AUSTRALIAN MUSIC - AUSTRALIAN MUSIC 1930 - 1960
Hand on the Manuscript:
Book Review, September 1995,
opening sentence to his commentary on the songs of Fritz Hart sets the
problem posed to authors and readers of this collection of conference
papers: so much needs to be said in so little space about all but
forgotten composers – Roy Agnew, Ester Rofe, Dorian Le Gallienne and
Clive Douglas – who operated in a musical scene for which a dominant
key is yet to be discerned. Nicholas Brown had hoped that his
contributors would interrogate the concepts of aesthetics and
nationalism around which Roger Covell had constructed Australia’s
Music in 1967. None offers more than variations on those themes.
Bruce Johnson’s concluding call for a “New Cartography” sounds at
once overdue and over-reaching.
If one had to
choose between Bernard Smith’s Australian
Painting, or H M Green’s History
of Australian Literature on the one hand, and all the academic
essays about Australia’s visual arts or writing on the other, one
would face a difficult choice. But if one could retain Covell or the
little that has followed about our musical life, that thirty-year old
text would win with little hesitation.
contributors will benefit from reading each other’s essays.
Excitements are still to be had in exploring the music of Australia
whereas the study of our literature and the visual arts has fallen
between the slough of too many details and the ditch of too much of the
higher nonsense. The coming generation of musical historians has a
slender hold on the other arts as well as on social and cultural
matters. The Bach-to-Brahms tradition in our university departments
devalued Australian experience while emphasising the identification of
key changes rather than the locating of those techniques within
biographical or cultural contexts. By contrast, this collection serves
up very little musicological analysis beyond a few pages on
Sutherland’s “Chiaroscuro I” for piano. John Richard on music high
and low is as close as anyone comes to a contextual theme, and he is a
general historian, not a musicologist. Elsewhere, clichés about
“distance” and “the cringe” abound. One contributor considers
the month’s sea voyage between London and Melbourne as significant in
delaying the experimental here. If only such tardiness had so simple an
Writing about the
Sydney production of Collits’
Inn in 1934, Kenneth Slessor commented in Smith’s
the day has arrived when Austrlaian history has become theatre stuff. On
the first night, an Australian audience saw an Australian story, with a
definitely Australian setting, and clapped it to the echo. Collit’s Inn should be only the first of a series of musical
romances with Australian settings.
Bronwyn Arthur does
not compare Collits’ Inn
with Robbery Under Arms from
forty years earlier which, although not a musical, is a relevant
precedent through which to show that Slessor’s generation was also
ill-informed about theatre history. Fortunately for 1990s scholars, the
texts of both have been made available by Currency Press.
Another instance of
this slender acquaintance with Australian culture appears in Malcolm
Gillies’s discussion of Percy Grainger in relation to 1930s
nationalism. Gillies passes over the dispute about the need for castles
in order to create culture, a notion revived by the professor of English
at the University of Melbourne, Professor Cowling, in the Age in February 1934, two months after Grainger’s return. That
article led on to Inky Stephensen’s manifesto “The Foundations of
Culture in Australia”, and then to the Jindyworobak movement around
Rex Ingamells. However, it is always amusing to encounter Grainger’s
prose, such as when he writes that “on the slopes of Melbourne Plant-loresome
[Botanic] Gardens in great chance-for-all-somely-mooded open-to-all
high-tonefeasts [festivals of music.” The daffiness of his blue-eyed
English is clear in Grainger’s failure to set it to music.
concerns was the quest for metaphors appropriate for Australia, even
seeing Aboriginal words, just as central European modernists were
turning to folk idioms. The Jindy’s prosody had its counterparts in
music though, as Henry Tate observed, it was more important for
Australia to possess a Bartok than a butcher bird.
Songs, individual or choral, form a large part of the output of composers discussed here. May Brahe was Australia’s most commercially successful ever, with hits such as “Bless this House”.
Although the 1914
season of Australian operas did not take up local subjects, the life of
Gertrude Johnson became as operatic as any Verdi plot. Her fiancé had a
mistress who took her own life rather than give up their man. The shock
deprived Johnson of her voice. She returned to Australia in 1935 to work
for a “National Theatre”.
An ivory ceiling of
sexism operated among musical pedagogues, despite so many teachers being
women. “We have an unwritten law that women examiners shall not be
used by us”, declared the Australian Music Examination Board secretary
in 1937. Thirty years later, no woman was included in the dozen
contemporary Australian composers whose work the Commonwealth promoted
across Europe. Helen Gifford explains how Margaret Sutherland was
devastated by her exclusion, which perhaps contributed ot her stroke.
provides lots of footnotes, but no bibliography and no index. A CD
sampler continues the 16-CD series which Larry Sitsky has promoted and
which are still available from the Canberra School of Music. The proof
of the composing is in the listening as I found when I was given the
double CD release from the ABC of piano music by Miriam Hyde and
Margaret Sutherland [446 285-2]. I would not mind if I were never to
hear the Hyde works again while Sutherland’s drew me back for several
replays during the following week.