One Hand on the Manuscript: Music in Australian Cultural History 1930-1960
Humanities Research Centre, ANU, 266pp.
(eds) Nicholas Brown, et al.

Australian Book Review, September 1995, pp. 23-24.

Peter Tregear’s 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.

All the 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 explanation.

Writing about the Sydney production of Collits’ Inn in 1934, Kenneth Slessor commented in Smith’s Weekly:

That 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.

Among Jindy 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.

The collection 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.