During the First World War music played a vital role for those at home. Popular songs of the day offered an important patriotic link between Australian and British families, promoting a feeling that the countries were united in their opposition to the enemy. Family and community sing-a-longs with songs such as ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Roses of Picardy’ helped civilians bear the uncertainty of knowing that their brothers, fathers and sons were facing terrible danger. What is less commonly known about the domestic front during the Great War is that a class of talented and dedicated women musicians forged careers in a way that would not have been possible during peace time.
Edna Mary Bridget Leer (b. Darlinghurst 1893 – d. Kogarah 1967) was one of these young, bright stars who lived in Sydney throughout the First World War. The NFSA has recently received the donation of a large collection of sheet music and musical journals belonging to Edna.
The recollections of her daughter and granddaughter have helped us uncover the intriguing story of this young woman and provided the context for how this music was performed. It is rare for a cultural institution to receive the donation of a comprehensive collection of sheet music which documents the career of an owner who was historically significant.
Investigation of digitised newspapers of the era has revealed detailed evidence of Edna’s musical performances and corroborates family stories about her career. Twice Edna had booked to travel to London to further her musical career but her mother’s ill-health and the onset of war meant that this was not to be. After obtaining her degree in Violin from the London College of Music examiners she then studied piano, mandolin, banjo and singing. Later she gave lessons in five or six instruments and formed her own ensemble, and purportedly she was a principal violinist in the first iteration of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra between 1912 and 1918.