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Landscape and Nature


Landscape influences in Australian music

A continent lying between the roaring forties and the tropic of Capricorn inevitably contains different landscapes. The majority of the country is, of course, desert – though there are deserts and deserts – but Australia has its share of tropical rainforests, savannahs, native bushland of various sorts, as well as landscapes shaped by farming, Alpine peaks and high plains, and a huge variety of coastal environments. It is also one of most urbanised countries, so the environment inhabited by most citizens is the coastal city and its suburbs.

To the first European settlers much of the landscape seemed extremely alien and music, even that composed here, was a means of insulation rather than a celebration of the new country. This attitude persisted, with notable exceptions like Henry Tate’s advocacy of birdsong in the 1920s, and sporadic attempts by Percy Grainger to depict Australian environments in music. Often those composers seeking to create a musical landscape did so in the manner of English ‘pastoralism’; only around the middle of the twentieth century did composers with more modernist pretensions realise that Australian landscapes might be imaged in contemporary musical language.

The connection between landscape and music was cemented in the work of Peter Sculthorpe in the 1960s, in which he refined certain musical analogues of certain environments: a slow-moving harmonic rhythm, often anchored to a drone, represented the essentially flat, unchanging nature of the outback landscape; a band of higher sound might represent the sun, while busier, localised foreground events might evoke, for instance, a flock of birds. Sculthorpe’s methods were seductively imitable, and for some composers unwittingly created a sense of a single Australian landscape with a specific musical vocabulary. Sculthorpe, of course, explores ever more varied landscapes.

Others have celebrated the variety of Australian landscapes in a variety of styles, and for a variety of aesthetic effects: the landscape can be simply depicted as in Sculthorpe; it can provide the background for human drama as in Richard Meale’s Voss or Moya Henderson’s Lindy; it can be an image of the broader cosmos as in certain works of Georges Lentz.

Representative Works

  Work Notes
Mandala 5 (1988) by David Lumsdainethrough birdsong and a repeating ‘ground’, evokes dawn and sunrise on the sandstone scarps north of Sydney.
Tasmania symphony : the legend of Moinee (1988) by Don Kaythis work, for cello and orchestra, tells a Tasmanian Aboriginal story in a highly personal, diatonic idiom.
Bamaga diptych (1986) by Richard Millscelebrates the northern wet tropics of Cape York.
Haunted hills (1950) by Margaret Sutherlandis an early piece of modernist landscape music, depicting the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, but also being ‘all about the Aborigines’, as the composer later put it.
Arcade V (1969) by Keith Humbleis the one orchestral piece in a set of works that celebrate the distinctive world of central Melbourne’s arcades
Journey to Horseshoe Bend (2003) by Andrew Schultz and Gordon Kalton Williamsis a symphonic cantata by Schultz and Gordon Williams that dramatises the human agony of missionary/anthropologist Carl Strehlow against the backdrop of the Central Australian desert.

More specific categories of Landscape and Nature

Broader categories of Landscape and Nature