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30 October 2007

A Tease of Sophistication

SLV Series // Vic // 21.09.07

A Tease of Sophistication

Melbourne-born Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s fame in Australia rests mainly in being associated with significant American composers rather than with the music she wrote. She mingled in circles that, at their epicentres, had the likes of John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris. Glanville-Hicks gives mid-twentieth century Australian culture a tease of ‘sophistication’ that bypasses the imperial road map that her generation slavishly followed. In other words, it is her biographical quirkiness that keeps her music occasionally popping up in programs.

Indeed, her music also has a sense of difference in that she charted her music to foreground melody and rhythm over the need for internal harmonic workings. For all the discussion of her Asian or Greek influences, the achievements are little more than an extension of neo-classicism, and the results sound hollow. Ironically, it is the music that falls outside of this textural transparency that appears to boost her public profile: the little song Come Sleep, the trio Concertino da Camera and the Sonata for Harp. The Concerto romantico for viola and orchestra should also appear as a worthy member of the list, but being scored for large forces means it is often ignored by prospective programmers.

The concert at the State Library of Victoria featured one of Glanville-Hicks’s warhorses, the Harp Sonata, as well as lesser-known works. Overall, the short event demonstrated why the Harp Sonata is popular, how some works are left in neglect for a reason, and why some scores do not work in piano-vocal arrangements.

Glanville-Hicks’s Harp Sonata is one of McGuire’s party pieces. He has performed it on numerous occasions and has even, apparently, produced a new edition. I say 'apparently' because on the night he performed from the initial printed score. This work is a little gem. It is full of charm and vitality and it never fails to appeal. One of reasons for its enduring success is that is does not suffer from what I term the postcard syndrome, i.e. Western music that tries, usually with melodic appropriation, to tack on to another culture. Glanville-Hicks's Transposed Heads, with its pseudo-Indian flavourings, is a good example of music that sounds politically and culturally dated.

The final movement of the composer’s last opera Sappho is another story. Sappho has never been performed in its entirety, and it is saved from total obscurity by fragments being given infrequent appearances in concert. This excerpt for mezzo-soprano and piano received its premiere performance through the efforts of Johnston and McGuire. The rather dense text rarely allows the music to breathe, and as such the singer has to push the line along without being allowed the opportunity for interpretation. Was it worth all the energy to present this fragment? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’ as it has little musical worth on its own terms.

The concert ended with McGuire’s piano-vocal arrangement of Letters from Morocco. Originally scored for tenor and chamber ensemble, the work is all about fleeting tone colours that help delineate the fragrances of the texts. Reducing back the instrumental support to a piano cuts out its very core. Of course, reductions gut the filigree but it is these attributes that bring Letters from Morocco to life. Liakatos did the vocal part justice in the concert but the piano ‘support’ only reinforced the terrible decision to undertake the exercise.

Performance Details

Further Links

Joel Crotty is deputy head, School of Music-Conservatorium, Monash University. His research interests are Australian and Romanian music, and he was on the AMC board between 1997-2003.


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I agree - piano arrangement a poor substitute

I flew to Melbourne from Sydney to see this concert as I'm currently writing a paper on Letters From Morocco. As much as I respect Marshall's reasons for championing the work and producing a piano arrangement of its orchestral accompaniment (essentially to make it more easily and more frequently performable), I too have to say that I'm disappointed with the results, particularly in the most rhythmically active and harmonically static songs (the first and the sixth).

Not only do the reductions impinge on the evocative cultural colouring of the original score, as you point out, but it's also a shame to lose the emphasis on percussion that so attracted Stokowski and other supporters of the work in 1950s New York, where percussion ensembles were all the rage.

But the concert was certainly a worthwhile event, thanks to the presence of Joyce McGrath and her portrait of Peggy, and the display of letters from Paul Bowles and other correspondents from the library's collection. I have been leafing through Paul Bowles' letters to PGH in the State Library of NSW, including the ones from which Letters From Morocco were taken, and as one might expect they make for remarkably good reading.