The Australian Symphony – In search of Australia’s 9 ‘Greats’

I recently saw an article attempting to find a list of 9 Great Symphonies each by a different American Composer. Ever noticed how symphonies are always ‘great’… and never make double digits? This article was a spin-off from another article in-turn spun-off from a Facebook game so I guess that makes this commentary on commentary on commentary ‘ad inceptionitum’. I immediately began to wonder what this game might look like for Australian Symphonies.

I’m reminded – haunted – by Australian author David Malouf’s observation that Australians don’t think of themselves as hedonists because it would be too ‘self-conscious’ to do so (Presumably a prerequisite for any true hedonist). With this in mind I imagine asking people passing at circular quay, or federation square, (or whatever it is they have in Canberra…) for their favourite Australian Symphony, too self-conscious to dare the word ‘great’. Next I imagine asking the same thing to various ‘Symphony Subscribers’. Finally I imagine asking my fellow musicians.

As I speculate hypothetical responses I wonder if Australians would consider themselves Great Symphonists if it were not too ‘self-conscious’ to do so.

Attractive and satisfying as the idea that we’re unselfconscious might be, it is also complete rubbish. If it were true we’d be spared the word ‘Unaustralian’ and the agony of the agonising over the ‘Australian Identity’ (as if there would only be one). So it’s perhaps more a question of what and how we are conscious of self. As it happens I don’t think there could be a more self-conscious musical form than The Symphony. This is partly why they are always ‘great’ and there are always 9 of them, isn’t it?

I think we are self-conscious about our music, and sometimes very self-conscious at that.

I was told on my first day at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music that Australian Music had been cut. Though it was a subject printed in the prospectus, ‘Australian Music’ was no longer offered due to lack of funding – or lack of interest. I remember even at the time thinking how tragically comic this was. That Australian music needed its own subject in an Australian musical institution speaks to a very particular sense of self, but to then be explicitly banished from its own ghetto turns this into farce.

Dismissing our own classical music is fairly common practice, but here, enshrined in a seat of Australian musical power, ‘classical music’ was clearly something that happened elsewhere – preferably in the past – but certainly elsewhere.

A search for the word ‘symphony’ returns 36 full pages of results in the Australian Music Centre’s wonderful digital library. (Full disclosure, I’ve spent untold work hours putting together small bits of the library so I have to say its wonderful. Nevertheless it is still is a unique and wonderful cultural asset). Some interesting results in this search include Nigel Butterley’s 1980 ‘Symphony’, the perhaps apologetically named ‘Four symphonic concepts’ from 1952 by Margaret Sutherland and Colin Bright’s ‘Surf Symphony’. I’m delighted to say I’ve heard (though only in a rough live recording) Bright’s undulating, enveloping Surf Symphony, and slightly disappointed to say that I’ve never heard the other two.

And therein lies the rub. If you narrow your Symphony Search to works for which there is both a score and a recording, then you go from a list of over 350 works to just 22 works. The quality of these recordings varies wildly, so it’s debatable in each of these cases how useful even these recordings might be in assessing a work in the context of a concert, which, after all, is how one would assume these ‘concert works’ need to be considered.

Of course it’s easy to say no one programs these works because they aren’t very good (and people do say this), but it’s is a self-fulfilling prophecy and stinks of a particularly unattractive institutional arrogance and ignorance. The only convincing evidence for their quality is their not being programmed, and they are not being programmed because of their quality. ‘My end is my beginning and my beginning my end…’

The person who has done the most work on the Australian Symphony is Rhoderick McNeill, whose book ‘The Australian Symphony from Federation to 1960’ is a landmark. He is without peer, and I don’t mean that figuratively. As there is no other book on the subject, he is to be regarded the  authority on the matter. It is the first in-depth study which takes this music seriously, and must therefore be treated as a significant achievement.

As well as an academic, he is an advocate for this music – fantastic – and his book is an invaluable asset in this regard, however, his advocacy remains within the narrative of Australian music as pallid imitation. In an article publicising the book, he sums up an exploration of repertoire by describing this ‘forgotten music’ as ‘worthy of comparison with mid 20th century American and British Symphonic composers’, which, to be honest, could be the very definition of damning with faint praise. It plays into, and comes from a tired trope of post-colonial everything. And if our greatest advocate is saying this, then we’ve really got work to do.

Most Australian music students know the ‘coming of age’ narrative of classical music in our Great Nation. We produced some “competent if unadventurous music” and then at a certain point  – The 60s, or perhaps 1946 with the premiere of John Antill’s musically compelling, albeit racist representation of Indigenous Australia in Corroborree – we ‘came good’ and started producing our own work, to rival any other ‘fully grown’ country. This narrative is, however, not exclusive to Australia and not exclusive to music, it’s just adorned with musical specificity in this case. So I want to question its validity. It is an old trope, and it is boring. The major evidence for this sort of story is the anxiety of not being ‘up to date’ aesthetically. It’s easy to point to the works being written in Australia and contemporaneous works elsewhere and see difference, but the question is if this then becomes a value judgement and the only point of discussion. History is not a running race, nor is Art. Having stylistic context does not make work unique, nor does it ascribe work with value. As it happens, there’s huge amounts of regularly programmed, celebrated work which is ‘competent if unadventurous music’, so even if this description is accurate, it fails to tell us anything meaningful about our current situation.

The best thing about the prospect of a history of the Australian Symphony is that this history is not yet fully written, and as we have seen, not for want of content. It as a situation for hope, as much as despair. Rhoderick has made a start, perhaps the hardest step. We are in a unique position to write this history – to discover it. The initial list of symphonies drawn from the entire globe is very y-chromosome heavy. In contrast, what already exists of orchestral composition in Australia is filled with extraordinary female figures. The inimitable Margaret Sutherland, the fearless Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Esther Rofe, who was writing in the 1940s – to commission – full length Ballets on Australian themes and Mirrie Hill (whose husband Alfred was also a ‘Symphonist of note’). These figures are unique. They are extraordinary, and they are ‘ours’. They are historical figures for ‘now’ as much as ‘then.’ It is also an unwritten history which is filled with ‘those who’ve come across the seas’ and those that have sailed straight back across the very same seas. I think that’s great.

And so back to my initial problem – Australia’s 9 symphonies. There are the obvious choices like Edwards and Vine, but there are also many, many more. One might argue that our Great Symphony, really, is the Sun Music series by Sculthorpe, but while Sculthorpe chose to align himself explicitly with the canon of the ‘string quartet’, he explicitly rejected ‘the symphony’ with his Sun Music series.

So for what it’s worth, here’s my pick of 9 Australian Symphonies that I know would be well worth a listen and that I desperately want to hear in concert :

1. Robert Hughes Symphony No.1 1951

2. Margaret Sutherland Four symphonic concepts 1952

3. Raymond Hanson Symphony, op.28 1952

4. Nigel Butterley Symphony 1980

5. Brett Dean  Pastoral Symphony 2000

6. Keith Humble A Symphony (of sorrows) 1994

7. Colin Bright Surf Symphony 2007

8. Bozidar Kos Symphony No.1 : In memoriam Cara Milana 2006

9. Matthew Hindson The returned soldier : symphony no.3 2014

And two I feel should also be on the list (11 symphonies just doesn’t have the same ring as 9):

  1. Mirrie Hill Symphony in A  1950
  2. Andrew Ford Symphony 2008

The rules of the initial game are quite clear – exclude anything which could be a symphony but isn’t called one, and exclude anything called a symphony which is not one. However, we’re making our own rules here, so I have a supplementary list. Ultimately, my list would blend these three, but that’s for another day…

9 Symphonies (in all but name)

1. Fritz Hart Bush – Symphonic Suite, Op.59 1923

2. Clive Douglas Carwoola 1939

3. Don Banks – Nexus 1971

4. Malcolm Williamson Symphony for voices 1962

5. Cathie Travers  PhanTom data  2000

6. Elena Kats-Chernin Mythic 2004

7. Judy Bailey Two minds, one music (for symphony orchestra & jazz orchestra) 2005

8. William Barton and Liza Lim The Compass 2006

9. Mary Finsterer In praise of darkness 2009

Is it Great music? Maybe some of it is, though that’ll remain a matter of opinion, but my point is we currently have no real way of making a judgement on that, because we haven’t bothered to do anything except dismiss or condemn it without first seriously trying it out on our stages, in front of our audiences (multiple performances, not just premieres). Academics can tell us about this music – that’s extremely valuable – but if you’ll pardon the pun, until we normalise this music by playing it, listening to it and discussing it, ‘it’s all academic’. We haven’t yet even earned the right to neglect them the way we do.

We might find out we like this music, hell we might even find out it’s interesting, not just as a pallid indicator to other music, but interesting in its own right. We might discover it isn’t like something else, but infinitely like itself. We might discover strange and unique things in it, even, dare I say “great” things. Unless we play this music, unless we hear this music, it’s impossible for it to be anything but ‘dismiss-able’, and that has nothing to do with the music itself and everything to do with us. Self-conscious us.

Despite popular opinion and inclination, music doesn’t ‘stand on its own’, even if sometimes it’s fun, even useful to pretend it does. It is produced in and for a society, and it is also judged by that society. In deciding to ignore our music we are not confirming an already extant quality of music, we are deciding what the quality of that music will be. It might feel passive. This might sound semantic, but it is not.

No one else has to care about our music (and they probably, largely, won’t), but we do have to care about it and until we do no one else will bother – why would they? A good place to start might be to ask yourself what your favourite Australian Symphony is. If you can’t answer that, then ask yourself which Australian Symphonies you’ve heard in concert. If it’s looking desperate, include CDs, iTunes, streaming sites and ABC broadcasts (though recent cuts to the ABC which hit Classical music – performers and composers – worse than most, will reduce this final option.) If you can’t answer the question, as I have to assume many people can’t, then start asking your local symphony orchestra – professional or otherwise – the things you’d like to hear. They do care about what you want to hear. There’s no need to be self conscious. #whatsyouraussymph?

What are your 9 Great Australian Symphonies?

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The Australian Symphony – In search of Australia’s 9 ‘Greats’

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