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A Heritage Worthy of Revival – Australia’s forgotten music

by Rhoderick McNeill

None of Australia’s important composers have captured the national imagination like our sporting heroes.  They are not commemorated on Australian postage stamps or our money.  Nevertheless, in recent years it has been possible to hear and purchase commercial recordings of the major Australian orchestral works of our time, including music by Sculthorpe, Meale, Dean, Vine, Edwards, Broadstock and Koehne.  In contrast, older Australian works that pre-date 1970 are little-known.  This neglect may be partly due to the lasting influence of music commentators from the late 1960s and the 70s.  Sympathetic to the modernism emerging in the 1960s, they criticised the derivative element within older Australian music, especially the perceived influence of so-called British ‘pastoralism’. This view has not been displaced, despite the trends in musical fashion towards tonality, modality and ‘neo-romanticism’ of the past 30 years. Ironically, the important modernist works of the 1960s are also overshadowed by recent developments and share the neglect of the pre-1960s repertoire. It’s time to re-evaluate Australia’s concert music for orchestra. In this article I want to bring to your attention a number of Australian orchestral compositions that we should hear and celebrate.

GWL Marshall-Hall outside the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music c1915

Australia’s most famous composer is probably still Percy Grainger (1882-1961), but he spent a very limited period of his adult years in his home country and could be equally claimed by the US and Britain as their own. In the first half of the 20th century Australia was well-served by a number of British-trained composers who spent more time in their adopted country than Grainger did.  George W.L. Marshall-Hall’s (1862-1915) ‘larrikin’ behaviour overshadowed his legacy as an educator and conductor in Melbourne for over 20 years and his own compositions, which include two mature operas and two symphonies. The second, in E flat of 1903, was performed at the London Promenade concerts by Sir Henry Wood in 1907 as well as receiving several local performances. Marshall-Hall’s musical language is redolent of Brahms, Wagner and his teacher, Parry and conveys the energy and optimism of the early years of Federation, especially in the well-crafted first and second movements.

A fellow student of Holst and Vaughan Williams, Fritz Hart (1874-1948) lived in Melbourne from 1909 until 1935. Although predominately an opera composer (Riders to the Sea is available in a modern edition), Hart wrote two large-scale symphonic works while in Melbourne. The symphonic suite The Bush (1923) is redolent of Holst’s The Planets in its mixture of modality, impressionism and masterly orchestration. Hart’s Symphony (1934) has never been performed and a performing edition of the score and parts should be a priority in Australian music studies.

Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) lived in Sydney from 1934 until his death. There, both his second and third symphonies were composed and premiered. They are impressive achievements.   The compact, one-movement  Second Symphony of 1940 demonstrates affinities with Vaughan Williams’s Job and the colourful symphonies of Bax. Symphony No.3, a larger four-movement work, was completed only weeks before Bainton’s death in 1956. Its troubled, elegiac tone resolves into a serene epilogue summative to both the rest of the work and the style of Bainton’s generation.

Percy Grainger is the best-known of the Australian-born composers who achieved prominence in Britain and the United States.  However, his large-scale works for orchestra were few, although The Warriors, composed in response to an offhand comment by Beecham, is arguably his greatest achievement. Arthur Benjamin’s (1893-1960) neglect in Australia is astonishing given the brilliant finish and style of his music.  His Symphony (1945) is his finest work and shows his mastery of extended tonality and symphonic continuity. Hugh Clifford, a Victorian who studied with Hart, became an important music administrator in the BBC. Clifford composed a powerful four-movement symphony in 1940 which demonstrates similarities in idiom with Walton. The work was performed first in a BBC Australia Day broadcast in early 1945, but despite one or two performances in Australia has been largely neglected here. Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote her most important scores, including three operas The Transposed Heads, Nausicaa and Sappho while based in New York as a US citizen, including her long stint as music critic to the New York Herald-Tribune, and in Greece.

What about the Australian-born and based contingent of composers from the early 20th century?  Alfred Hill‘s (1869-1960) finest achievement was his series of string quartets that he completed in the late 1930s. Eleven of these he transcribed as symphonies during the last decade of his long life. Although the craftsmanship and melodic ability instilled by his Leipzig training is convincing, Hill’s capacity for more powerful expression was limited.  Perhaps his finest orchestral achievement is his 1940 Viola Concerto, which unashamedly proclaims its affinities with Bruch and Brahms and is a worthwhile addition to the limited Viola Concerto repertory. Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984) excelled in chamber music and her music demonstrates a mixture of neo-classicism, impressionism (she studied with Bax) and the harmonies of Bartók.  Of her orchestral music, the most worthy of note is her tone-poem The Haunted Hills, which she described as ‘a sound picture written in contemplation of the first people who roamed the hills’ and the Violin Concerto.

The first major Australian orchestral composition to gain national and international acclaim was John Antill’s symphonic ballet Corroboree, a suite of which was premiered by Eugene Goossens  in 1946. The full ballet was staged across Australia during the 1950s. Although Antill studied Central Australian Aboriginal culture through the writings and illustrations of ethnographers Spencer and Gillen as background to the work, Corroboree is not based on Aboriginal melodic themes.  Its use of clapping sticks and contrabassoon sets an evocative Australian flavour from the outset. Corroboree is unmistakably modern in idiom and its exciting, cumulative rhythmic drive has been likened to the Rite of Spring. Antill’s three-movement Symphony on a City of 1959 is also worth hearing and demonstrates a wider stylistic range.

The establishment of symphony orchestras in each Australian state following World War II was an important stimulus for new orchestral works. In 1951 the Commonwealth Jubilee Composers’ Competition drew 36 Australian entries with four local symphonies making the final cut of 11 works. Robert Hughes’s Symphony was awarded Second Prize as the best Australian entrant. A closely-argued and sinewy three-movement symphony, it so impressed Sir John Barbirolli that he commissioned a new work from Hughes for the Hallé Orchestra in 1957. The Sinfonietta is an energetic and colourful score of some 18 minutes’ duration. Both it and the symphony in its 1971 revision into four movements deserve revival. A new edition of the symphony score and parts was prepared by Dr Joanna Drimatis during 2008-9.

Matching it in importance are the Symphony in E by Dorian Le Gallienne (1915-1963) and Symphony No. 2 by David Morgan (born 1931). More progressive than Hughes’s idiom, Le Gallienne’s symphony was composed in 1953 following studies with Gordon Jacob in Britain. Its four movements are marked by powerful drive and linear clarity in the outer movements that recalls Rawsthorne, and a mysterious and sylph-like scherzo which sounds like no other composer. The work has never been published or recorded commercially.  Morgan composed his first two symphonies between 1949 and 1951 while still in his teens, and his second symphony was a finalist in the competition. The four movements are redolent of composers like Barber, Britten and Tippett, but maintain an intriguing individual voice culminating in a powerful fugue and blazing climax. Morgan continued to compose prolifically: of the generation of Sculthorpe and Williamson he is the most unfairly neglected composer in Australia. Raymond Hanson’s Symphony (1951) in one extended movement is another fine work worthy of investigation – its extended tonality is not dissimilar in idiom to Honegger or Hindemith.

George Dreyfus with a portrait of himself

During the 1960s a new generation of Australian composers influenced by post-war European modernism emerged – the early works of Sculthorpe, Butterley, Sitsky and Meale were hailed as bringing Australian composition up to date.  However this important development also eclipsed the work of contemporary composers who demonstrated for the first time in Australia a real mastery of earlier European neo-classical styles. In hindsight, the work of Malcolm Williamson shows a sense of polish and sophistication well in advance of his contemporaries. Perhaps he was considered unfashionable because of his eclectic palette of serialism, harmonies adapted from Messiaen, jazz and popular music idioms as well as neo-classical drive and pulse. Impressive scores include Symphony No.1 ‘Elevami’, his ballet The Display (still remembered also for the huge lyrebird tail worn by the premier danseur), the Sinfonia Concertante and the Violin Concerto.

Also eclectic, George Dreyfus was arguably the first Australian-based composer to digest the idiom of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and rework it to his own purposes in his Symphony No.1 of 1967. This is a ‘watershed’ work that on the one hand connects to the Australian symphonic tradition of the 1950s as expressed by Hughes and Le Gallienne, and on the other looks forward to the return of tonality, pulse and audience accessibility that one finds in the symphonic works of Vine and Edwards from the late 1980s and 1990s.

Despite their neglect, Australian composers produced a body of work that is worthy of comparison with mid 20th century American and British symphonic composers that are increasingly appreciated through recent recordings. We have complete cycles of Schuman, Piston, Diamond and Harris symphonies from America; Frankel, Rawsthorne and Arnell symphonies from the UK.  Why not a series of Australian symphonic works that brings new life to the important works of Hart, Bainton, Hughes, Le Gallienne, Sutherland and Williamson?

Rhoderick McNeill © 2011

Rhoderick McNeill is Associate Professor of the Faculty of Arts, University of Southern Queensland