The son of a jazz musician, Donald Oscar Banks (1923-1980) was born in Melbourne and was educated at Middle Park Central School and Melbourne Boys’ High School. He began learning the piano at the age of 5 and during his adolescence he played jazz piano. His first composition, the Don Banks Boogie, was recorded in 1941. He served in the Army Medical Corps in 1942-46 and then studied at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, graduating in 1949. He continued to play jazz, leading a sextet, the Donny Banks Boptet. After he left Australia he only composed occasional jazz pieces, but he incorporated jazz into music for the concert hall and films.
In 1950 Don Banks moved to London, where he was to be based until 1972. With Margaret Sutherland, he founded and organised the Australian Musical Association in 1951. He studied composition with Mátyás Seiber in London and later with Milton Babbitt in Salzburg and Luigi Dallapicolla in Florence. His first substantial composition was Duo for Violin and Cello, which won the Edwin Evans Prize in 1952. His Three Studies for Cello (1954) were his first twelve-tone compositions and most of his subsequent orchestral and chamber compositions belong to the tradition of the Second Vienna School. He also undertook ‘third-stream’ compositions, in which jazz and classical idioms were integrated, such as Settings from Roget (1966) which he wrote for the singer Cleo Laine. He had a strong interest in electronic music and in some works he combined conventional acoustic instruments with new synthetic ones. From the late 1950s onwards he wrote a huge amount of music for films, including 19 feature films, ten of which were horror films made by Hammer Productions. In 1969-71 he was music director at Goldsmiths College at the University of London.
In 1972 Banks returned to Australia and in the following year he was appointed Head of Composition and Electronic Music at the Canberra School of Music. He was the first Chairman of the Music Board of the Australia Council in 1973-74. He moved to the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music in 1978. He continued to compose, but illness restricted him in his last years. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1980.
In 1982 the National Library purchased the music manuscripts, printed scores, personal papers, books, programs and sound recordings of Don Banks from his wife, Valerie Banks. A large collection of letters written to Don and Valerie Banks was purchased from Valerie Banks in 1998.
The Banks Collection contains a comprehensive collection of manuscript scores, sketches and rough drafts. The orchestral and chamber music begin with the Fantasia for String Orchestra and Trio for Flute, Violin and Cello (1949) and ends with the choral work An Australian Entertainment (1979). It includes scores and sketches of major works such as Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (1965), Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1968), Intersections (1969), Meeting Place (1970) and Equation III (1972). In addition, there are juvenilia, jazz arrangements, sketches for film music, and other works.
Printed music scores
The Banks Collection contains about 450 printed music scores, many of them signed by Banks. They include works of the great classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Haydn and Mendelsohn, but modern compositions form the main strength of the collection. Among the European and American composers who are well represented are David Bedford, Alban Berg, Pierre Boulez, Earle Brown, Luigi Dallapicolla, Roberto Gerhard, Hans Werner Henze, Arnold Schoenberg, Mátyás Seiber, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett, Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern. Australian composers whose works are held include Colin Brumby, Nigel Butterly, Barry Conyngham, Ross Edwards, Keith Humble, David Lumsdaine and Larry Sitsky.
Reflecting the broad musical interests of Banks, the collection also contains scores of jazz pieces, dances and folk songs.
There are 321 books and issues of serials which formed part of the library of Don Banks. They include works on music history, music theory, composition, orchestration, instrumental techniques, the lives and work of individual composers, jazz, electronic music, films and poetry. Among the books are studies of Béla Bartok, Alban Berg, Hector Berlioz, Pierre Boulez, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and William Walton. There are sets of journals such as Classical Music Weekly, Composer and Musical Times and 91 concert programs, dating from 1941 to 1979.
The Don Banks Collection contains a large number of 78rpm, 45rpm and 33rpm discs, mostly of twentieth century European and American music. Some Australian composers are also represented in the collection, such as Barry Conyngham, George Dreyfus, Alfred Hill, Robert Hughes, Frank Hutchens, Richard Meale, James Penberthy, Margaret Sutherland, Felix Werder and Martin Wesley-Smith. There are some recordings of electronic music and jazz, including performances of the Donny Banks Boptet in Melbourne in 1950.
There are about 550 reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, the majority containing compositions of Banks. There are also performances of works of other composers, such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Roberto Gerhard, Keith Humble, David Lumsdaine, Richard Meale, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michael Tippett and Anton Webern. In addition, there are recordings of talks, interviews, seminar papers, radio programs and film scores and a number of letter cassettes.
Extending from about 1948 to 1980, the personal papers of Don Banks are extensive. They include correspondence, diaries, notebooks, notes, program notes, analytic sketches, reports, subject files, concert programs, reviews, recording schedules, newspaper cuttings and photographs. There are records relating to the Australian Musical Association (1952-74), the Australian Society for Music Education, the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music and the International Society for Contemporary Music. The personal correspondence mostly dates from 1963-80 and includes letters from Tristram Cary, Helen Gifford, Graham Hair, Keith Humble, Salvatore Martirano, James Murdoch, Mátyás Seiber, Larry Sitsky, Margaret Sutherland, Patrick Thomas, Ken Tribe and Barry Tuckwell.
The music manuscripts and personal papers of Don Banks are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 6830. They are listed on pages 22-69 of the guide to the Don Banks Collection compiled by Graham Hair and published in 1999.
The books, journals and concert programs are housed in the Music Collection. They are listed on pages 71-85 of the guide compiled by Graham Hair. The books have also been catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefix MUS BANKS. The printed music scores are also held in the Music Collection. There is a reference to them on page 70 of the guide, but they have not been listed or catalogued.
The sound recordings are held in the Oral History Collection at ORAL TRC 3800. The discs are listed on pages 86-91 of the guide compiled by Graham Hair, but only about half of the 33rpm discs are listed. The reel-to-reel tapes and the cassettes are listed on pages 92-128 of the guide.
Barkl, Michael, ‘Banks, Don’, in The Oxford companion to Australian music, edited by Warren Bebbington, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 46-47
Hair, Graham, The Don Banks Collection in the National Library of Australia, Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1999
Hair, Graham, From Thursday Night Swing Club to the BBC Proms: the many sides of Don Banks, National Library of Australia News, vol. 8 (3), Dec. 1997, pp. 14-16
Sitsky, Larry, Banks, Donald Oscar (1923-1980), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)