Discovering Dulcie Holland

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Written by: Ronan Apcar

Growing up and studying music in my generation, you more than likely came across the name Dulcie Holland, thanks to her Master Your Theory workbooks used in schools and as a supplement to AMEB theory. She made an immense contribution to Australian music education that still lasts today. However, this very success unfortunately overshadows her work as a composer and because of this, many still think of Holland as an educator, not a brilliant composer and musician who wrote over 300 works during her nearly seven-decade career.

Although Holland wrote for everything – choirs to orchestras, chamber to solo – she flourished when writing for the piano. Being no amateur pianist or composer, she produced some very sophisticated works. In fact, her Sonata for Piano was described by Larry Sitsky AO as “undoubtedly a landmark work in the Australian oeuvre”.  Such high praise piqued my interest, yet there were no available recordings or scores. No longer in circulation, scores and recordings were left to fade into oblivion in the archive. This led me to ask: if Holland’s Sonata is one of Australia’s greatest works, then why was it not treated as such? And if a work so highly revered could be forgotten, then what other hidden gems are waiting to be discovered?

Dulcie Holland

Over the past year, I have sought to answer the second question by recording four pieces by Holland: her Sonata for Piano, a diverse collection of short pieces called A Scattering of Leaves, and two unpublished pieces Conversation for Piano and Autumn Piece – both likely never publicly performed. Out of a total of twelve individual movements and tracks, seven are world premiere recordings. The album, Dulcie Holland Crescent, was released on June 22 on streaming services, making these pieces easily accessible to the public (especially younger generations) for the first time.

Ronan Apcar at Dulcie Holland Crescent. Photo by Rowan Davie

For me, I was impressed with the strength and uniqueness of Holland’s musical voice. Well-written simple, even folk-like, melodies persist in Holland’s music, even after her studies overseas in London where more modernist styles, such as serialism, were emerging. However, there is still innovation in her use of harmony which often sits in a space between tonal and atonal, functional and non-functional. She engages and reimagines traditional forms, such as the more organic, narrative-driven sonata form in the Sonata for Piano. She also draws such fantastic colours out of the instrument in her use of textures, voicings, and registers. But what I find most remarkable in these works is that Holland is being innovative whilst maintaining a general appeal – a hard balance to achieve.

So, what can we learn about Australian culture today from Holland’s story? Was she a victim of a unique set of unfortunate circumstances which prevented her from being widely recognised and celebrated today? After all, her success as a composer and musician in London was cut short due to World War II, and on return to Sydney she married and became a mother in a time when combining family and career as a woman was rare. She also wrote a lot of music and theory workbooks for children, possibly allowing for prejudiced assumptions that she was not a ‘serious’ composer.

Or is her story a symptom of a larger issue in Australian culture? In my time at the Conservatorium High School, the general student attitude towards Australian music was that it was simply not as good as music from overseas. Australians are still often underrepresented in programming by their own country’s major arts organisations. Tertiary studies often require students to spend so much time analysing and discussing European music already discussed a thousand times, while simultaneously treating Australian repertoire as protocol or a little criteria box. All these factors combined create an environment that perpetuates and instils an attitude of indifference towards Australian music by Australian musicians.

But there has recently been a huge resurgence of interest not just in Holland and her music, but in many other neglected or forgotten composers. The revival of past Australian composers is so important in creating a cultural legacy and tradition that gives us a national identity. Actively engaging and promoting our own music helps conserve a body of work we can proudly call ours – and it starts with performing and recording it.

1 Dulcie Holland Crescent, Moncrieff ACT


Bios

Dulcie Holland (1913 – 2000) was one of Australia’s most significant musical figures in the 20th century with a career spanning performance, composition, education, and writing. Though best known for her contribution to music education in Australia, Holland’s legacy as a composer is seeing a deserved resurgence in recent years.

Ronan Apcar is a young Australian pianist and composer with a passion for modern and contemporary music – particularly by Australian composers – and breaking the classical piano stereotype. Initially self-taught, Apcar has performed in concerts and gigs ranging from jazz to classical and avant-garde to contemporary in many venues and festivals in Australia.

Ronan Apcar’s recording

Dulcie Holland Crescent is available to listen to on all streaming services, including Spotify and Apple Music. https://gyro.lnk.to/DulcieHollandCrescent

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