The Australian Symphony from Federation to 1960

Rhoderick McNeill
Books, Musicology
Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014
ISBN 978–1–4094–4124-3
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

It is not often that an elegantly written, well researched book can be used as an advocacy tool, but Rhoderick McNeill’s thorough investigation of the symphonies written before 1960 by Australian composers is one that requires attention.  Most of the works composed during the period covered in the book are probably known only to a small part of the music community and are undervalued by that community.

McNeill makes it clear that he has three aims in researching this topic and writing this book: firstly, he wishes to describe the development of symphonic composition in Australia in the period from 1892 until 1960, and contrast it with comparable symphonic writing in other parts of the world; secondly, he focuses on the major achievements of 21 significant composers who wrote symphonies; and finally, he wants to advocate for the promotion, performance and recording of this repertoire.

McNeill has rediscovered a considerable number of works written between 1892 and 1960, some 40 of which were composed in the 1950s. This contrasts with Noel Nickson’s assertion that there were only four noteworthy Australian symphonic composers active from 1945 – 1955; Dorian Le Gallienne, Raymond Hanson, Robert Hughes and James Penberthy. McNeill provides convincing evidence that there was an increase in the number of symphonies composed during the period under investigation, with a peak of output in the 1950s. He attributes the noticeable decrease in activity witnessed in the 1960s to the influence of post-war avant-garde music in Australia.

The book opens with an account of the symphonic writing that occurred internationally (including the, usually ignored, works produced in the British dominions of Canada, South Africa and New Zealand) during the period 1900 – 1960. This account provides a useful context in which to place the works written in Australia. McNeill argues that, in the period in question, Australian composers followed British musical trends because Australian tertiary music training followed the British model and because Australian musicians sought work primarily in Britain.

McNeill gives a description of the Australian musical environment of the period in question, focussing on work undertaken in the tertiary training institutions as well as the establishment, in the late 1930s, of orchestras by the ABC in each of the states. This move by the ABC went a long way towards educating Australian audiences (and composers) in symphonic music. 

One of the most engaging sections of McNeill’s book concerns the Australian Federal Government’s 1951 Jubilee Composers’ Competition to celebrate the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Australian Federation in 1901. In an extraordinary act of ‘cultural cringe’, the selection committee gave the prize for a composition written by an English composer! Symphonies written by the Australians Robert Hughes and Clive Douglas received ‘special prizes’ (2nd and 3rd respectively), yet their symphonies are now acknowledged to be far superior to the winning entry which has disappeared without a trace. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra conductor and NSW State Conservatorium director Eugene Goossens was complicit in this affair: he was a key judge of the award and was renowned for not supporting the work of Australian composers, unlike Bernard Heinze in Melbourne and Henry Krips in Adelaide. This story is just one example of the difficulties that Australian composers experienced in getting paid for their work, let alone getting their works performed, in the days before government grants and more comprehensive commissioning.  McNeill’s exemplary research of this 1951 competition has been published previously in the January-February 2010 issue of Quadrant , but is a welcome inclusion in the context of this broader discussion of the trials and tribulations of symphonic writing in Australia.

The bulk of McNeill’s book contains analyses of, and critical comments on, specific symphonies written by 21 Australian composers of the period. This repertory is divided into five distinct style periods: the Federation period (1892 -1910); the 1920s and 1930s; the late romantic and post-impressionist style period (1940 – 60); and the concurrent nationalist symphonies, and neo-classic and ‘progressive’ symphonies period (both in the 1950s). In each of these style categories, McNeill identifies exemplary symphonies that he asserts warrant wider appreciation, through the greater accessibility to scores, performances and recordings. One of the earliest symphonies that McNeill singles out for specific attention is Marshall-Hall’s Symphony in Eb (1903). 

The symphonies of the twenty years from 1940 to 1960 (most notably those by Alfred Hill, Edgar Bainton, Clive Douglas, James Penberthy, John Antill, Robert Hughes, Margaret Sutherland, Raymond Hanson, Dorian Le Gallienne and David Morgan), McNeill sees as having a distinctive Australian voice. Although this judgement may be contested by others in the future, at this stage McNeill has the advantage of being the only one to have studied the entire repertoire in question.

The discussion, at the end of the book, of specific symphonies by expatriate Australian composers Hubert Clifford, Arthur Benjamin, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Malcolm Williamson is particularly interesting. According to McNeill these works are of a very high standard, are better known and appreciated abroad than in Australia, and deserve to be incorporated into the Australian canon.

McNeill’s book is a work of exemplary scholarship and fills a significant gap in the knowledge of Australia’s musical heritage. His encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian and international symphonic music is invaluable and informs his insightful critiques of this repertoire. The coverage of the subject’s literature and the extensive bibliography make the book a useful volume for research.

Most of the works in this book have not been studied before so there is not a basis for assessing McNeill’s judgements about their worth. There are few readily available scores, performances or recordings of these symphonies.

No doubt, now that attention is being drawn to them, more will be written about them and his judgements of them. But, given the author’s convincing analyses of other works which we do know, there is good reason to have confidence in his judgements here.

We can only hope that the book will lead to more performances or recordings of these large orchestral works. More performing scores have been published recently thanks to the efforts of individuals such as Richard Divall, Allan Stiles and Joanna Drimatis. And the digitisation of the original materials (manuscripts and facsimiles) housed in the collecting institutions is also helping bring the works to a wider audience.

McNeill has taken the first step in righting the wrong inflicted on those Australian symphonists who wrote significant works prior to 1960. His survey of post-colonial Australian symphonies alerts readers to the large number of works written in this form, the considerable achievements in symphonic compositions and how they compare with musical trends elsewhere. In particular, McNeill champions the symphonies of Marshall-Hall, Le Gallienne, Hughes and Morgan, and suggests that they stand alongside the symphonies of Carl Vine, Ross Edwards and other contemporary symphonic composers.

McNeill’s book is a most welcome addition to the corpus of musicological publications on Australian music.

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