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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cordner, William John (1826–1870)

by E. J. Lea-Scarlett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William John Cordner (1826-1870), musician, was born on 4 December 1826 in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Ireland, the second son of Samuel Waring Cordner, organist of the Dungannon Parish Church, and his wife Margaret, née Weir. He could already play the organ and sing well when at 7 he became a chorister in Armagh Cathedral. There for eight years he took lessons from the organist, Robert Turle. When his father refused to allow him to travel he ran away to sea. After several years as a seaman he contracted a serious illness in India and returned to Ireland a semi-invalid. Resuming his musical career, he supported himself by taking pupils. At the same time his fine tenor voice made him a popular concert artist.

In 1854 Cordner emigrated to New South Wales and on arrival in Sydney was appointed organist at St Patrick's Church. In 1857 he became organist at St Mary's Cathedral which had earlier been the chief centre of choral music but was then suffering from the liturgical reforms of Bishop C. H. Davis who had dispensed with women and professionals in the choir. Under Cordner these reforms were nullified, and the choir, often supplemented by a large orchestra, quickly resumed its position of leadership and choral vespers were publicly introduced for the first time.

Cordner concentrated his attention on vocal work but was also a competent organist and teacher; he acted as organist at Madame Anna Bishop's performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater in St Mary's Cathedral in August 1857. In July 1859 he took a prominent part in the organization of the musical festival which marked the opening of the Great Hall of Sydney University, conducting the final concert in the series. He was a guest recitalist at the opening of the organ in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, in 1867, and next year took part in the function associated with the laying of the foundation stone of the Sydney Town Hall. His last and most ambitious venture was a production of Rossini's Messe Solennelle at the Victoria Theatre, Sydney, on 29 November 1869, which was an artistic success but a financial failure.

He composed little and none of his work was published, although a setting of the plain-song Improperia for two choirs was used for many years in St Mary's Cathedral. His pupils included John Albert Delany and Thomas Philip Banks, both of whom succeeded him at the cathedral. He died at Woolloomooloo on 15 July 1870 and was buried in the Church of England cemetery, Rookwood, where a handsome memorial was later erected by his friends. His wife Ellen Munton, whom he had married on 18 May 1858, was noted for her fine contralto voice. On 25 February 1871 she married John Balfour Clement Miles and was for many years a popular vocalist in Sydney.

Cordner was one of the first thoroughly trained laymen to take a position as organist in Sydney; although a Protestant his influence as a musician in Catholic circles was greater than that of any other in the nineteenth century. Despite an uncouth manner from his years as a seaman he was able to command the affection of members of the various musical societies he directed.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, ‘The music of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney’, Organ Society of Sydney, Journal, 2 (1964) 4, 3 (1965) 1-3
  • Town and Country Journal, 23 July 1870
  • W. J. Cordner file (Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney).

Citation details

E. J. Lea-Scarlett, 'Cordner, William John (1826–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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