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26 March 2012

A centenary celebration - Robert Hughes (1912-2007)

Dr Joanna Drimatis with Robert Hughes AO in Adelaide, April 2007 Image: Dr Joanna Drimatis with Robert Hughes AO in Adelaide, April 2007  

The centenary of composer Robert Hughes (1912-2007) will be celebrated on 27 March 2012. Hughes's music, especially his Symphony No. 1, was the topic of the doctoral thesis by Dr Joanna Drimatis at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in 2009. While researching her thesis, Dr Drimatis had the chance to meet the composer several times - the following article gives us a glimpse of their detailed conversations about Hughes's work. In April 2012, Drimatis will conduct Robert Hughes's Linn O'Dee with the Australian Doctors' Orchestra at the Wendouree Arts Centre in Ballarat, Victoria (see event details).

In 2005, after living overseas for ten years, I returned to Australia to embark on a journey of discovery into the world of Australian orchestral music for my PhD studies at the Elder Conservatorium. After some initial research, I was excited to discover a rich tradition in orchestral composition and a plethora of composers from the mid-20th century who were prolific and eclectic in their compositional influences - composers such as Margaret Sutherland, Raymond Hanson, Dorian Le Gallienne and Robert Hughes. A few more questions and some further musicological 'digging', and I learnt that in 2005 Robert Hughes was living in Adelaide with his youngest daughter Alison and her family. One phone call and I was invited to tea and this is where the story starts.

Between 2005 to 2007 I had the opportunity to interview Robert Hughes on several occasions, and in the first interviews Hughes shared information about his life and work. As the focus for my PhD became directed towards analysing and editing Hughes's Symphony No. 1 (1951 rev. 1971), we spent time discussing this major work as well inspiration for some of his lesser known compositions. For this article I would like to share the conversations we had concerning his two major orchestral works; the Symphony No.1 and the Sinfonietta (1957)

A special moment during one of our meetings was when I brought in a copy of the Symphony No.1 plus several of Hughes's other scores for his perusal. After Hughes had stopped composing, all of his materials were placed at the State Library of Victoria, Monash University and the Australian Music Centre. It was wonderful to witness Hughes's joy at seeing his symphony score after many years. Hughes spent a great deal of time becoming reacquainted with his work: he carefully turned each page and took time to look over all the parts and sing through the melodies.

Hughes told me that the money from the commission was used to buy a piano as until then he had been using the family piano which was falling apart. It was unclear whether the money for the piano was from the original prize money from the Jubilee Symphony Competition of 1951 or from the fellowship he received in 1971 for revising the work. Hughes mentioned that the British conductor Norman Del Mar liked the work and conducted the earlier 1955 revision - one of four revisions. In 1971, Joseph Post conducted and recorded the final revision of the symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

After some general discussion, Hughes had turned to a particular part of the score which prompted me to ask what were the influences that inspired the use of modes in the Symphony. Initially Hughes said: 'I don't know'. He followed this comment by saying that he was interested in scales that were a bit different. Hughes proceeded to sing the horn opening (from movement 1) and then the oboe line. He explained to me that he liked to use scales that 'attracted his inner ear'.

I went on to ask if any particular influences inspired his application of modal ambiguity. Hughes felt that this kind of thing just happened and that it was not necessarily planned. He continued to say that the 'Allegro Vivace' (in the first movement) was very strong. I suggested that despite the motivic treatment in this part of the movement, there is essentially one melodic line throughout the instrumental parts in the first four bars of the 'Allegro Vivace'. Hughes did not disagree with this comment, but added how much he liked the theme, and that Joseph Post liked it, too.

The original 1951 edition of the work did not include the final slow movement even if it was included in the sketches. I asked the composer why it wasn't included. Initially he replied that he could not remember, then nevertheless continued to explain that he was not ready for it to be included in the earlier versions. Hughes felt this movement should be more like an elegy, inspired by the Celtic themes that he remembered from his youth. For the revision of Symphony No.1 he deleted a large amount of the original material but retained the basic thematic ideas.

Hughes explained that he always had an instinctive feel for blending specific orchestral colours. We talked about the use of stretto as a compositional device and I mentioned that Le Gallienne also applied this technique in his orchestral compositions. Hughes pointed out that he and Le Gallienne would often discuss the various ways they could apply stretto in their music.

Hughes also explained that the commission for the Sinfonietta eventuated after the Jubilee Symphony competition of 1951 for symphonic composition. The Jubilee Symphony competition entrants were from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, and the English judging committee consisted of Sir Arnold Bax, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Eugene Goossens. The winner of the competition was a Welsh composer, Mr Moule-Evans. The next prize of 250 pounds was awarded to the best Australian - Robert Hughes (essentially second prize) - and Clive Douglas was awarded a third prize of 150 pounds.1

The works by Douglas and Evans were performed initially by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) with Eugene Goossens conducting. Hughes's Symphony was also performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), conducted by Sir Bernard Heinze. Sir Charles Moses, Head of the ABC, implied that Robert Hughes was robbed of the winning prize and encouraged Goossens to conduct Hughes's Symphony with the SSO.

After the competition, Hughes did some editing for Barbirolli who had also been in contact with Goossens (it turned out that Sir John Barbirolli used to play cello for Goossens's father who was also a conductor). After his discussion with Goossens, Barbirolli revisited the work and told Hughes he liked it. Barbirolli asked Hughes to write a work for the Cheltenham Music Festival where he was music director. He also explained that he would include the work in the next concert season for the Hallé Orchestra. Although Hughes felt very honoured by such a request, he accepted the offer on the proviso that Barbirolli see a draft of the first movement: if he did not like the first movement, then Hughes would not have to fulfil the commission for the Hallé orchestra.

Hughes quoted Barbirolli as saying 'that if the rest of the work was as good as the first movement, then he was happy to go ahead with the commission.' Barbirolli also stated: 'When I was in Melbourne recently I was profoundly impressed by a symphony by Robert Hughes, who is regarded as Australia's leading composer. Equally fine is the Sinfonietta he has composed for the Hallé Centenary, which may be regarded as a tribute from the Commonwealth2. After the Hallé orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra also performed the Sinfonietta (Hughes was unsure who the conductor was for this performance).

The ideas that Hughes used for the composition of the Sinfonietta (the resulting work of this commission) were taken from the scherzo of a string quartet that Hughes had composed. I asked about sketches for the Sinfonietta and was told that there were none. 'I scribbled straight onto the score', he said. 'Once the movement was on paper that was it'.

According to Hughes, Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted the work in 1962 in Adelaide's Centennial Hall at Wayville - now the Showgrounds (Hughes called the venue 'that awful hall'). Apparently Sargent visited with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on this occasion, and a number of players from the LPO were generous in their praise of the Sinfonietta. A violinist (who was also a composer) told Hughes that parts of his Sinfonietta sounded like Shostakovich. Hughes himself felt that maybe the 'Scherzo' did, but he did not necessarily agree with the violinist.

In a later interview I showed Hughes a copy of the published score of the Sinfonietta. Hughes explained that the published score was a photocopy of the original autograph score, written on transparent paper by Hughes.

With some hesitation, I asked if Hughes had run out of time with regard to the last movement as the music appeared to run out of steam. I stressed that the rest of the work was excellent, but it seemed that the last movement wasn't entirely complete, and maybe this was due to a deadline. 'Maybe a little bit', admitted Hughes. This was also the movement that had not received the best critique after the Hallé performance. Despite this Hughes was still happy with the result.

The next few questions were relevant to his compositional approach for both the Symphony No. 1 and the Sinfonietta. I asked him if he preferred to use any particular kinds of intervals. I mentioned the predominance of the following intervals in his music; minor 3rds, augmented 2nds, major and minor 2nds. Hughes agreed and said that these intervals occurred in much of his music, including the ballets. Hughes mentioned that Australian musicologist Roger Covell had pointed out that 'he [Hughes] had a penchant for particular types of chromatic intervals and [this] was a characteristic unique to Hughes's compositions'.

I also asked if works of Stravinsky and his use of octatonic scale were a source of inspiration to Hughes. He agreed that he used the idea, but that his music was certainly not imitative of Stravinsky's work, instead he applied this knowledge instinctively, not deliberately, and felt that a composer without instinct is lacking in some way.

I steered the next part of the discussion toward the visit of the Ballets Russes and asked if he had attended any of the performances. Hughes answered 'yes', though he could not remember the specific program that he saw. As an aside, we can assume that Hughes did meet Stravinsky and Robert Craft during their visit in 1961 when they conducted both the SSO and the MSO, as Hughes was on the staff at the MSO at the time and he kept the programs from the concerts and added his own annotations to the program notes.

'Did writing the Sinfonietta influence the way you revised the Symphony in 1971?' I asked. 'Probably, because the Sinfonietta has a tighter form', Hughes replied.

We discussed briefly the two scherzos in both the Symphony and the Sinfonietta. Hughes mentioned the one in the Symphony often gives some conductors a sense of a challenge because of the changing time signatures, especially the 5/8 bars. He felt that the conductor needs a very good sense of rhythm in order to keep movement together . His addition of the saxophone in the Symphony's 'Scherzo' was inspired by Bizet and Prokofiev (who both used the saxophone in their respective works L'Arlésienne Suite and Romeo and Juliet), but he also wanted to provide an opportunity for an excellent saxophonist working with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at that time.

Due of the nature of my PhD investigation, I was sorry that I didn't get to spend more time with Robert Hughes. However, our sessions were always productive and during my visits I was lucky enough to get to know his family who have always shown the greatest support for my work. In addition, I was privileged to have Robert attend a performance I conducted of his Sea Spell with the Elder Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra and I was honoured to receive an invitation to his 95th birthday party. I look forward to continuing this association with Robert Hughes and his music and I hope that in this centenary year we can take time to learn and appreciate the important contribution that Robert and his contemporaries gave to establishing a tradition of orchestral composition in Australia.


1 The story of the competition has been documented by Dr Rhoderick McNeill in the following article: Rhoderick McNeill, 'Symphony for Australia: the 1951 Jubilee Composers' Competition', Quadrant January-February 2010, pp. 86-91.

2 Barbirolli, John. The Hallé Centenary Festival 1957-58 Souvenir Brochure 'Celebrating 100 years of the Hallé Orchestra' p. 32. In an article (p. 31-33) entitled 'The Centenary Season', Sir John Barbirolli discussed the upcoming season.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Joanna Drimatis graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Musicology from the Elder Conservatorium of Music, and also has degrees from University of Texas (Austin), the University of Western Australia and the Canberra School of Music. Her PhD thesis 'A Hidden Treasure: Symphony No.1 by Robert Hughes' was awarded the University of Adelaide’s Inaugural Doctoral Research Medal. Drimatis's career as conductor includes positions and appearances with orchestras in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. She also appears regularly as violinist and violist.

Drimatis has recently been awarded a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship to research Hughes’s works for smaller ensembles and compile material for a book on the composer.


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