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31 May 2016

Rediscovering Australian women composers of piano music

Linda Phillips (1899-2002), a composer of songs, works for piano and chamber music Image: Linda Phillips (1899-2002), a composer of songs, works for piano and chamber music  

Jeanell Carrigan's latest project has uncovered a treasury of works for piano, written by Australian women active as composers, pianists and music educators in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. Three volumes of piano music, including CD recordings of the works, are now available from the AMC Shop - for details volume I; volume II, volume II). A selection of this beautiful repertoire is also available as a separate CD Nostalgia - Piano Music by Australian Women.

As an Australian pianist, teacher and performer I have often regurgitated traditional classical repertoire, staying close to the European music of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with occasional daring forages into something a little more modern. For most of my professional life, until fairly recently, it never occurred to me to find out about those Australian women of the past who may have not only composed piano music, but also performed, wrote about and taught piano music. This was a serious omission: these ladies, and their work, are my heritage. They would have attempted to earn their living, much as I have done, though they were far more talented and such good composers. Why, then, have so many of them been completely forgotten and why is their music so hard to find? I decided that this had to be remedied and a re-publication and a re-establishment of their music had to begin.

It seemed to me that although many Australian composers born in the late 19th century had 'disappeared', the fate was worse for those female composers who, because of their sex, lacked credibility during their own lifetime. So my project has focussed on Australian women composers who were born between 1860 and 1915 and who wrote piano music.

In the early stages of my research, I was surprised to find so many composers like this. How good had their disappearing act been! Most of the composers were able to be rediscovered because they had written music that had actually been published. Even if something was published once, they could be found.

The composers wrote in the style of the times. Maud Fitz-Stubbs (1861-1949) was dubbed the Australian Strauss because of the many waltzes, polkas, gallops and marches she composed. In this genre she was an expert - why, then, do we still play music by the Viennese Strauss family but not the music written in the same vein by their Australian counterpart? Other composers were as expert as Fitz-Stubbs in their medium. Una Bourne (1882-1974) was a virtuoso pianist who travelled extensively with Dame Nellie Melba as her associate artist. Her piano music is well crafted, challenging to play, nice to listen to and there are many useful pedagogical tools incorporated into her various short works. But none of it is available in an album and none is heard anywhere today. Kitty Parker (1886-1971) described by Percy Grainger as 'the most talented student I ever had', wrote only a few pieces but in quality, as piano music of the early twentieth century, they rival anything written around the same time. Their exquisiteness is almost unsurpassed - it's hard to find enough superlatives to describe those works.

Esther Rofe wrote ballet music which was performed by the forerunner of the Australian Ballet. She was one of the first female composers to write full length ballets. Mirrie Hill wrote over 500 compositions, including works for orchestra, voice, chamber ensembles and piano, yet always described herself in the self-deprecating way as 'the wife of Alfred Hill'. May Brahe (1855-1956) wrote songs which sold millions of copies worldwide, sent her children to private schools and managed to purchase expensive real estate using her extensive royalties but was described by critics as being too popular to be taken seriously. The piano music of these three composers is hardly ever played.

It seemed to me the only solution to this problem was to make the music available in both printed and recorded form. As a start to remedy the problem, the Australian Heritage Collection has been published and released by Wirripang in May 2016. This collection consists of 65 works for solo piano by 25 Australian women composers, all born between 1860 and 1915, many living for most of the 20th century.

The volumes are ordered chronologically by the composers' birth dates. The composers include Maud Fitz-Stubbs, Mona McBurney (1862-1932), Florence Donaldson Ewart (1864-1949), Mary Bowden (1868-1950), May Summerbelle (1868-1949), Esther Kahn (1877-1962), Una Bourne, Kitty Parker, May Brahe, Mirrie Hill, Edith Harrhy (1893-1969), Elsa Marshall Hall (1891-1980), Iris de Cairos Rego (1894-1987), Margaret Sutherland, Linda Phillips, Nellie Cuddigan (b. circa 1901), Vera Buck (1903-1986), Esther Rofe, Meta Overman, Marjorie Hesse, Josephine Bell (1912-2006), Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Miriam Hyde, Dulcie Holland and Phyllis Batchelor.

The volumes contain historical, biographical and performance notes, a recording of each work on a CD as well as the scores edited and typeset. The manuscripts which were the sources for the collection were often previously published scores, some found on the Trove website (through the National Library of Australia), others in library collections - such as the State Libraries of Victoria and New South Wales as well as Universities of Western Australia, Melbourne and Monash - but in many cases they were merely facsimile copies stored in library archives, never published or recorded and, most likely, never even performed. Some of the manuscripts were unfinished, and it was an exciting task to bring those compositions to life.

Accompanying the volumes of printed music and CDs is a commercially available, separate CD recording Nostalgia - Piano Music by Australian Women which features 28 compositions by 17 of the composers. Both the volumes of music and the CD have been published by Wirripang and are available from the AMC Shop.

The project won't stop there as it was not possible to include all of the piano compositions written by even this group of composers in three volumes. A fair few works are available in some form in different collections but it seemed necessary to have them in a readable format in one place for easy access. Eventually, all of the remaining piano compositions written by women composers from that time period will be available digitally from the Australian Music Centre. As a start, scores of two works by Esther Rofe, Three Part Invention and Fugue in Four Parts, Canzonetta by Iris de Cairos Rego, Petite Caprice by Una Bourne, and Willow Wind by Mirrie Hill will be made available for download from the AMC website over the coming weeks.

This project was a large task, but a necessary one to preserve the heritage left us by these great Australians.

Further links

Nostalgia - Piano Music by Australian Women (Wirripang) - album details (AMC Shop)

Australian Heritage Collection, volume I (sheet music and a CD): works by Ada Maud Fitz-Stubbs; Mona McBurney; Florence Donaldson Ewart; Mary Bowden; (Annie) May Summerbelle; Esther Khan; Una Bourne; May Brahe and Katherine (Kitty) Parker - AMC Shop

Australian Heritage Collection, volume II (sheet music and a CD): works by Mirrie Hill, Elsa Marshall Hall; Edith Harrhy; Iris de Cairos Rego; Margaret Sutherland; Linda Phillips; Nellie Cuddigan; Vera Buck - AMC Shop

Australian Heritage Collection, volume III (sheet music and a CD): works by Esther Rofe; Meta Overman; Marjorie Hesse; Josephine Bell; Peggy Glanville Hicks; Miriam Hyde; Dulcie Holland; Phyllis Batchelor - AMC Shop


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