The Elder Conservatorium of Music was formally constituted in 1898 as the result of a major philanthropic bequest from the will of the Scottish-Australian pastoralist, Sir Thomas Elder, whose statue stands outside Elder Hall. The history, however, goes back further than 1898. An earlier philanthropic donation from Sir Thomas Elder had helped to establish the Elder Professorship of Music in 1883, with the first incumbent taking up the post in 1884. At the same time, Sir Thomas Elder had established endowment funds in parallel for the Royal College of Music in London and the Music Board of the University of Adelaide to support the Elder Overseas Scholarship (in Music). 1883 was also the year in which Berlin-trained pianist Immanuel Gotthold Reimann founded his privately owned and run Adelaide College of Music, of which Cecil Sharp (later to become famous as collector of folk songs) became co-director in 1889. For the first few years the new school of music at the University of Adelaide (which focussed on composition and theory) and the Adelaide College of Music (which focussed on practical training in performance) complemented each other. In 1898 the two schools were merged, operating in the College's Wakefield Street premises until 1900, when the North Terrace building was completed. Hermann Heinicke founded the first Conservatorium Orchestra.
In its current form, then, the Elder Conservatorium of Music is a product of three mergers: one in the late nineteenth century (1898) with the Adelaide College of Music; one in the late twentieth century (1991), with the School of Performing Arts of the then South Australian College of Advanced Education; and one at the beginning of the twenty-first century (2001), with the School of Music of the Adelaide Institute of TAFE (aka Flinders Street School of Music). Formerly a Faculty of the University (the Faculty of Music) it is now constituted as a professional School within the Faculty of Arts. Since 2002 it has been an associate member of the Association of European Conservatoires (AEC), and is also a partner school of the Helpmann Academy, an umbrella body created by the State Government of South Australia to promote collaboration between various schools of visual and performing arts.
There have so far been only seven incumbents of the Elder Professorship of Music, all of whom have also served as Director and/or Dean of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and have provided the artistic and academic leadership for the institution: Professor Joshua Ives (1884–1901); Professor J. Matthew Ennis (1902–1918); Professor Dr. E. Harold Davies (1918–1948); pianist and arts administrator, Professor John Bishop, OBE (1946–1966); the tenor, Professor David Galliver, AM (1966–1983); German conductor, Professor Heribert Esser (1986–1993); and composer, Professor Dr. Charles Bodman Rae (since 2001). Since the late 1970s the administrative position of Director of the Conservatorium has from time to time been occupied by a Staff member other than the Elder Professor of Music. In this category can be included: the clarinettist, David Shepherd; the pianist, Clemens Leske AM; the horn player, Patrick Brislan; the pianist, David Lockett AM; and the choral conductor, Carl Crossin. Since 2014 the Director has been the noted composer, Professor Graeme Koehne, AO.
In 1886, Professor Ives established the first Australian public music examinations system, modelled on that of the Guildhall School of Music in London. This directly led to the establishment of the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). In 1898, through the Elder Conservatorium, the University of Adelaide was the first in Australia to establish regulations for the degree of Doctor of Music (DMus), and in 1902, Edward Harold Davies was awarded the first Australian doctorate of music. In 1918 the University became the first in Australia to award a doctorate in Music to a woman, Ruby Davy. In addition to Davies and Davy, recipients of the DMus award have included: Tristram Cary, OAM; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBE; Graeme Koehne; Charles Bodman Rae; David Lockett, AM; and Ross Edwards, AM.
In addition to the Elder Professors, many distinguished composers and performing musicians have been members of staff, including: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (composition fellow); Prof. David Cubbin (flute); Clive Carey (singing); Jiří Tancibudek (oboe); Gabor Reeves (clarinet); Beryl Kimber (violin); Clemens Leske (piano); James Whitehead (cello); Lance Dossor (piano); Richard Meale (composition); Tristram Cary (electronic music); Janis Laurs, cello; Keith Crellin, OAM (violist, resident conductor and head of strings); Graeme Koehne (composition). In the 1990s Prof. Andrew McCredie held a personal chair in musicology. The Australian String Quartet was established in 1985 and since 1991 has been quartet-in-residence at the Elder Conservatorium. In 2011 a new contemporary music ensemble, the Soundstream Collective, was established as ensemble-in-residence, under the artistic direction of Gabriella Smart.
The Bishop years are generally considered to have been some of the most exciting and progressive in the history of the Elder Conservatorium, with initiatives such as the appointment of the University of Adelaide Wind Quintet, and the establishment of the Adelaide Festival of Arts (of which Bishop was the inaugural Artistic Director). The years since the appointment of Bodman Rae in 2001 also witnessed transformational changes that re-established the position of the Elder Conservatorium as one of Australia's leading music academies. In 2005 the Elder Conservatorium received a Classical Music Award (from the Australasian Performing Rights Association) for "outstanding contribution by an organisation" (the only Australian music academy to have won such an award), in recognition of its music program for the 2004 Adelaide Festival of Arts (curated by Bodman Rae). In 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013 the Elder Conservatorium hosted the National Music Camp (Australian Youth Orchestra's annual summer school, founded by Bishop), which is Australia's largest annual musical event.
In 2009 the Australian federal government, through the Australian Research Council, carried out a trial for the first comprehensive assessment of research in all Australian universities. The submission from the Elder Conservatorium of Music was assessed, along with the musical research of all other Australian music academies, tertiary music schools, and music departments, in the category of 'Creative Arts and Writing' (category 19) and was awarded the highest possible rating (grade 5), signifying that it "...well exceeded world standards..." for its research. Since then it has been the only Australian music institution to achieve the top research rating in each of the subsequent research assessment exercises: ERA 2010, and ERA 2012. It is thus the only Australian music academy to have received this accolade of the highest possible rating for its research in all three research assessments. Its principal research strengths lie in the cognate fields of Composition and the Performance of New Music.
The Elder Conservatorium of Music has been awarding degrees and diplomas in music - equally, to both men and women - since the end of the nineteenth century. It is sometimes erroneously said that the early degree programs were modelled on those at the University of Cambridge. It is true that Professor Ives had graduated (albeit as an external candidate) with the MusB degree from Cambridge, and the academic robes are based on those from Cambridge, but the degree programs of the University of Adelaide were - and to a large extent still are - based on the Scottish rather than English model. This reflects the fact that most of the founding fathers of the university were Scots. Furthermore, the Cambridge MusB degree was taken as a second, postgraduate degree, whereas the Elder Conservatorium's BMus degree is a first degree award. The differences are most striking when viewed from the perspective of educational opportunities for women. Whereas women were not able to graduate from the University of Cambridge until shortly after the Second World War, they were graduating from the Elder Conservatorium of Music (and the University of Adelaide as a whole) fifty years earlier.
The Elder Conservatorium offers a single academic undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Music, with eight areas of specialisation including Classical performance, Jazz performance, Composition, Musicology and Ethnomusicology, Music Education, Music Technology and Popular Music. A one-year Honours program is offered for all specialisations. Postgraduate awards include: the graduate diplomas; Master's degrees in Composition, Performance, Music Technology, Musicology, Ethnomusicology and Instrumental Pedagogy; the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), available in Performance, Composition and Musicology; and the higher Doctorate of Music (DMus). A large number of adjunct staff includes most of the principals of the highly regarded Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
From 2002 to 2013 the Elder Conservatorium was unique among Conservatoria in Australia in being a dual-sector institution also offering pre-degree specialist programs in Music, including Certificates in Classical performance, Jazz performance, Music Technology, and Composition, and Diplomas in Sound Engineering, Classical performance and Jazz Performance. After 2013 these pre-degree programs were discontinued
The Elder Conservatorium provides a comprehensive range of higher degrees by research. In 2004 it introduced to Australia the concept of the PhD degree by examination of a portfolio of recorded performances, a concept since emulated by other institutions. Hence it is able to offer the PhD degree by several modes of investigation and examination: Musical Composition (by portfolio of original creative works); Musical Performance (by portfolio of recorded performances); Musicology and Music Education (by conventional, text-based thesis). An application for the higher Doctorate of Music (DMus) can be considered (from existing graduates of the institution) in the fields of Musical Composition, Musical Performance, or Musicology, or in any combination of these three disciplines. Each year since 2004 the Elder Conservatorium has had the largest concentration of music research students in Australia.
The Elder Music Library, located in the elegant Hartley Building facing Government House, is the largest music library in the Southern Hemisphere, containing just under 30,000 books, over 5400 journal volumes, over 120,000 music scores and around 22,000 sound recordings.
Elder Hall is one of Australia's finest and most historic concert halls. Building commenced in 1898 and it was officially opened in 1900 by the then Governor of South Australia, Lord Tennyson. Its spacious interior features a magnificent hammer-beam roof modelled on the Middle Temple in London, and a three-manual organ built by Casavant Frères of Canada. Elder Hall is the primary focus of the Conservatorium's successful annual concert series. Conservatorium concerts are also given in several other locations, including the Adelaide Town Hall, and St Peter's (Anglican) Cathedral in North Adelaide.
The Electronic Music Unit, formerly known as the Elder Electronic Music Studio (1962-1994) and the Performing Arts Technology Unit (1994- 2001) was founded in 1962 as a result of the engagement of Dr. Henk Badings as composer in residence at the Elder Conservatorium. Its facilities include recording studios, computer suites, and an historic collection of analogue synthesizers dating back to the 1960s. It is also used as a public venue for concerts of contemporary and experimental music. It was the first such studio in Australia. Many composers have been associated with it, including Henk Badings, Peter Tahourdin, Tristram Cary (the designer of the legendary VCS3 synthesizer), Martin Wesley-Smith and Stephen Whittington. The Electronic Music Unit offers a Bachelor of Music degree in Sonic Arts, and postgraduate studies.
The Elder Conservatorium maintains a large number of ensembles including: the Elder Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Keith Crellin OAM); the Elder Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra; the Elder Conservatorium Wind Orchestra (conducted by Robert Hower); the Elder Conservatorium Chorale (conducted by Carl Crossin OAM); the Elder Conservatorium Big Band (directed by Dustan Cox); the Elder Conservatorium Latin Jazz Ensemble (directed by Mark Ferguson) and the jazz choir Adelaide Connection (directed by Lauren Henderson). There are also other choirs, big bands, numerous small jazz ensembles, and chamber music groups. The Conservatorium usually presents one major opera production each year. Recent productions have included: Monteverdi's Orfeo (2002), The Marriage of Figaro (2003), The Magic Flute (2005), Dido and Aeneas (2008), and Into the Woods (2014)