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Australian Music pre-1945

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 prior to 1945.The first looks at Australian notated music during this period and the second discusses the beginnings of Australian experimental music.

Australian Composition pre-1945

Opportunities for Australian composers in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries were limited by demography, economics and variable musical standards. Many important figures such as Arthur Benjamin, Margaret Sutherland, Miriam Hyde and Esther Rofe spent extended periods, if not entire careers, elsewhere. Benjamin, who settled in Britain and later Canada, spent some of the First World War as a prisoner of war; sadly, Frederick Septimus Kelly, a promising composer recently rescued from obscurity by John Carmody and musicologist Thérèse Radic, was killed.

Alfred Hill, who studied in Leipzig in the late 1880s, returned to the Antipodes determined to raise standards. He composed the music for the Federation Celebrations in 1901, and with Fritz Hart, formed the Australian Opera League in 1912 to perform works like A Moorish Maid, or queen of the Riffs. The same year, colourful, Melbourne-based composer George Marshall-Hall produced his opera, Stella. Hill was also involved in the foundation of the NSW Conservatorium at the time.

Orchestras in the major cities varied in size, constitution and quality, a situation gradually remedied by the creation of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (later Corporation), and its assumption of responsibility for the orchestras in the 1930s. The ABC established composer competitions in the 1930s, which benefitted a number of hopefuls such as Clive Douglas and Miriam Hyde, and pianist/composer Roy Agnew’s radio broadcasts in that decade seriously raised musical consciousness.

Much of the most important music composed in Australia before the 1930s is inevitably for soloists or small forces. As concerts at the State Library of Victoria in 2007 (curated by Richard Divall and Marshall McGuire) showed, this doesn’t mean that there were no works of interest or quality from even the 1880s. Similarly Larry Sitsky (who has edited Agnew’s extensive and attractive output) was pleased, in researching a recent book on Australian piano music, to discover a slender but persistent thread of fine music stretching from the early twentieth century to now. There is also a body of attractive work for solo instrument and piano, and for solo voice. ‘Early’ Australian works for larger ensembles do exist, such as Miriam Hyde’s two piano concertos, but frequently had their first performances overseas.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Warriors (1916) by Percy Graingerthis composer’s largest scale, fully-scored work, an imaginary ballet of warriors of various ethnicities.
Digital sheet music sample A lament (1924) by Esther Rofefor flute and piano is an example of the beautifully crafted small-scale works for educative purposes written by the many fine woman composers of the period.
Digital sheet music sample Summer evening (1933) by Frank Hutchensfor violin and piano is an example of the poetic lyricism of this composer.
Love's secret (1934) by Horace Keatsis a setting of Williams Blake’s poem by ‘the poets’ composer’ as Keats was often called.
Fragrance (1936) by Lindley Evansthis solo piano work is another fine miniature by a composer of great lyrical gifts.
Piano concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor (1935) by Miriam HydeHyde's second piano concerto dates from the composer’s period of study and residence in London (where she returned to play this piece, again, in 2004).

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.