Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A Transposed Life
James Murdoch, 

Born in Melbourne in 1912, composer, critic and new music impresario, Peggy Glanville Hicks left Australia in 1932 to study in London and Europe before moving to New York in 1941. There she hyphenated her name, contributed entries on contemporary US composers to a revised Grove’s Dictionary of Music, and reviewed concerts for the Herald-Tribune. Its musical editor, Virgil Thompson, advised her “Just tell ‘em what happened, baby. Nobody cares about your opinion”. 

PG-H cared very much. James Murdoch has not attempted a musicological study, though he reproduces enough of PG-H’s own explanations to show what she wanted to achieve. Although she had blind spots and increasing areas of ignorance, she possessed “a radar for musicality”.

Harmony was withering, she argued, and dissonance would not revive it, still less would twelve-tones or electronics. The future lay in devising new rhythmic patterns and a new scale, which meant learning from the East. Classical Greek modes appealed more than counterpoint or leitmotiv. Tunes belted out on a drum was her music of the future.

Her greatest public success was at the 1961 Athens Festival with a three-act opera, Nausicaa, based on Robert Graves’s celebration of Homer’s daughter. Murdoch regrets that it did not open the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

PG-H’s rule on how to dress could be applied to her compositional approach: ‘The essence of the timeless classic is to stay close to the laws of nature, creating direct from there – not from preconceptions”.

Not surprisingly, her second grand opera, Sappho, was rejected in 1963 as old-fashioned – “too modal” – and remains unperformed. As a composer for the stage, she believed that libretti were secondary. Audiences should be able to follow an opera, like a ballet, without understanding the words.

PG-H’s private life was almost as melodramatic as her stage creations. In 1938, she confirmed her vocation as a fag-hag by marrying fellow composer, the cute Stanley Bate who bashed her up and to whose advancement she subjugated her creativity, writing no music for the next five years. Her next grand passion was for Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky. They too fumbled rather than fucked. Aged 40, PG-H was seduced into a brief marriage before a comforting fling with Errol Flynn’s father. Her emotions then veered between poofter-bashing and Sapphic liaisons, not necessarily consummated.  As she wrote: “I can, and have, done without everything most of my life”. She did want to be a Dame of the British Empire.

Her feminism was tempered by her recognition that once women accepted a separate standard for their creativity “they’ve got you”. Men are remembered for their best, she wrote, women by their worst.

Even shorn of self-aggrandisement, PG-H danced a remarkable life, which Murdoch portrays with verve and affection. As director of the Australian Music Centre, he arranged for her to relocate in Sydney in 1975. Her end there in 1990 was messy. Despite another round of disputes over inheritance, her Paddington terrace became a residence for young composers, as practical a monument as Murdoch’s memoir is pleasing.