Sydney, providing musical entertainment on Sunday evenings at the Club Rooms. During his final years he also organised and conducted music for important state occasions such as the Opening of Parliament and the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
Caron was a great admirer of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music: he worked to promote Gilbert and Sullivan in Australia and his own compositions were greatly influenced by those of Sullivan. Caron toured New Zealand several times and made his mark there. He became ill during his last New Zealand tour with J. C. Williamson’s Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company in 1905 and died shortly after his return to Australia. ‘Three bands led the funeral procession to the Waverley cemetery and at all the principal points along the route great throngs of people were gathered’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1905).
A Table Talk reviewer had written of him that ‘M. Léon Caron is the most popular conductor in Melbourne. This ideal Frenchman retains all the best characteristics of his race—the grace and sparkle, the touch of artistic Bohemianism, the bright and charming temperament, that is more nearly allied to wisdom than the muddy article usually associated with the heavy “philosopher” in Anglo-Saxon countries’ (Melbourne Table Talk 1902).
Whilst these remarks may seem excessive to the twenty-first century ear, there is no doubting Léon Caron’s influence upon the musical scene in both Melbourne and Sydney. The fact that he was asked to organise and conduct musical proceedings for so many official occasions must surely indicate his status in the Australian community and his importance as a well-recognised, much loved, multi-talented Australian musician.
Image: Leon Francis Victor Caron (1850–1905), by unknown engraver,
Author: Elaine Lewis, Melbourne, March 2023.
Hars, Pierre, 1929, L’Académie et le conservatoire national de musique de Boulogne-sur-Mer (succursale du Conservatoire de Paris) 1829–1929. Célébration du centenaire. Pont-de-Briques: Livre d’or.
‘Leon Caron’. In Oxford Companion to Australian Music, edited by Warren Bebbington, Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1997.
Love, Harold, 1981, The Golden Age of Australian Opera: W. S. Lyster and His Companies 1861–1880, Sydney: Currency Press.
Melbourne Table Talk, 1899, April 18, p. 6.
Melbourne Table Talk, 1902, February 13, p. 18.
Murphy, Kerry, 1985, ‘Léon Caron: his Role in the Musical Life of 19th Century Melbourne’, Explorations 2: 10–13.
Smart, Bonnie, 2003, Leon Caron and the Music Profession in Australia, Melbourne: Masters Research Thesis.
Sydney Morning Herald, 1885, September 7, p. 5.
Sydney Morning Herald, 1899, April 29, p. 4.
Sydney Morning Herald, 1905, May 31, p. 8.
Léon Caron, Opera in Australia, Colonial music in Australia, J. C. Williamson’s Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, Melbourne International Exhibition