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18 December 2012

Peggy Glanville-Hicks - a centenary celebration

Peggy Glanville-Hicks - a centenary celebration

On 29 December 2012, Peggy Glanville-Hicks would have turned 100. The centenary year's most significant achievement has undoubtedly been the recording of the composer's unperformed opera Sappho, brought about by the young Australian conductor Jennifer Condon. Sappho was recorded by the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus, and an impressive cast of soloists in Lisbon, Portugal - the CD became available in Australia in November. Stephen Adams talked to Jennifer Condon about her long-term project to perform and record Sappho. The following article was originally published on the ABC Classic FM website at the time of the world premiere broadcast of the opera on 4 November 2012 and is republished on Resonate with permission.

Don't forget a broadcast, this coming Sunday (23 December), of the Music Makers program dedicated to Peggy Glanville-Hicks and her music. 'Remembering Peggy' will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM at 12.05 pm, and features Peggy's biographer, musicologist Dr Suzanne Robinson from the University of Melbourne, harpist Marshall McGuire, composers Elena Kats-Chernin, Matthew Hindson, Peter Sculthorpe - and Peggy Glanville-Hicks herself. And, on Peggy's birthday 29th December, ABC Classic FM has two programs featuring Glanville Hicks's music: an all-Glanville-Hicks At home program 7pm, and an Evening concert at 8pm (from ANAM's Australian Voices concert series, recorded in May 2011), featuring the Harp Sonata; Concertino Antico and Thomsoniana, among others. Music listings for 29 December are available on the ABC Classic FM website.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990) is an Australian expatriate composer who made a significant contribution to the past century's classical music, both through her compositions and through her numerous public roles on behalf of new music. Most of this work took place overseas in a career that saw her based first as a student in London, then in New York as a composer, critic, philanthropist and concert producer, and finally as a full-time composer living off her royalties in Athens.

Musically she made her strongest mark as one of the few mid-twentieth century composers to write genuinely celebrated operas that were original in voice and appealing to non-specialist audiences. Following the success of her third opera Nausicaa, premiered at the 1961 Athens Festival, she was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to write Sappho. The libretto by Lawrence Durrell tells the story of Sappho, the ancient Greek female poet of Lesbos, weaving fragments of her poetry into the text at key dramatic points. Peggy Glanville-Hicks composed the score with Maria Callas in mind for the lead role.

But this fourth and last opera never made it to the stage. The production was cancelled and Peggy, then in her early fifties and beset by health difficulties, found herself within a couple of years no longer able to compose anything substantial. She narrowly escaped dying of a serious brain tumour, and returned to Australia from Greece a decade later at the age of 64 - no longer composing, but still an active and passionate advocate for new music.

On her death in 1990 she left behind her house in Paddington in trust as the only dedicated composer residency program in Australia. She is also commemorated by the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, established in 1999 and given annually by a prominent contributor to Australian musical life. The extent of her achievements is remarkable particularly in light of cultural attitudes to women composers at that time, and the relative cultural marginality of Australia within the international new musical world. That she has been little celebrated in her homeland beyond the realms of contemporary music specialists is disappointing.

But perhaps that is about to change. Inspired by the performance of the final aria from Sappho at the Australian Opera's Centenary of Federation Gala Concert, the then 17-year-old Jennifer Condon headed to the Australian Music Centre to see what was in the rest of the score. Condon has pursued the goal of a performance of this work ever since. Now a young expatriate conductor, working as prompt with another expatriate Australian conductor, Simone Young at the Hamburg Opera, she received permission three years ago from the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Trust to mount a production of the work. In July this year she succeeded in bringing together an impressive cast of singers to work with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon for three weeks to record the entire score.

When I interviewed Jennifer Condon about the project, I was particularly keen to get a stronger sense from her of what the music is about - of why the music mattered so much to her:

Jennifer Condon: I think Sappho and the Meditations demonstrate the peak of her work - where she was heading, and the direction that, if she had not had the brain tumour, she would have continued in.

Sappho has the oriental influences of some of the middle period with Transposed Heads. There are elements of the Greek demotic music she drew on for Nausicaa. And one can still hear some of Vaughan Williams left over from her student days. The [Gulbenkian] orchestra playing it in Lisbon said that they could hear Puccini and Strauss and Wagner, and a number of other influences that they kept volunteering. So I think it really is quite different even to Nausicaa which was only written a couple of years earlier, in bringing together and consolidating all of the influences in her life.

And there's a certain subtlety that isn't always found in some of her other pieces. I think this has to do with the text painting. She was extraordinary at text-setting. Not just setting words to music - as in setting the melody for the singers - but painting around it, painting and setting the scenes and the colours. That duet at the end of Act 1 'Nay but always and forever' - there is a stillness to the accompaniment there that is simply a boat rocking on still water. It is absolutely clear there that that is what is to be heard. So I think her painting with colour comes to a head at this point in her compositional career.

Stephen Adams: Maybe that's what creates the feeling that the voices are so extraordinarily well supported. That they just grow out of the music and soar across it and...?

JC: It feels very organic. The thing I particularly like about the whole piece is that it very, very rarely feels forced. Opera as an art form is not entirely natural - people singing their way through emotion. And I think if a composer and performers can make the communication the focus of the opera, the communication of the message, of the emotion, of the morals of the scene, in fact the focus, then one has a successful opera and a successful performance.

SA: That sounds like a very Brittenesque view of things as well I think. Would you agree?

JC: I would. I studied for the first time Death In Venice when I was working on the scores, and instantly started drawing parallels. Not necessarily musically, but structurally.

SA: And dramatically?

JC: And dramatically, yes. So if I had to compare the work structurally and dramatically to another piece, I would compare it to Death in Venice.

But she wanted to make the concept of harmony less important. This concept of demoting harmony and elevating melody and rhythm came from her studies of Oriental music, but it's quite an unusual one in the world of Western music. She pushed this as far as she could in Sappho and didn't quite manage to achieve it completely. And so there are moments where Sappho reaches towards this goal, and then, in moments of emotion, harmony floods back in, like opening the gates.

SA: Yes, this gives the music a very spare quality, and so when the harmony comes it's shockingly strong.

JC: It's a dramatic climax. In a similar way for those familiar with something like Elektra by Richard Strauss - it was as close to atonality as Strauss possibly could go, but he just couldn't bring himself to go all that way. And in the more poignant moments of Elektra, this exquisite harmony and tonality comes flooding back in. I think that's what makes it so powerful. That the emotion actually wins out over the technique.

I'm reluctant to compare anything to anything. I will go out on a limb, though and say, that the final aria has a certain hint of Liebestod to it. [I'm] not comparing Glanville-Hicks to Wagner. I wouldn't dare compare anybody to Wagner. I'm far too much of a Wagner fan and I'm far too much of a Glanville-Hicks fan to do that at all. But simply the emotional place it takes you. I think both pieces, if performed as the composer had intended them to be performed, leave you with a very similar frame of mind. They leave you in a similar emotional place. I think that's quite special. I think that's one of the things that attracted me to the piece way back in 2001.

AMC resources

Peggy Glanville-Hicks - AMC profile (biography, CDs, articles, work details and books)
MP3 files of Glanville-Hicks's music, downloadable through the AMC website - for example:
Sonata for harp (Marshall McGuire)
Concertino da camera (Collins, McCorkill, Brooke, Munro)
13 ways of looking at a blackbird (English & Peelman)
Letters from Morocco (English, TSO/Walker)
Three gymnopedies (Stables Eresonatensemble)

Further links

Peggy Glanville-Hicks - oral history interview on the National Library of Australia website (available online)
Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Etruscan Concerto - ABC Classic FM website (audio on demand)
Sappho (website for the Sappho recording project)
Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers' Trust
Glanville-Hicks, Peggy Winsome - Australian dictionary of biography
'Tribute to an unsung heroine' - Matthew Westwood's article in The Australian (11 December 2012)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Stephen Adams is a composer of concert music, music theatre and digital music. Since 2004, he has been working at ABC Classic FM in the development of Australian music programming, recording and commissioning projects, and online Australian music presentation.


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