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Program note: Colin Brumby's "Festival overture on Australian themes"

  • program note by the composer

My Festival Overture on Australian Themes of 1981, was written while I was Head of the Music Department at the University of Queensland.

I happened, one day, to be downstairs in the Music Library checking out some information for a student assignment that I was assessing at the time. As can so easily happen in a library, my attention was caught by something quite unrelated to my reason for being there…in this case some books of Australian folksong collections.

By sheer coincidence, I had also received in the mail that day notification of a competition for an orchestral work being held in Townsville (in Queensland’s north), and realised that the folk melodies that had caught my attention (a) had never been included in an orchestral work before and (b) would be ideal themes for a “pot-pourri” overture (along the lines of, say, Verdi’s Forza del destino or Weber’s Der Freischutz).

While I have no further memory of the assignment that I was assessing, I do remember vividly growing increasingly excited at the thought of structuring some of these folk melodies into a concert overture…and set about working on them immediately in a “fever” of inspiration.

The work was finished within a week, and duly entered in the competition where (ironically) it failed even to gain a mention.

Fortunately an Australian conductor, Patrick Thomas, heard of it and premiered it in an orchestral concert in Adelaide the next year, and following a  recording of it by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under Richard Mills, it soon became one of the most popular and frequently-played Australian orchestral works. 

The work is cast in traditional “first-movement” or sonata form, commencing with a brief 16-bar introduction that is simply a rhetorical flourish intended to capture the listener’s attention.

The exposition consists of a first theme (“Jim Jones”) a Dorian-mode melody played by a solo bassoon and repeated by the strings.

A brief transition (or bridge) passage introduces the a group of second subjects the first of which, “The Lime Juice Tub”, is heard first played by the violins, then  repeated by two oboes.

The second of second-subject group is “The Ballad of 1891” which was composed by Dr. Doreen Bridges, and is used with her permission. It, too, is in Dorian mode, and is given to the trombones and tuba to play as a canon.

Another bridge leads to the third of the second-subject group, namely “Gallant Peter Clark”, played firstly by the cellos (while the violins play decorative counterpoint above them), before being repeated by a solo French horn (the decorative counterpoint passing now to the flutes).

The development section consists of “Van Diemen’s Land” (also in the Dorian mode) against which the composer has scored a part for a bull-roarer by way of a salute to Australia’s original inhabitants. This is usually dispensed with in performance as a whirling object above the heads of the orchestra (not to mention its potential for doing damage amongst the audience should it accidentally become detached), is see at the time of writing as overly-challenging “workplace safety practices”.

A bassoon cadenza leads into the recapitulation, in which all of the themes are heard again in the same order (with the keys appropriately adjusted in best classical m tradition), before the works concludes with a spirited coda based on the Queensland version of “Waltzing Matilda”.


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