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Tessa Birnie, 1959

Max Dupain

gelatin silver photograph (sheet: 15.3 cm x 10.5 cm, image: 13.3 cm x 10 cm)

Tessa Daphne Birnie OAM (1934-2008), concert pianist, claimed to have decided on a career in music after hearing a piano at her local hall as a four-year old. Birnie was ten when her mother took her to Wellington for professional piano lessons and by age 12 she could sight-read all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Aged 14, Birnie gave her first recital in Auckland and then toured New Zealand before heading to Europe with her mother, who was a devoted 'travelling companion, business manager, concert organiser and lady-in-waiting' to her daughter. She studied in Paris and London and then settled in Italy where she had further tuition with pianist Karl Schnabel. She made her concert debut in Paris in 1960 and throughout the next two decades enjoyed great international success. From the 1960s, Birnie lived in Sydney in the inner harbour suburb of Middle Cove. She established the Sydney Camerata Orchestra (1961) and the Australian Society for Keyboard Music (1964). Birnie was known as 'the marathon woman of the keyboard', renowned for such ambitious recital projects as the performing of all 450 piano works by Schubert, and for her phenomenal capacity to memorise music. She was awarded the German government's Beethoven Medallion in 1974, the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1985, and in 1997 published her autobiography I'm going to be a pianist.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Kathleen Barry 2009

Accession number: 2009.115

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Max Dupain (age 48 in 1959)

Tessa Daphne Birnie OAM (age 25 in 1959)

Subject professions

Performing arts

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