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Australian Music 1949-1959

There are countless ways to start exploring our extensive website. This brief overview presents two different perspectives on some significant works and people in the Australian music scene between 1945 and 1959.The first looks at Australian notated music during this period and the second discusses Australian experimental music.

Australian Composition 1945-1959

The single most important musical event in the immediate post-war period was the arrival of Eugene Goossens as Chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Director of the NSW State Conservatorium in 1947. Goossens raised performance standards and, a composer himself, raised public consciousness about new music. As a guest conductor in Sydney in 1946, he gave the belated Australian premiere of The Rite of Spring and made even more significant Australian history by performing a suite from John Antill’s Corroboree in the same season; as a composer he contributed such things as the gargantuan oratorio, The Apocalypse.

While composition had not yet achieved the critical mass that it would in the 1960s, a number of fine composers were active during the period, and a number of less strongly individual composers, who were nevertheless good technicians who would inspire a younger generation. The prevailing musical languages were conservative by international standards, but that of itself need not mean bad music.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Trio (1944) by Dulcie Hollandis a solidly crafted, attractive work of neo-Romantic mood.
String quartet in E minor (1947) by Miriam Hydeis a lively four-movement work with a neoclassical wit and grace.
Essay (1953) by Robert Hughessits on a line between Samuel Barber and Malcolm Arnold and is a work of excellent joinery, dramatic shape and orchestral colour.
Sinfonia da Pacifica by Peggy Glanville-Hickswas composed on one of Glanville-Hicks’s many voyages by sea from the Northern Hemisphere, where she made her name, to the country of her birth.
Cantata on Hiroshima panels (1959) by James Penberthythis cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra is an early contribution to a politically engaged stream of Australian music.
Digital sheet music sample Four divine poems of John Donne (1950) by Dorian Le Gallienneis perhaps one of the most significant song cycles from an Australian composer.


Australian Experimental music pre-1960

By Clinton Green

The early history of Australian experimental music is one dotted with individuals struggling in unsupportive environments, who often left their home shores in search of more supportive atmospheres in Europe or the United States. These pioneers explored musical concerns, such as microtonality and nascent forms of electronic music, in some cases making startling inroads that were little known at the time and have only recently come to light.

Musical exploration in Australia can be traced back to the goldfields, where improvisation was a significant part of music in the colonies. Percy Grainger (the pianist, composer and collector of folk songs) believed his Australian origin naturally led to innovation and experiment in his music.

Experimental music activity can be traced back as far the early twentieth century. Composer and pianist Elsie Hamilton relocated from Adelaide to Europe and became an early pioneer of just intonation, composing and giving lectures on Ancient Greek tuning modes and microtonality as early as 1916. Back in Australia, the 1920s saw Henry Tate compose music based on native birdsong and Indigenous music, and advocating the exploration of musical forms native to Australia. Little-known filmmaker and composer, Jack Ellitt, travelled to London in the late 1920s and completed startling sound collages on the optical strip of film stock, predating musique concrète tape recording techniques later developed in post-war France. And in early 1950s Melbourne, a young Barry Humphries dabbled in Dadaist music, resulting in probably the earliest experimental recordings made in Australia.

Perhaps the best-known music experiment of this era by an Australian was Percy Grainger’s Free Music. Grainger had begun to form the concept in his mind as early as the turn of the century. He would later engage an engineer to build a number of 'free music machines' to produce microtonal 'glides' that conventional Western instruments could not achieve (a problem encountered by Hamilton earlier in the century, who experimented with designs of ancient instruments to overcome this hurdle). Developing several prototypes in the United States throughout the late-1940s and 1950s, Grainger’s experiments were largely deemed unsuccessful.

Only a few hundred metres away from where Grainger sometimes worked at the University of Melbourne was the CSIRAC computer project. CSIRAC was one of the first computers in the world to be programmed to play simple music. It is an irony of history that Grainger and CSIRAC remained in ignorance of each other’s musical experiments. We can only dream of what they might have achieved together.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Random round (1943) by Percy GraingerAn early example of Grainger incorporating improvisation into his compositions.
 Journey#1 (1930) by Jack Ellitt– a startling sound collage, pre-dating musique concrète.
 Wubbo Music (1952) by Melbourne Dada GroupDadaist music featuring Barry Humphries.
 Free Music (Reed box – top and bottom ranks – thick) (1951) by Percy Graingeran example of one of Grainger’s Free Music machines.
 Colonel Bogey by CSIRACan early experiment in computer music.