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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Zelman, Alberto (1832–1907)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Alberto Zelman (1832-1907), by unknown engraver, 1889

Alberto Zelman (1832-1907), by unknown engraver, 1889

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/07/89/11

Alberto Zelman (1832-1907), musician, was born in Trieste, Austria, son of Samuel Victor Zelman, linguist, and his wife Bunina, née Cologna. He received a thorough musical education in Trieste, studying composition with Luigi Ricci (1805-1859), musical director of Trieste Cathedral and conductor of the opera. In 1852 he collaborated with Albert Randegger (1832-1911) in composing the opera Il Lazzarone. He toured northern Italy as an operatic conductor and had already written several suites of ballet music before leaving Italy for India.

On 28 August 1871 Zelman arrived in Sydney in the Rangoon from Calcutta. He joined the Cagli-Pompei Royal Italian Opera Company as conductor and made his début on 4 September. After a season in Sydney the company toured New Zealand, returning to Melbourne from Dunedin on 16 February 1872 in the Rangitoto. They went on to Adelaide and after a successful season returned to Melbourne in the Coorong on 18 April, where the company came under the entrepreneurial wing of William Lyster. Zelman's first appearance in Melbourne was on 6 May as associate conductor at a benefit concert held at the Town Hall for the Melbourne Hospital; he also made his début as both pianist and composer, playing his own 'Scherzo Fantastica'. He first conducted opera in Melbourne on 13 May at the Princess Theatre for the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in the Cagli-Lyster Italian opera season. On 6 December 1873 at the Fitzroy Registry Office he married Harriott Eliza Hodgkinson, a 22-year-old musician.

Zelman remained in Melbourne for many years as a conductor for Lyster's opera seasons. He was also a teacher of piano and an organist of some repute, and in 1884 he was vice-president of the Musical Artists' Society of Victoria. During the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition he helped to organize the exhibition's chorus and orchestra, and acted as conductor whenever Sir Frederick Cowen was absent. In 1887, during J. Siede's illness, he conducted the Melbourne Liedertafel and took over the post when Siede died in 1889; because of his own ill health he resigned in 1890, but after resuming temporarily he quit next year. As conductor of the Australian Military Band for nearly twenty-five years he was a familiar figure at Victoria Racing Club meetings at Flemington.

Zelman was a notable linguist, a voracious reader and a British patriot. Contemporaries hailed his versatility as a musician when, in an emergency, he created an orchestration from a piano score for an advertised performance of Lohengrin: recently this tour de force has been decried as musical sacrilege but it was probably a workmanlike response to a need to keep faith with the public. He conducted the choirs of several Catholic churches in Melbourne, his last post being at St Ignatius's Church in Richmond. He formed a long association with George Curtis and Alfred Montague in chamber music performances. As a composer he was best known for his offertories: 'Coronation March', 'Salve Regina', 'Legend of the Cross-Bill' and 'There is a Green Hill'.

Zelman died of heart failure, aged 75, on 28 December 1907 at his home in Albert Street, Auburn, survived by his wife and four sons. The funeral was conducted by Rev. Charles Strong and he was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. His eldest son Alberto Victor was also a well-known musician.

Select Bibliography

  • G. R. Davies, Music Makers of the Sunny South (Malvern, 1932)
  • W. A. Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Apr, 2, 4, 14 May 1872, 30 Dec 1907
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10, 14 May 1872, 30 Dec 1907, 3 May 1930
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Dec 1907
  • Australasian, 4 Jan 1908
  • Leader (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1908
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1908
  • M. T. Radic, Aspects of Organised Amateur Music in Melbourne 1836-1890 (M. Mus. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968)
  • Minute books, 1878-95, and scrapbook, 1887 (Melbourne Liedertafel Society)
  • historical press cuttings, vols 2 and 5b (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Zelman, Alberto (1832–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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