Collingwood Notables Database
Otto Asmus Rohlk
Pianist, cellist, music teacher, orchestra conductor
Born in country Victoria to German parents, Otto Rohlk became a household name as a music teacher, performer, and conductor in the Clifton Hill district for over twenty years. At the Clifton Hill School of Music he taught piano, viola, violin, and violoncello and his students formed orchestras which performed regularly under his baton.
Otto’s parents August Asmus Rohlk and Mathilde Junge were from Schleswig-Holstein, an oft-disputed territory on the border between Denmark and Germany. They headed for the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, along with many other German immigrants trying their luck at mining in the new country, although whether August was a miner is not known. Georg, Mathilde and Otto were born at Tarnagulla, and younger brother Edwin at nearby Newbridge; two younger sisters died in infancy. The family moved to Ironbark (Bendigo) where their mother died in 1872. The children gained prizes at Ironbark School. In 1878 August decided to pack up and move to Melbourne, where he settled in Carlton as a musician and music teacher. It was not long before he followed his wife and infants to the grave, dying at the age of 55 in 1883. His Carlton residence was incorporated in the Lemon Tree Hotel.
In the ensuing decade the four siblings married and pursued their careers. It seems that Otto may have been a partner in Rohlk Brothers shoe emporium before leaving his brother George to continue the boot making business alone in Victoria Parade (and buy up the terrace of five shops-dwellings) while Otto took up a very different career. In December 1890 he married Carrie (Anna Caroline) Hogrefe, Richmond-born daughter of Lutheran German immigrants, at the German Lutheran Trinity Church in East Melbourne. From 1891 the couple were living at 230 McKean Street, North Fitzroy where Otto had established the Clifton Hill School of Music, promoted in a weekly advertisement in local paper The Mercury. Otto joined the Society of Musicians of Australia, patterned on the Royal Society of Musicians in England, and founded in 1889 by composer and teacher Julius Herz. We know nothing about Otto’s musical training, but could hazard a guess that at least some of it came from his father. At the age of 12 he had an accident which led to the amputation of his left thumb but must have trained himself to manage his musical instruments without it.
Reports of his pupils’ concerts featured regularly in newspapers. Here is a typical one, a vocal and instrumental concert in aid of the Distress Relief Fund in August 1892 at the Albert Hall in Queens Parade Clifton Hill:
The opening number, a Festive March … played on 25 string instruments, was very effective… Piano duet by Misses McLaughlin and Berry was played with fine expression. Mrs Morrison’s song ‘Alla Stella Confidente’ with ‘cello obligato created quite a furore, she having to respond to an encore… A trio for piano, violin, and cello (Haydn) by Miss E Wood, and Messrs Hogrefe and Roder, was a very enjoyable item … Mr Hogrefe’s violin solo was one of the best numbers in the programme … Miss E. Berry played a solo by Mozart, with variations, showing good sound technical ability. … Mr Rohlk in his two bracketed solos shows that Clifton Hill possesses in him a sterling musician.
Mr Hogrefe was Julius, Carrie’s younger brother, who featured in various musical performances until his untimely death in 1902. As well as the many concerts frequently presented in the Albert Hall, the orchestras were often called on to play at local events. Among the many occasions just a few examples are St Joseph’s Church Fair, The Magpies Fair and Art Union (fundraiser for Collingwood Football Club), the Collingwood State Schools’ Entertainment and Prize-giving at the Collingwood Town Hall, St Andrew’s Cricket Club Concert and Dance (with the ANA Orchestra of thirty-five members), the Fitzroy Horticultural Society and civic moonlight concerts at the Fitzroy cricket ground.
At the series of ANA (Australian Natives Association) ladies subscription dances held at Denton Hall in McKean Street North Fitzroy ‘splendid music was supplied by Herr Otto Rohlk’s band’. In 1897, at the unveiling of three stained glass windows donated by parishioner Mr Verga to St John’s Church in Queens Parade, Otto played the violoncello, while his orchestra played at many other St John’s events such as their May Fair.
Around 1896 the Rohlks had moved across the road to another two-storey residence at 211 McKean Street, but by 1898 were renting 157 Queens Parade, where the ground floor shop would have provided a better space for lessons and practice, separated from the upstairs dwelling. Around this time, he added piano tuning and violin importing to his repertoire. In the meantime, the children were growing up. Frieda and Gladys attended the Westleigh School run by the Misses Westgarth in Hodgkinson Street Clifton Hill. Both won the prize for Writing in the Kindergarten class and Frieda was Dux of Grade Three in 1900.
In 1899 the Clifton Hill Branch of the A.N.A decided to form an orchestra and
… for the position of hon. conductor, Herr O. Rohlk was elected unanimously … It is intended that the orchestra shall meet for practice on Friday evenings at Herr Rohlk's studio, Queens-parade; and, we may add, with a conductor such as the branch has been lucky enough to secure, unlimited orchestral successes can be confidently looked for.
While Rohlk himself did not use the titles Professor and Herr, reporters often bestowed these honorifics which gave a certain cachet to musicians and music teachers.
Another enthusiastic local group was the Nomads Club, whose concert and comedy nights at the Albert Hall opened with an overture by Otto Rohlk’s orchestra. A photo of the group taken in 1903 and presented to Rohlk ‘as a token of esteem’ possibly includes Otto but he is not identified (see link below). Despite the rapidly increasing membership the group did not survive for more than a few years.
Rohlk’s performances were not limited to the local district. In 1906 a reporter commented drily on the fortnightly open air concerts at South Melbourne Cricket Ground that ‘the introduction of Herr Otto Rohlk’s orchestra was a distinct improvement’ and Rohlk became a regular.
Two of his pupils became well-known performers, especially Elsie Berry, resident of Turnbull Street and later Heidelberg Road. As the Fitzroy City Press said in 1906 ‘Miss Elsie Berry is so well and favorably known that comment is unnecessary’. As well as piano, she specialised in elocution, while her sister was later well known as Madame Ethel Ashton, a pianist and soprano.
Around 1908 the Rohlks moved house to Canterbury, but until 1916 or 1917 Otto continued the Clifton Hill School of Music, which by late 1909 had re-located to 191 (now number 193) Queens Parade, a small cottage named Viola where Maude Estcourt and her young daughter Aileen lived. However from this time there are fewer mentions in the press of musical performances, although the Canterbury School of Music and the Canterbury orchestra were formed. The Rohlks also participated in local fund-raising activities such as a concert on behalf of Surrey Hill library in 1912, when Otto played the cello, Carrie the cornet and Frieda the clarinet. Frieda assisted her father with the Canterbury School of Music and developed her own career as a performer and teacher. (Her only child, born in 1916, was charmingly named Viola). She joined the Southern Cross Women’s Orchestra, established in 1909 and conducted by Miss Hume-Black, playing the clarinet (‘unusual for a woman’) and also specialised in elocutionary performances, both dramatic and comic. At a fundraising concert for the Williamstown and Footscray Hospital:
Miss Frieda Rohlk in her inimitable manner gave a couple of recitations, Entertaining Her Young Man; and Matrimony, both being given in fine style.
Independent (Footscray) 14 December 1912, page 1
When Rohlk ceased giving lessons at Viola in 1916 or 1917, piano teaching was taken over there by Aileen Estcourt and continued for many years. Otto and Carrie moved to Frankston by the 1930s. Here they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in December 1940, then died within a few months of each other in 1941.
193 Queens Parade
157 Queens Parade
|Birth Date||Birth Place|
|Spouse Name||Date of Marriage||Children|
|Carrie (Anna Caroline) Hogrefe, died 13 February 1941||22 December 1890||Frieda Dolce Carol 1891-1946, Julius Mozart 1893-93, Anna Gladys Wilhelmina 1894-1985, Karl Oswald 1895-1986|
|Home Street||Home City||Status of Building|
|230 McKean Street||North Fitzroy||Extant|
|211 McKean Street||North Fitzroy||Extant|
|157 Queens Parade||Clifton Hill||Extant|
|Work Street||Work City||Status of Building|
|193 Queens Parade||Clifton Hill||Extant|
|Death Date||Death Place||Cemetery|
|7 April 1941||Frankston||Frankston|
Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser; Bendigo Advertiser; The Argus; The Age; Fitzroy City Press; Mercury and Weekly Courier; The Herald; The Coburg Leader; Table Talk; Advocate; Punch; Reporter (Box Hill); Camberwell and Hawthorn Advertiser; Record (Emerald Hill); The Advance Australia; Glengarry Toongabbie and Cowwarr Journal and Central Gippsland Reporter; Brighton Southern Cross; Standard (Frankston).
Trove list: “Otto Rohlk”