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25 July 2013

Colin Brumby at 80: composing to meet a real need

Colin Brumby Image: Colin Brumby  

Composer Colin Brumby celebrated his 80th birthday recently by exploring Canada and Alaska. Back from his travels, he sat down to answer some questions about his works as well as his composing career - from a self-taught student to a 12-tone composer in the 1960s, from a stylistic crisis to an impressive series of solo concertos in the 1970s and 1980s, and most recently a sought-after composer of sacred choral works in the 1990s and 2000s.

AH: You've described yourself as a largely self-taught composer, despite some studies with teachers such as Alexander Goehr and Franco Evangelisti. Have formal studies played a role in the development of your style?

CB: I'm virtually self-taught but teachers have played varying roles in my development. As a conservatorium student in the 1950s, I decided to take formal lessons and enrolled as a student of Australian composer Dorian le Gallienne. After two lessons it was clear that this was not one of my best decisions. I then sought help from the freelance conductor, Verdon Williams, who set as an exercise the composition of a work for oboe and string orchestra. The result was my Romance for oboe & strings (since lost), performed on ABC radio by the Jiri Tancibudek with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1954. This was my first professional performance.

From then on I worked alone until winning a Spanish Government Scholarship in 1962 that led to a brief period of study under Philipp Jarnach at an international music course in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. From there I went on to London where Alexander Goehr advised me to compose in the 12-tone style, which was being promoted by BBC's Hans Keller, and which would increase my chances of being performed. And this resulted in my orchestral Fibonacci Variations.

My subsequent studies in Rome in 1972 with Franco Evangelisti, led to a stylistic crisis.

AH: That's when you decided to abandon your current 'modern' style - several other composers have come to a similar turning point in their career, for instance Richard Meale whose work on his opera Voss led him to realise that his earlier style was no longer suitable for the works he wanted to write. Your significant moment came with the work Phoenix and the turtle, commissioned by Musica Viva. Was your decision, like Meale's, also practical in nature, or could it be better described as an ideological decision - a loss of faith in the modern project?

CB: My interest in atonal music was stimulated initially by the music of Schoenberg while I was still a student at the Melbourne University Conservatorium. I applied his method of composing in a number of works of that time, culminating in my Partite for clarinet and strings (1961) which was premiered and recorded by clarinettist David Sheppard with the QSO under Rudolph Pekarek.

Feeling a need for further guidance in those techniques I proceeded to London where I studied with Alexander Goehr. This resulted in a major orchestral work, my Fibonacci Variations of 1973 which was premiered a year later by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Henry Krips. Repeated at the Perth Festival, it was hailed by one reviewer as putting me 'at the cutting edge of serial music in Australia' at that time. On my return to Australia in 1964 I modified these techniques in favour of motivic variation because of their greater applicability to choral music. The result was a number of works including my Stabat mater speciosa.

My growing dissatisfaction with 12-tone composition had to do with its failure to address the voice-leading properties of the harmonic parameter which I found to be an insurmountable problem in the writing of performable vocal and choral music, except for the most highly skilled performers.

This dissatisfaction came to a head whilst studying with Evangelisti in Rome. I was writing a commissioned chamber work entitled Player Chooses in a semi-aleatoric style for him, and simultaneously also composing the large-scale tonal cantata This Is The Vine. I found the stylistic dichotomy becoming increasingly untenable, so that when Musica Viva (Australia) commissioned me to write a work for the 1974 Australian tour of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I decided to resolve the stylistic dilemma once and for all.

I have to say that reaching this decision was aided by the premiere performance of my Player Chooses in the Great Hall of Sydney University in 1972 at which I was unable to detect that some of the players improvised some of the parts without my being aware of it. On reflection, this seemed to me to be the ultimate nonsense that I had spent nine months composing a work, which lasted about nine minutes, and which I was unable to recognise! It was then I decided that this latter style was an attempt to raise gibberish to art form. When I said so publicly, I knew that it would earn me few friends amongst the composing fraternity, but many amongst the music loving public - and this indeed has proved to be the case.

AH: A major thread in your work list are your concertos for various solo instruments and orchestra - especially in the 1970s-1980s, you composed many big, traditional concertos where the soloist is able to show what he or she is made of - I'm thinking of the vivacious and energetic Flute Concerto (premiered by Adelaide Brown and the Queensland Symphony, and recorded by Vernon Hill and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) or the Clarinet Concerto (premiered and recorded by the young Paul Dean and the QSO). How do you see these works from today's perspective? Did you write these concertos specifically for these soloists to suit their artistic personalities and perhaps their particular strengths, or were the works more about your exploration of the potential of the instrument and the orchestra?

CB: My concertos and orchestral works are the product of a period when the symphony orchestras in Australia were under the ABC. This had the advantage that, before the concert season got under way, they had time at the beginning of each year to make studio recordings of Australian music. Thus, performance was assured. Most of my concertos were written for specific perfomers, for instance my Flute Concerto for Patricia Byrne; Piano Concerto for Wendy Pomroy; Viola Concerto for Patricia Pollett; Bassoon Concerto for George Zukerman; Oboe Concertino for Barry Davis; Guitar Concerto for Jan Carter; and Violin Concerto No. 2 for Jan Sedivka.

Others were written simply because I'd not written a concerto for that instrument before, and in the knowledge that the ABC could be relied upon (as I was an 'approved' composer) to engage a performer to record any such work (for instance Paul Dean who recorded my Clarinet Concerto with the QSO).

However, since the orchestras have become independent, those halcyon days (as concerns me personally) are a thing of the past, which is why I no longer write concertos or symphonic works except to commission, such as The Phoenix and the Turtle for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1974 and Paean for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1982, or Southbank Overture for the opening of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 1984.

AH: All through your long and productive career, choral music has had a strong presence. How do you see your own development as a choral composer?

CB: As I compose in order to be performed, most of my recent works have been sacred choral music. The reason for this focus is a real, ongoing need I have identified among choirs, church choirs in particular, for new liturgical music. To this end I am writing music that is liturgically useful and performer-friendly - that is, easily learned and very singable by (on the whole) amateur choristers.

AH: Would you tell me about the choirs that you've had a fruitful working relationship with?

CB: As a choral composer I was more or less 'launched' with a work composed for the Adelaide Singers (Stabat mater speciosa - a Christmas cantata) when Patrick Thomas conducted them in the 1960s. The choir was accompanied by members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and recorded by the ABC.

This was followed by a commission for the 1969 Australian UNESCO seminar on music education resulting in the cantata Charlie Bubbles' Book of Hours to an original libretto, premiered by Queensland University Musical Society (QUMS) with the ABC National Training Orchestra under Robert Miller. The work was subsequently repeated at ABC Youth Concerts in Brisbane and Adelaide.

In 1969 I wrote Bring Out Your Christmas Masks (to a libretto by Thomas Shapcott) - a large-scale Christmas masque for soloists (drawing on the then newly formed Queensland Opera Company of which I was musical director), an SATB choir (QUMS), dancers, actors and assorted instruments. It was premiered in St. John's Cathedral, Brisbane.

Other commissions have been Celebrations and Lamentations (to a libretto by Shapcott) for soloists, multi-choirs and orchestra for the 1971 Intervarsity Choral Festival in Brisbane, premiered under Robert Boughen's direction in St John's Cathedral, accompanied by members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; This Is The Vine for the 40th International Eucharistic Congress (Melbourne, 1972), premiered in the Melbourne Town Hall by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Robert Miller; Victimae Paschali- a cantata for SATB and strings commissioned by Pro Musica (Brisbane) and premiered by them in Mayne Hall, University of Queensland, directed by Robert Boughen; Three Baroque Angels (to a libretto by Thomas Shapcott), commissioned for the 30th Intervarsity Choral Festival (Brisbane 1978), and accompanied by the Queensland Youth Orchestra, directed on that occasion by John Nickson.

As conductor of the Queensland University Musical Society from 1977 to 1986, I wrote a number of works specifically for the choir, in particular the cantatas Orpheus Beach (1978) and The Vision and the Gap (1984) both to libretti by Shapcott, premiered by that choir under my direction with soprano soloist Jenny Dawson and the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra.

For the centenary of the Sydney Hospital I was commissioned to write a cantata The Ballad of Sydney Hospital (also to a libretto by Shapcott), and I have also been commissioned by a number of schools to compose works such as A Special Inheritance (again to a libretto by Thomas Shapcott), for the 75th anniversary in 1991 of Pymble Ladies College.

AH: You've also composed music theatre works, including several operas and children's operettas. Which of these works are you happiest with, and would like to see restaged?

CB: My children's operettas were composed at the instigation of Dr Gertude Langer, specifically for the Arts Council of Australia (Queensland Division) as a means of introducing primary school children to opera. In all, I wrote seven of these 20-minute productions to my own libretti, and they were enjoyed by some 70,000 children annually throughout Queensland between 1968 and 1971. For secondary schools I composed a comic one-act opera, The Marriage Machine, which was toured throughout Queensland schools in 1972. It was also mounted in Sydney in 1985 in a performance conducted by David Kram.

Of my other operas, my 2-act The Seven Deadly Sins (to a libretto by Shapcott) was mounted at the SGIO Theatre, Brisbane, in 1970 by the newly-formed Queensland Opera Company. Two scenes from my 3-act Lorenzaccio (to a libretto by myself from the play by Alfred de Musset) were mounted by the Australian Opera in 1986 during a National Opera Workshop at the Sydney Opera House. La Donna, 1-act opera to a libretto by David Goddard, was workshopped in Sydney in 1988.

In 1991, a 2-act opera, Summer Carol (to a libretto by Thomas Shapcott), was premiered by the Canberra City Opera, who commissioned the work, at the Canberra School of Music. I then followed with a 3-act opera, The Heretic, to a libretto by Morris West, based on his play of the same name - this work is as yet unperformed. The National Boys Choir of Australia commissioned a 1-act opera, The Spirit of Eureka (to a libretto by Jenny Dawson), premiered in Melbourne in July 2002.

For the Queensland Ballet company I was also commissioned to write two ballet scores. The first, Cinderella, comprised arrangements of the music of Rossini, and was premiered in the SGIO Theatre, Brisbane in 1975. The second, Alice in Wonderland, was an original score, premiered in the Suncorp Theatre, Brisbane, in 1998.

As there are several stage works that have not yet been performed, 'restaged' really doesn't enter into consideration. That said, however, it would be nice to see Lorenzaccio, for example, receive a full performance, or The Heretic to receive even a premiere.

AMC resources

Colin Brumby - AMC profile
MP3s of Colin Brumby's music available through the AMC Shop
CDs with Colin Brumby's music available through the AMC Shop (a selection):
Music of Colin Brumby (Jade Records) - also available under the title Baroque Angels
Enchanted Dreams, Exotic Dances (incl. Four exotic pieces, Tall Poppies)
Australian Landscape (incl. Flute Concerto, Jade Records)
Best of Australian Classics(incl. Southbank Overture, Jade Records)
Best of Jade Classics : music of Australian composers (incl. Violin Concerto No. 2 and Phoenix and the turtle, Jade Records). See also Artisans of Australia (Phoenix and the turtle) and Australian Classics (Violin Concerto No. 2)
The Glasshouse Suite: music of Australian composers (incl. Clarinet Concerto, Jade Records)
Sydney twilight : Australian organ and choral music (incl. five works by Brumby)
Harlequinade(incl. Harlequinade for solo piano, Jade Records)
In this Garden (incl. Three Spanish Songs, Jade Records)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, web editor and editor of Resonate magazine at the Australian Music Centre.


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