AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - PIANISTS
New Britannia, 1970 first edition, 2004 edition
A good deal of the
Australian legend depends upon folk-song and ballad which in turn call
for portable instruments such as banjoes, fiddles and bones. Something
must be said about the 700 000 pianos which were reportedly brought into
Australia during the nineteenth century.
The piano, unlike its
predecessors, did not require incessant tuning. Its function in the
social life of the nineteenth century was analogous to that of the
radiogram today. It provided popular entertainment and the only
opportunity that most people had of hearing symphonies and operas, most
of which were issued in piano arrangement.
It would be wrong to
assume that the nineteenth-century piano was not a most portable item.
Despite its bulk it was brought, not only twelve thousand miles across
the ocean, but often another one thousand miles inland where it could
become one wall of a hut. As Roger Covell has pointed out:
Occasionally the piano
was an instrument of oppression of the lower orders, as when Lady
Hindmarsh forced six sailors to carry hers from the beach to Adelaide.
Sometimes its presence indicated that the good things of life were not
to be reserved exclusively for those in authority, and at least one
convict, John Grant, brought a harpsichord with him into exile.
The piano was the
inevitable accompaniment of colonial hopes and despairs. Richard
Mahony's first desire for his wife was to buy her a piano all her
friends had one. On the day he made two thousand pounds on the stock
market he fell asleep 'to the happy refrain: Now she shall have her
piano, God bless her! … the best that money can buy'. If its purchase
gave Mahony pleasure, its eventual sale to his erstwhile servant upset
him more than anything else. Not only did it signal the collapse of his
old life; it reminded him forcefully of the upward social mobility which
he had found so distasteful.
Australians took their
pianos to Fiji in the 1870s in pursuit of fresh wealth and in the firm
conviction that the Pacific was their pond. They had to sell them when
things went bad.
Pianos were often the
final evidence of some past dream or splendour. It was as if to sell the
piano was proof that it was all over. Alfred Joyce, who had started life
as a cockney, ended his days at his Norwood property with the sale of
his Collard & Collard. What more piteous sight could there be than
Thomas Peel's ‘miserable hut': 'Everything about him shows the
broken-down gentleman clay floors and handsome plate, curtains for doors
and piano-forte, windows without glass and costly china…'
The piano was not the
preserve of the middle classes. It was the pinnacle of working-class
aspirations; in the fulfillment of these hopes Mahony's servant was not
exceptional. In 1892, the young radical critic, Francis Adams, observed
that the urban tradesman generally owned 'a small, iron-framed,
time-payment piano, on which his daughters, returning well shod and too
well clothed, from the local public school … discoursed popular airs
with a powerful manual execution'.
A working class which
could afford such luxuries wanted nothing to do with revolution, a fact
which William Lane's novel A
Workingman's Paradise made clear when the protagonist, a European
socialist named Geisner, played 'The Marseillaise' on the piano. His
playing did not invoke the cry 'to arms' but was a 'softened,
spiritualized, purified' rendering, signifying the struggle in men's
The role of the piano
in Australian history was not confined to its usefulness as a barometer
of class consciousness. It was not a passive partner in the making of
the Australian legend but an active participant, as an examination of
the origins of 'Waltzing Matilda'`will reveal.
The story began in
Victoria in 1865 when Alice Macpherson played the piano for the
bushranger, Morgan, the night before he was shot. Shortly afterwards,
the Macphersons escaped from the Selection Acts and took up a new
property, Oondooroo, in Queensland. In 1895 'Banjo' Paterson holidayed
there and heard a tale that provided him with the theme for his ballad.
But, argues John Manifold, 'nothing might have come of it if fate had
not thrown a piano and singer in his way'. With the assistance of Alice
Macpherson's daughter, Christina, Paterson produced the work that has
come as close as any other to being a national anthem. Yet, despite its
theme, it was written around a squatter's piano, where, Manifold tells
us, 'A Thousand Miles Away', 'The Freehold on the Plain' and 'The
Eumerella Shore' were probably also written.
While it is true, as
Russel Ward pointed out, that 'Waltzing Matilda' epitomises his mythical
Australian's attitude to authority, it became 'the most popular of
Australian folk-songs' only because it received the imprimatur of Thomas
Wood, a pianoforte examiner from the Trinity College of Music. Wood's
visit took place in 1932. Before then, 'Waltzing Matilda' had been
considered impolite. But what, asks Covell, 'could be more respectable
than an English music examiner?'
Thus we are forced to
ask: what kind of nationalism is it that must await the visit of an
English music examiner before its anthem can become accepted? And what
kind of radicalism is it that gives such a prominent place to pianos?