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Known as Singapore’s Grand Old Man of Music, Paul Abisheganaden was a key figure in the republic’s early musical life and an instrumental pioneer in the development of Western classical music in Singapore. He founded the Singapore Chamber Ensemble, an amateur group that was the mainstay of Singapore’s classical music scene for 30 years, and eventually went on to form the foundation of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In 2005, he published his semi-autobiographical tome on the history of Western classical music in Singapore, Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes from a Musical Life, which was immediately regarded as a invaluable resource. In 1986, Abisheganaden received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music.
Born in Penang in 1914, Paul Abisheganaden’s family moved to Singapore when he was two years old. At the age of four, Abisheganaden learnt how to play the violin from his father, a keen amateur musican who played many instruments and who was an expert on Lutheran hymns, Bach and Handel. Surrounded by music, Abisheganaden learnt to love Western classical music, and continued his violin studies with Chee Kong Tet, who was the leader of the Chia Keng Tai Orchestra, the first orchestra formed by Singaporean musicians.
Abisheganaden went on to learn singing, and sang in the St. Andrew’s Cathedral Choir while he studied in St. Andrew’s School. Following that, he attended Raffles College, graduating with a diploma in the arts, and began what would be a long and distinguished career in teaching.
He first taught in Geylang English School, and it was also there that he began making Singapore musical history. In 1935, at the encouragement of the school principal and the support of Glan Williams, the Master of Music for the Colony of Singapore, Abisheganaden composed the music and wrote the lyrics of a school song for the school. This was Singapore’s first-ever school anthem.
Under the guidance of Williams, Abisheganaden learnt how to conduct. And as the Japanese Occupation years arrived, Abisheganaden would play violin in the Syonon Kokkaido Orchestra, occasionally taking over conducting duties when the leader of the orchestra was not available. During this period, he continued teaching music and other subjects in various boys' schools.
When the Japanese Occupation ended, Abisheganaden spent a spell as a violinist in the Entertainments for National Service Associations Symphony Orchestra. In 1947, he received a scholarship from the British Council—becoming the first Singaporean to do so—to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, UK. There, he studied conducting under Joseph Lewis, and honed his conducting skills by leading the college orchestra in the occasional concert.
Graduating in 1949 with majors in conducting and singing, Abisheganaden returned to Singapore and resumed his career with the Department of Education as Acting Master of Music. In his free time, he organised a small informal choir and not long after that, decided to gather some musicans together, forming the Singapore Chamber Ensemble in 1949. This was to be amongst Abisheganaden’s most significant contributions to Singapore music, as the Singapore Chamber Ensemble would become a staple in the nation’s Western music scene for the next few decades, eventually having its core musicians moving on to form the foundation of Singapore’s first professional orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
At a time when Western classical music in Singapore was purely a domain of the Western expatriate community, the Singapore Chamber Ensemble was the first Singapore music group comprising mainly Asian members, and was also the first music group of that scale to be conducted and led by a Singaporean. Over the years, the amateur ensemble gave both well-known and up-and-coming amateur musicians invaluable performance opportunities. In 1958, Abisheganaden conducted the ensemble in the first ever orchestral performance of Majulah Singapura, which later was adopted as the national anthem of Singapore.
Throughout the time Abisheganaden spent leading the Singapore Chamber Ensemble, he continued his full-time educational career, serving as the principal of Victoria School and then the Teachers’ Training College for the better part of the ’60s. He then went on to become a chief inspector of schools at the Ministry of Education. Along the way, his musical activities expanded as he helped the Ministry of Culture organise the first Southeast Asian Festival of Arts—also conducting its festival orchestra—and wrote classical music programmes for Radio Television Singapore.
The year that the Singapore Chamber Ensemble ceased its regular activities and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was formed—1979—would signal another momentous time in Abisheganaden’s life. That year, he became the founding director of the Centre for Musical Activities (later renamed Centre for the Arts) at the National University of Singapore, nurturing scores of amateur musicians at the university over the 14 years of his tenure, after which he was made a fellow of the Centre for the Arts. At the same time, he revived and led the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra, which was renamed the Singapore Youth Orchestra. He also served as music director of the National University of Singapore Concert Orchestra (later renamed the National University of Singapore Symphony Orchestra)—this was the first musical position for which he would receive any income.
In 1996, the Singapore Chamber Ensemble gave its last concert—a choral performance— in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The following year, Abisheganaden, too, took part in his last performance, conducting a concert at Harbour Pavilion in Singapore. His musical contributions, however, continued as he set about putting down his vast knowledge of Western music history in Singapore to posterity. In 2005, Abisheganaden finished writing and published Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes of a Musical Life, a semi-autobiographical tome that became Singapore’s first unofficial musico-historical survey, and an invaluable resource for Singapore music.
For his instrumental contributions to music in Singapore, Abisheganaden received many honours. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1956, and received a Composers and Authors Society of Singapore Meritorious Award in 2006. The following year, he received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from the National University of Singapore. In 1986, Abisheganaden received the Cultural Medallion.
Paul Abisheganaden passed away in 2011 at age 97. Up until his last days, he continued to attend concerts at the National University of Singapore, staying behind after performances to speak with students. Remembered as a passionate advocate for amateur music making and music lover who nurtured and shaped the lives of a generation of Singapore musicians, Abisheganaden’s legacy lives on in their performances and memories.
In Jul 2012, with the help of a donation of $100,000 by Abisheganaden’s three daughters, the National University of Singapore set up the Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence to encourage emerging performing artists in the university.
Born in Penang, Straits Settlements.
Moved with family to Singapore.
Attended Serangoon English School.
Attended St. Andrew's School.
Graduated from Raffles College (now know as National University of Singapore) with Diploma in the Arts.
Teacher, Geylang English School
Composer, Geylang English School Song. Singapore's first school song.
Teacher (English, English Literature, History and Music) at Raffles Institution, Anglo-Chinese School and St. Anthony's Boys School.
Violinist and occasional conductor, Syonan Kokkaido Orchestra.
Violinist, Entertainments for National Service Associations (ENSA) Symphony Orchestra.
Received a British Council scholarship to study at the Guildhall of Music and Drama, London. First Singaporean to receive this honour.
Graduated from Guildhall of Music and Drama, London, with majors in singing and conducting.
Conductor, Singapore Chamber Ensemble.
Founder, Singapore Chamber Ensemble.
Conductor, Choral and Orchestral Concert, Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra and Combined Schools Choir, Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
Singapore representative, Regional Music Conference of Southeast Asia, UNESCO, Manila, Philippines. With Goh Soon Tioe as other representative.
Named as Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Conducted the Singapore Chamber Ensemble in the first orchestral performance of Zubir Said’s Majulah Singapura, which was adopted as Singapore’s national anthem.
Principal, Victoria School.
Helped organise the first Southeast Asian Festival of Arts, Ministry of Culture.
Concert conductor, Singapore Festival Symphony Orchestra, Southeast Asian Festival of Arts.
Principal, Teachers’ Training College.
Chief Inspector of Schools, Ministry of Education.
Founding director, Centre for Musical Activities (later renamed Centre for the Arts), National University of Singapore.
Revived and conducted the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Singapore Youth Orchestra).
Music Director, National University of Singapore Concert Orchestra (now known as National University of Singapore Symphony Orchestra).
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.
Fellow, Centre of the Arts, National University of Singapore.
Published Notes Across the Years: Anecdotes from a Musical Life.
Received Composers and Authors Society of Singapore Meritorious Award.
Received National University of Singapore Distinguished Alumni Service Award.
Passed away at age 97.
Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence set up by National University of Singapore with $100,000 donation by Abisheganaden's three daughters.
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Paul Abisheganaden conducting the Singapore Junior Symphony Orchestra and the Combined Schools Choir at Palm Court, Raffles Hotel. 12 Aug 1949.
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Paul Abisheganaden conducting at Palm Court, Raffles Hotel. This was his first public concert in Singapore. 12 Aug 1949.
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Paul Abisheganaden with the Singapore Chamber Ensemble at St. Andrew's Cathedral. They performed Handel’s Messiah at the Christmas-tide service. Dec 1971.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.