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The Accidental Necessity: ABC involvement with the Australian orchestras – by David Garrett

Australia now has six fully-professional symphony orchestras, all of whom are Members of Symphony Services International, but their existence was not inevitable. So how did it happen? David Garrett looks at the early history and the role of some visionaries.

There was no historical necessity that a broadcasting organisation, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it then was), should become the builder and presenter of orchestral music in Australia, and yet this was what happened. The ABC provided the biggest stimulus to the creation of an Australian orchestral culture. A national broadcaster created a national vision out of what may have been haphazard and uneven. How did that come about?

First known image of the ASO

When the ABC was set up by the Australian government in 1932, there was agreement among those concerned that the most serious gap in Australian musical life was the lack of permanent, full-time, professional orchestras.

There had been two near misses: Marshall Hall’s Melbourne University Orchestra before World War I, and the NSW Conservatorium Orchestra under Henri Verbrugghen in the early 1920s, but neither led to anything permanent. And radio stations had studio bands, but these were little ensembles mainly restricted to broadcasting.

Many believed that radio, with public funding, should do something about the orchestral situation – at least by building a listening public for orchestral music, and perhaps by developing symphony orchestras.

ASO 1937

The standard general historical books on this subject tend to give the impression that the ABC moved right from the start to developing orchestras of its own. In fact, there was uncertainty, there were changes of direction, and the eventual outcome owed much to the vision of some key people.

The ABC was not the only proponent of orchestral development, because there were orchestral concert giving bodies in existence. There was, especially, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a recent amalgamation of the Melbourne University Orchestra and the predominantly amateur MSO, under the musical leadership of conductor and music educator Bernard Heinze.

But there was a clash of interest. The effects of this conflict delayed the ABC’s development of its own orchestras, but its resolution probably helped make its orchestral policy truly national. The clash was a Melbourne-Sydney rivalry – not for the first time in Australian affairs!

ASO Circa 1937

On the one hand, the ABC, headquartered in Sydney, wanted to get away from the previous Melbourne domination of broadcasting, and wanted to take new initiatives. They came up with an ad hoc publicity-driven plan for a visiting conductor, Malcolm Sargent, to conduct a ‘National Orchestra’ formed by the ABC for his concerts, in 1933.

The Melbourne people, represented on the ABC’s governing Commission by Heinze’s friend Herbert Brookes (then ABC Vice Chairman) opposed the Sydney plan, which they saw as competing with their orchestra.

Sargent cancelled his tour through illness, and although the ABC brought out another British conductor, Sir Hamilton Harty, in 1934, by that time Brookes had persuaded the ABC to something more like Melbourne’s view. The ABC should not take its own orchestral initiatives, but support existing orchestral organisations (by supplying its own studio musicians, for example), in return for broadcast rights. The emphasis was to be put back on the ABC’s main purpose: broadcasting.

So from 1933 on the ABC was supporting orchestral activity and supplying some of the visiting soloists and conductors. Beginning with singers Ezio Pinza and Elisabeth Rethberg, and the Budapest String Quartet, the ABC was presenting a mix of recitals and collaborating in orchestral concerts. By the late 1930s the conductors brought to Australia by the ABC included Sargent and Georg Szell, the instrumentalists Artur Schnabel and Arthur Rubinstein. It looked as though the ABC was to be – somewhat surprisingly – a concert entrepreneur; a key supporter of orchestral organisations perhaps, but not yet an owner (and guarantor) of orchestras.

But this policy direction proved unstable, and gradually broke down. Why?

  • the ABC’s own studio orchestras were the main permanent professional orchestras, and the ABC’s providing them to ‘outside’ organisations was more and more crucial to the viability and standards of the concerts;
  • the outside bodies could not balance costs and revenue without increasing ABC support;
  • the professionalism of ABC staff became more and more important to the bodies with which it was dealing; and
  • ABC staff found managing orchestras and concerts rewarding, and wanted to do more of it, under ABC management.

But note: the ABC had become the vital player. Its policy broke down because its role increased.

An astute observer of the Australian musical scene, Thorold Waters, observed as early as 1934 the inevitability of an ABC takeover. He compared the relationship of the increasingly centralised, managerial ABC and the fragile community-based orchestras with the lion lying down with the lamb. But it took some time for the ABC and the musical community to become clear about what needed to be done.

TSO on tour, 1948

At this point in the story, personalities become even more important. Heinze and Brookes began to see that even their own Melbourne Symphony Orchestra could not prosper without decisive support from the ABC. Though Heinze was opposed to ‘visiting conductors’ and ‘national orchestras’, he realised that if the ABC adopted a policy of concurrent orchestral development in all Australian capital cities, Melbourne would get its share. Furthermore, there would be an increased need for resident conductors, and Heinze, as the most plausible local, could maximise his conducting opportunities.

In the year 1934, the ABC got a new chairman, W. J. Cleary, Sydney-based like his predecessor, but with a national vision. Contact with Brookes and Heinze confirming his personal conviction, Cleary shaped a new ABC policy. If the ABC’s mission to lift the standard of Australian musical life was to be fulfilled, the concert activity would need to go hand in hand with a quantum leap in ABC orchestral development.

In 1935 Cleary, relying on the advice of Heinze (now ABC Music Advisor, as Brookes had always wanted) led the ABC to make a substantial increase in the numbers of its studio orchestras in all centres. In Sydney and Melbourne the orchestras’ permanent strengths were expanded to 45 and 35 players respectively, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth’s orchestral strengths went to 17, and Hobart’s to 11.

Cleary knew this would tilt the balance decisively towards the ABC players being the dominant element in all the orchestras. At the same time, Cleary encouraged ABC staff to press forward in Sydney to replicate something like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra pattern of public support for orchestral subscription concerts – using social contacts and prestige or the cachet of ‘Celebrity Concerts’ with the likes of Pinza and Rethberg to build audience, for example.

The year 1936 was to see two related consolidations – the ABC launching orchestral subscription concerts, and the orchestras to play for them being based on the new, larger professional nuclei.

However, 1935 had seen the arrival on the scene of the last of my important personalities, Charles Moses, the legendary ABC General Manager often credited with founding the ABC ‘system’ of orchestras and concerts. Moses himself, however, acknowledged the decisive role played by Cleary, who not only identified the 35 year-old Moses’s potential and persuaded the Commission to appoint him General Manager, but also taught him many of the management and policy skills Cleary had honed in previous roles as General Manager of Tooth’s brewery, then NSW Commissioner for Railways. Both Cleary and Moses had the true amateur’s predisposition towards music of the ‘high art’ character the ABC in those years put first. But Moses’ interest in music developed along with Cleary’s mentoring, and this is a sign of the very important role of music in the ABC’s role as a broadcaster, and in the careers of its senior executives.

Orchestras, for their institutional formation and survival, need the vision and executive skills of men such as Cleary and Moses, who seized an opportunity at a crucial moment in the history of Australian music and broadcasting. The ABC took the lead, everywhere except in Melbourne, in building the subscription audiences which made their further expansion into orchestral management seem justified. From 1936 the future of Australia’s orchestras was shaped by their being part of the ABC. The ABC was a broadcaster, but it was also a concert entrepreneur. The combination of administrative and entrepreneurial skills in Charles Moses, and the organisation he increasingly shaped, was invaluable. A statement he made to ABC staff in 1938 shows the hard-headedness Moses brought to the artistic vision of a broadcasting organisation on the way to becoming one of the biggest concert organisations in the world:

“As you are aware, the Commission’s concert activities are the subject of more attacks from press and public than any other aspect of our work. The management of concerts is a business, and I want you to consider yourself the manager of a business. Every detail of expenditure must be carefully watched…[and] justified…[I want you to report the] fullest information of every detail of cost.”

After World War II the ABC led by Moses established full-time professional orchestras in every capital, all run by the ABC, and thus federally supported, but also with state and municipal government support. For close on 50 years Australia’s professional symphony orchestras were ABC orchestras, and their concerts were ABC concerts.

When we think back over events in the past 15 years, resulting in the eventual divestment of the orchestras from the ABC, and consider what may yet happen in the future, with Symphony Services International (ABC Concert’s successor) now looking beyond these shores, it is worth remembering the decisive role played by the ABC in the development of fully-professional symphony orchestras in this country. Inevitable this development was not. Neither was the role of a broadcast organisation, though there are parallels, notably in Canada, Belgium and New Zealand. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, while describing the ABC as a ‘dead hand’, stifling its own creation, admitted that the ABC, for orchestras, was the giver of life.  The ABC showed a way of forming and managing symphony orchestras at a professional level. It made sure that all Australia’s capital cities had such an orchestra. Even now that the orchestras are no longer ABC orchestras, the ABC provides broadcasting outlets which can only help orchestral music continue to thrive.

Ironically, what started on the pretext that it was needed to provide broadcasts has now returned to what it might have been had the ABC not become a concert presenter: the only relationship between the ABC and the orchestras and their concerts is that it broadcasts them.

David Garrett ©2010

The above article is a digest of David Garrett’s PhD thesis on the evolution of the ABC’s musical policy, including involvement with symphony orchestras.

With thanks to TSO and ASO Players Association for photos. More images of the ASO can be found at asoheritage.com