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25 November 2009

Vale Richard Meale (24 August 1932 - 23 November 2009)

personal reminiscences by David Worrall and Ross Edwards

Richard Meale Image: Richard Meale  
© Bridget Elliot

Richard Meale inspired and influenced several generations of Australian composers through his music as well as his engaging mind. David Worrall and Ross Edwards both studied with Meale - here they share some of their personal memories about their passionate teacher.

Richard Meale's funeral will be held on Friday 27th November at 1.15pm at the Northern Chapel, Northern Suburbs Crematorium.

David Worrall

Even though Richard Meale's death in the early hours of Monday morning was not unexpected - his health had been declining for quite some time - it has come as a shock for those who knew him as the intensely human being that he was.

He was fond of pronouncing in feigned seriousness that he would outlive us all. And still he might, even in his passing. His deep intuition was supported by such a keen intellect that one could rarely guess what position he would take on any of the wide range of subjects that took his interest. Music from many cultures and periods, from opera and gagaku - and all things Japanese - to David Bowie and Tom Waits; from flower arranging to bullfighting; Bishop Berkeley to Wittgenstein; Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Gertrude Stein and of course Enrique Granados and Federico García Lorca.

Richard Meale was a public figure and a private man. There is much to be written about his music and his role in public life - a task I leave to those more scholarly and objective than I. Except to say that he undertook his public roles - as an academic involved in curriculum reform, as a founding member of the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust and later as a long-term Board Director of APRA - very seriously; I only ever knew him to be well prepared and presented - ready to listen to other's points of view but equally to argue a case when he thought it was warranted, even at the expense of his own health.

This valediction, however, is of the private man: the teacher, the friend. I went to study with him in Adelaide in the early 1970s, on the advice of Ross Edwards, who spoke so warmly of the guidance he had received from Richard and so generously introduced me to him. Following an initial trial by candlelight, in which my commitment to composing was tested, never my talent, the formal lessons were soon abandoned in favour of evening visits a couple of times a week - sometimes with my contemporaries and our partners, but just as often not.

Over the many years I knew him, we argued about everything. To Richard, an argument was a pleasure you engaged in with your friends, else why would you bother? Unfortunately he would sometimes second-guess himself and try to overture a friendship in the same way, and then be surprised when the results were unpleasant. On a personal level, many people found him difficult, obstinate, even cantankerous. Those who loved him did, too, but knew we were with someone very rare, very special. Our passions for contemporary music were often in conflict: his intense need for the lustre of music to be beautiful prevented him from enjoying the Hellenic grandeur of Xenakis, the playful inquisitiveness of electronic music or the relaxation of ego in the aleatoric. During the years I was with him, he transitioned from modernist to mannerist and the metamorphosis was an intensely organic one, in line with his preference for the subjunctive over the symbolic. For me Patrick White's Voss is a chapter conclusion; for him, but a full stop. In private we argued about everything - the more intense the better. As he aged he became susceptible to malintended gossip, but as long as he was sure of your loyalty, he was vigorous!

If Richard developed an interest in something, he was infectious in wanting to engage you to obsess in it with him. It might be a new understanding of an old work. I remember one day listening with him to the opening of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune at least a dozen times to explore the implications of the pause and its second beginning. But equally it could be the similarities and differences between cooking and composing - he was a fabulous cook - or his passion for the Japanese board game Go, his attempts at beating the early chess machines by playing unusual moves, and his intense competitiveness when engaged with you across the board, often while listening to music. Arnold Bax will forever be linked in my mind with the Sicilian Defence in which Black, along with the contrabassoon and bass clarinet, is playing for advantage not just equality.

On reflection, his enormous commitment to mentoring many of us is a legacy of his intense communalism and generosity of spirit. Richard was very aware of his position as a recipient of a tradition going back through Winifred Burston, Busoni, Liszt, Carl Maria von Weber and Gluck, and his desire to help us find what it was in us that made us want to compose was so empowering. Through all this, Richard drew out of us how to be composers with an intensity most of us couldn't have done ourselves. Apart from his fabulous music, this generosity of time and spirit will be carried by many of us in our music and our mentoring. As Lorca writes, and to which Richard refers in those astonishing final pages of his Homage:

Yo canto su elegancia con palabras que gimen
y recuerdo una brisa triste por los olivos

(I sing of his elegance with words that groan
and I remember a sad breeze through the olive trees.)

Ross Edwards

In the early 1960s, when I'd just left school, prospects were bleak for young Australian composers, whose best option was to go overseas to study and probably end up staying there. Things began to pick up when Professor Donald Peart established a branch of the ISCM which operated from the Music Department of Sydney University, and John Hopkins was appointed ABC Director of Music. About this time Richard Meale emerged as a bright beacon, a vital force that connected us with exciting developments in Europe, North America and Asia, and provided, through his own outstanding creative work, a source of hope and national pride.

In my late teens, having heard Richard's early compositions and performances, I plucked up enough courage to ask him to teach me. He agreed, refusing to accept any payment. Informal lessons with Richard were the highlight of my existence. His mercurial personality I found both alarming and invigorating. He was one of the most persuasive and inspiring people I've ever met, with wide-ranging interests outside music, which was his greatest love. He'd blaze with sudden enthusiasms - some brief but spectacular; others, as for the music of Debussy, enduring throughout his life.

As a teacher - he later became my supervisor at The University of Adelaide - he was never less than totally engaged. He could encourage or pour scorn as he saw fit, but you always felt he cared at a deep level as you came away from lessons with your head buzzing, all fired up to read Lorca, McLuhan or Camus ('if you don't read this you're a fool', he would say). Over several decades his students - many of whom have achieved prominence - have experienced this kind of passionate exhortation, perennial in style but ever-changing in content.

And just as his teaching never got into a rut, the same could be said of his eagerly awaited compositions as they emerged, each exploring new ground, often producing both outrage and wild enthusiasm at their first performances. For all his consummate professionalism I think of him as being at heart an amateur composer in the real sense of the word. All his music was produced first and foremost as a labour of love. He had a hit-or-miss attitude to deadlines which made programming new works a nightmare - none was considered ready for public presentation until Richard was completely satisfied with every detail of its immaculately notated score. Generations of devoted students have stayed up, night after night, copying parts - by hand in the days before computers - in a sometimes vain effort to get them on the music stands in time for the first rehearsal - an experience they'll always remember.

Richard cared passionately about people. He was by nature extremely generous and I recall with gratitude many instances of his personal kindness. He had an enormous capacity for friendship. He was also capable of paranoia and misjudging the actions of people well disposed towards him so that friends and colleagues sometimes became estranged. He was utterly hopeless in money and many other practical matters.

He worked hard in the interests of fellow composers and was a powerful spokesperson - often behind the scenes - for Australian music. He was extremely fortunate, especially in later life, in receiving the friendship and loving care of Julie Simonds and her family: Pete, Matt and Caitlin; and his niece Amanda Meale. He was a quite extraordinary human being who would have excelled in very many fields. How fortunate are we that music chose him.

Further links

Richard Meale - AMC profile (biography, list of works, articles, recordings etc.)
Richard Meale - eulogy by Andrew Ford (Resonate)
'Restless spirit found the music in Voss' - an obituary by Vincent Plush (The Australian, 24 November 2009)
Vale Dr Richard Meale AM MBE - news item on APRA website
'A Composer's Legacy' - an article by Robyn Holmes in the National Library of Australia's Gateways

Subjects discussed by this article:

David Worrall is a freelance experimental composer and designer working in sound sculpture, sound design, software and immersive polymedia, as well as traditional instrumental composition. He studied music composition at the Universities of Sydney and Adelaide with Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards, Richard Meale and Tristram Cary.

Composer Ross Edwards's long association with Richard Meale began in 1963 when Richard gave him private composition lessons in Sydney and helped promote performances of his early work. Richard later became his post-graduate supervisor at Adelaide University.


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