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18 September 2007

Australia Before the War

SVL series // Vic // 28.07 + 11.08.07

Seraphim Trio Image: Seraphim Trio  

When one mentions Australian art music before World War II the response is less than supportive. Derivative, second-rate, too English are all terms that are bandied about. But can we really be so narrow in our judgments? Surely not all the music can be placed so emphatically into the negative camp. What the series of State Library of Victoria concerts has revealed is that such hasty categorisations can be shown to be flawed.

Composer Charles Horsley spent only a handful of years in Melbourne in the 1860s and '70s, and even in that short time he made a considerable impact on the city’s cultural life. He studied for a time with Mendelssohn, and the influences are more than readily discernible in his Piano Trio (1848). This is a strong work. Granted it is not in the league of his teacher’s piano trios, but has enough craft for it to grace any recital without the fear of cynical comments – at least not from a compositional standpoint. The Trio should go immediately on to CD. His first String Quartet, premiered in Melbourne in the early 1860s – is another matter. It is not as impressive as the earlier trio. Whereas he successfully negotiated his way along the Classico-Romantic pathway with his trio, the quartet has its roots in Beethoven’s essays for the same forces. Beethoven knew how to successfully argue a musical line; Horsley uses rambling voice density to reinforce Romanticism that ultimately leaves the listener processing too much information. Nonetheless, it was an interesting exercise to hear Horsley’s quartet, and one that could be resurrected again decades from now.

Alberto Zelman Snr is a name now more associated with being the father of his more famous son, Alberto Jnr. But after hearing his Piano Trio, I’d place him firmly on his own pedestal. It is a good score – perhaps not as creative as the Horsley, but one that does have many merits. At times it reminded me of Dvorak’s efforts for the same forces – melodically-driven without too much contrapuntal goings on. The middle movement slipped at times into salon-style mode, but it did not seem too out of place in the overall scheme of things.

Fritz Hart’s String Quartet was written after he left Australia for good in the mid-1930s. The political machinations of Melbourne’s musical scene by the 1930s had taken its toll and he found refuge in a musical appointment in Honolulu. Hart is probably now best remembered as a teacher who had no qualms in allowing women to be part of his composition classes at the Albert Street Conservatorium, with Margaret Sutherland, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Esther Rofe being his better students. Like many in this generation, he was desperate to forge a voice that appeared not to uphold the Romantic traditions. His String Quartet is a study in French-influenced transparency but there was a cost for such manoeuvres. This was more than apparent in the Finale in which the folksy rhythmic treatment outstayed its welcome and the movement became too dominated by repetition. Nonetheless, for the most part, hearing the quartet was a pleasant experience and one that could be rescheduled as a decent foil for Romantic quartets, although it would be found to be wanting if with the Ravel or Debussy examples.

The Library of Congress in Washington has a longstanding tradition of scheduling concerts that reflect their music collections. One hopes that with the recent series organised by the State Library of Victoria a similar tradition will be established.

Performance details

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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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