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19 December 2008

William Garnet James and his many hats

A cartoon of the Federal Director of Music drawn in honour of William James's retirement from the ABC Image: A cartoon of the Federal Director of Music drawn in honour of William James's retirement from the ABC  
© Courtesy of James Archives

As a special summer feature, resonate presents two extracts from David Tunley's book William James and the beginning of modern musical Australia, published by the Australian Music Centre (2007). This is a fascinating account of a composer, pianist and Federal Director of Music at the ABC whose significance in building Australian musical life is surprisingly little known. Our two extracts – Tunley's Introduction and an extract from Chapter Six - will give an idea of the many professional roles that William Garnet James played during his life. Tunley's book is available from the Australian Music Centre and from the AMC's online shop. Don't forget that AMC members receive a 10% discount off the full price of all AMC publications.

Introduction to William James and the beginning of modern musical Australia


book cover

To mention the name William Garnet James nowadays – particularly in the company of the young to middling generation – is to invite puzzling stares, until someone remembers that they have sung or heard some of his Australian Christmas Carols. Not a bad thing to be remembered by, but in reality a very tiny part of his contribution to Australian musical life. In his more youthful days, following his departure from Melbourne, his contribution was less to Australian than to international musical life through living and working in London as one of the well-known pianists, including regular appearances at the Proms under Sir Henry Wood and as a touring artist in the famous series of International Celebrity Concerts in the UK in the 1920s.

At the same period he was admired as one of the most gifted songwriters. His Six Australian Bush Songs, composed and published in London in 1922, attracted such admiration from Dame Nellie Melba that she insisted that two of them be dedicated to her. By 1923 – at the age of only 31 – his name appears in the august pages of Britain’s Who’s Who – an extraordinary achievement for an Australian musician so young. (Even the great Peter Dawson was not included at this time.) Yet time takes its toll, and the prestige of performers, even some of the most gifted, falls away as personal memories of them fade, while the reputation of composers is often at the mercy of fashion. William James’s real and lasting legacy came about after his (hesitating) return to Australia at 'David Tunley has done us a distinct service in returning William G. James to us in this way' (Thérèse Radic in review)the height of his success as composer/pianist when, at the encouragement of Bernard Heinze, he set sail into the unknown waters of broadcasting. Little did he realise that, with the establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, he (together with the General Manager Charles Moses and the Music Advisor Bernard Heinze) would be at the helm of an organisation which would transform Australian musical life.

He had come a long way since childhood in Ballarat, so much so that at his retirement in 1957 the Sydney music-critic Lindsey Browne quipped that, despite ‘Welcome Nugget’ and Eureka Stockade, ‘Billy James ranks as quite the richest thing that Ballarat has yet given to Australia.’! On the other hand, in his classic study This is the ABC (1983) Ken Inglis was less generous in his assessment of James, describing him as ‘merely an accompanist’ to Bernard Heinze and Charles Moses. I hope that the final two chapters [of William James and the beginning of modern musical Australia] provide a fairer view of him, for – like those two – he was an energetic innovator and planner.

It must be stressed, however, that the present book is not a ‘history of music in the ABC’. To do justice to that topic would require not only very much more space and enormous research, but also a different focus. This book is a study of a gifted Australian musician whose purely musical talents as pianist and composer took second place to pursuing a shared vision of a modern musical Australia. James began his career as a broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Company. Not a great deal has been written about this important precursor to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, but it will become clear – in Chapter Five - that the earlier organisation laid down some of the foundations that we have come to associate only with the later one.

Unfortunately, William James left no personal diaries or letters, and what image can be drawn of him comes largely from press interviews and official documents, as well as discussions and communications between the author and those who knew him personally. Apart from his successes in the South Street Competitions, knowledge about his childhood is a virtual blank and almost nothing personal is known about his parents, either in Ballarat or Melbourne. Were my book intended to be a well-rounded biography this would be a serious – indeed untenable - situation. It is, however, intended more as a study of William James’s contribution to the development of Australian musical life following his remarkable triumphs overseas. If this was largely through his position as Federal Director of Music in the ABC in his mature years, it cannot, however, be separated from his creative and performance achievements while young, his later administrative success being in no small measure dependant on the experience of his early musical career.

While enjoying the company of his colleagues – often in convivial social situations – he nevertheless gives the impression of being a rather ‘private’ person, indeed a shy man. Certainly he had already had his fair share of press publicity during his career in London and when touring Australia as an associate artist to a number of international singers (like the great Toti dal Monte). It would seem that, after his very public career as a concert artist, James was quite happy to work in the ‘back room’ at the ABC and let others, particularly the General Manager, do the talking. But, as touched on earlier, for the biographer such reticence is not helpful. Nevertheless, I hope that something of the man himself comes through these pages.

There is one anomaly in James’s life story that is best dealt with at this point. His initial entry in the British Who’s Who and the Australian publication of the same name gives his year of birth as 1895. In fact, he was born in 1892, attested to by his birth certificate as well as the announcement of his birth that year in the Ballarat Courier. Yet, the fiction remained uncorrected in all subsequent entries in both the Australian and British Who’s Who even after his retirement. As a result – and not surprisingly – this date is given in almost every book and lexicographical source about William James – such as the 5th edition of Grove’s Dictionary (1952) and more recently The Oxford Companion to Australian Music (1997) – to name just two. The exception is the recently published Australian Dictionary of Biography (2002, Vol. 14), the entry of which was written by one of James’s successors as Federal Director of Music in the ABC – Harold Hort. It’s a puzzling situation. It was certainly not an attempt originally to paint him as a ‘child prodigy’ in Ballarat, for at his true age he fitted well into the categories set down in the regulations of the South Street Competitions, while as a young pianist in London his age is never mentioned in publicity or reviews of his concerts. The only explanation seems to be that it may have been a slip of the pen or a typographical error in the first Who’s Who, and that this error was perhaps too embarrassing to correct in the later editions. Given his character and personality there is little point in searching for suspect motives.

For those who wish to follow up some of the points made in the text there are a number of appendices, which include complete scripts of some of James’s most interesting broadcast talks. Appendix A is the first comprehensive listing of James’s original compositions – over a hundred of them – including eight under his two noms-de-plume, nine unpublished works, as well as nineteen arrangements of music by other composers. Unfortunately, some of these are no longer extant. I have dispensed with the usual form of footnotes and endnotes, replacing them with a reference section towards the end of the book where the source materials upon which I have based this study may be found. These are listed according to the pages that they appear in the text. In this way the book can be read without the usual distraction of symbols in the lines. Unless otherwise stated, illustrations throughout the text come from the James Archives lent to me by William James’s son Denis, although two in the public domain have also been reproduced.

I am grateful to a number of people who have helped in one way or another in the preparation of this study. They include Neville Amadio, Keith Asboe, Weston Bate, Vaughan Hanly, Betty Jackson (daughter of William James), Kevin McBeath, Sir Charles Mackerras, Kathleen Nelson, Bernice Peters, Lorna Smith, Russell Smith, Terry Sturm and Janice Stockigt. I am particularly grateful to Peter Burgis for finding material in his remarkable archive, to Jean Farrant for reading through the typescript and in its early stages and offering helpful suggestions, and to my wife Paula for reading and correcting the final version and who also spent many hours with me in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham in the UK sifting through files dealing with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I am grateful to librarians and archivists in various institutions, especially Jenny Wildy (Wigmore Music Library of the University of Western Australia), Ken Gasmier (Music Library of Edith Cowan University in Perth) and Allison Fyfe (State Library of Western Australia), and in Canberra Matthew Davies (National Film and Screen Archives). Also in Canberra Robyn Holmes smoothed my way at the National Library of Australia (which holds copies of many of the scores of James’s compositions) and where Rashmi Madan gave me unstinting assistance when I was there and afterwards through many emails. Assistance at Ballarat was given me by Simon Jacks at the Central Highlands Regional Library and especially by Peter Freund at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Ballarat who has provided me with a rich source of information about the South Street Competitions and their venues in that historic city. I am grateful to archivists at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (Geoff Harris and Guy Tranter) and the British Broadcasting Commission (Jacqueline Kavanagh) and for their permission to reproduce material from their archives.. My son-in-law Richard Hewison frequently saved me drowning in the deeper waters of computer technology – a life-saver indeed!

The two people to whom I owe the greatest debt are Dr Robert Trumble, whose experience and memories of his many years in the ABC in Melbourne have helped fill in many a gap and given me a valuable perspective. William James’s son Denis generously placed all his father’s memorabilia (now at the National Library) at my disposal. Without this and other items he has acquired for me this book could never have been written. Moreover, the personal association that I have enjoyed with these two families has been a bonus. My post-retirement position as Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Music at the University of Western Australia has offered me ready access to research facilities for this and other projects.

This publication has been made possible through the generosity of Professor Margaret and Dr Roger Seares, Denis James and the School of Music at the University of Western Australia.

I had hoped that Emeritus Professor Sir Frank Callaway might have lived to see the publication of this book, for he showed keen interest in it from the start and knew William James personally, having had a long association in various ways with the ABC. He died in 2003 and in dedicating this book to his memory I have at least been able to express, in a small way, my appreciation of his constant encouragement throughout our long personal and professional association.

David Tunley
University of Western Australia, 2007


Extract from Chapter Six - Australian Christmas Carols


William James's retirement was cheered by the award of OBE in the Queen’s Birthday List in 1960, and by the widespread success of his Australian Christmas Carols, composed earlier to words by an ABC colleague and scriptwriter John Wheeler. During his long period at the ABC Wheeler provided texts for a number of composers: Alfred Hill, John Antill, Alex Burnard, Dulcie Holland, Raymond Hanson and Henry Krips; but it was his association with James through the carols that made him a household name – even if few people knew anything about him.

It was a moment of inspiration to write music for Christmas appropriate to the Australian landscape, and strange that no-one had thought of doing so earlier. The first set of five carols (The Three Drovers, Silver Stars are in the Sky, Christmas Day, Carol of the Birds, Christmas Bush for His Adorning) was published by Chappell in 1948. The second and third sets (The Day that Christ was Born on, Christmas Night, The Little Town Where Christ was Born, Sing Gloria, Noel-Time, The Christmas Tree, Our Lady of December, Golden Day, Country Carol and Merry Christmas) came out some six years later. These were all composed for four-part mixed voices.

In 1962, James produced a set of Easter Songs ‘for young singers’ – in unison and two parts. His swan-song as a carol composer was written for the Presbyterian Girls College at Warwick in Queensland in 1963, scored for two-part treble voices and piano. The text of The Paddocks Gleam with Moving Gold was written by Dorothy Green, one of the Co-Principals of the school at that time.

The Christmas Carols, especially, found a ready response amongst church choirs and amateur singers who conveyed their joyous musical message to audiences everywhere – including overseas. A well-known English choral conductor, Thornton Lofthouse, had come across them in 1957 on a tour of Australia, and on his return included a performance of the first set in his annual carol concert in St. Paul’s Cathedral at Christmas that year in the presence of the Queen. The music critic of The Times in London wrote enthusiastically:

'Five settings by William G. James of poems by John Wheeler, sung with orchestral accompaniment, were not only delightful in themselves but proved by a new argument how vital the carol tradition has become since its revival a century ago. Sometimes the effort to write new carols within the old tradition is a little selfconscious, but here we had the Australian summer and the distinctive fauna of the other hemisphere mixing with the age-old imagery of nativity, lullaby, bells and angels to make true carols, fresh in sense and sentiment yet declaring the old Evangel, new branches on the universal tree.'

News of their success spread rapidly and The Australian Christmas Carols soon became a feature of many a carol service. A couple of years after this they were heard by millions in America when they were featured on a coast-to-coast TV Carol programme hosted by no less than Bing Crosby.

Yet perhaps the biggest boost to their popularity came in 1961 when the World Record Club engaged the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and a choir of fifty chosen voices to record the fifteen carols under the direction of Bernard Heinze. Everything was done to ensure that this recording reached a professional level (including a recording technician brought out specially from Britain) rarely encountered in the local recording industry at that time and which did much to re-establish James’s reputation as a composer. Yet in his days as ABC Federal Director of Music he would have been keenly aware that he could not be seen as exploiting his position to advance his own music.

Nevertheless a vitriolic letter to the Commission from the Secretary of the Australian Songwriters’ & Composers’ Association in 1952 complained that James and Werner Baer – State Director of Music for New South Wales – were unfairly using their positions in the ABC to broadcast and record their own compositions. In this allegation of preferential treatment given to Commission officers was also included the ABC scriptwriter John Wheeler. The weakness of the argument lay in the fact that in many of the broadcast recitals cited by the Association the choice had been made by the soloists, not by the composers.

This kind of situation may have been one of the reasons why James was rarely seen conducting ABC orchestras, despite his gifts on the rostrum. While his contract with the Australian Broadcasting Company had included ‘conducting and rehearsing major works’, with his appointment to the Commission such opportunities were rare. Only in the early days does his name feature as a conductor, and, it would seem, only in the smaller states. [...]

It is not at all surprising that during his busy schedule as Federal Director of Music James had found little time for composition, except for his miniature pieces for young pianists and his Australian carols. Yet, one of his loveliest songs was composed shortly after his move to Sydney. It is his Bush Song at Dawn to words by the English poet who, under the nom-de-plume of Richard Baylis, had supplied the lyrics for the Six Australian Bush Songs. Lotte Lehmann sang this song and also his Covent Garden during her Australian tour. She spoke admiringly of both. Bush Song at Dawn could well be described as having those qualities associated with that vague, but generally understood term ‘art song’, and it would grace any recital.

About the same time, James produced incidental music to John Masefield’s poem The Coming of Christ, setting some of the verses and providing interludes between others. It is scored for mixed choir, four trumpets and organ and was broadcast during the Christmas seasons of 1937 and 1940. It remains in manuscript. Those who enjoy his Christmas carols would welcome its revival.

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