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Literature & Poetry

Literary influences in Australian music

Literature, broadly speaking, is naturally involved in any musical work requiring a sung or spoken text, or some kind of narrative structure. Writing words to be sung requires a particular skill independent of literary genius, and fortunately a number of our best writers have it: David Malouf, Louis Nowra, the late Dorothy Porter, Gwen Harwood, Rodney Hall and Alison Croggon have written excellent librettos for Richard Meale, Brian Howard, Larry Sitsky, Michael Smetanin, Andrew Ford and others. Australian poets whose extant work has been frequently used in vocal settings include Les Murray, Judith Wright, John Kinsella, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, James McAuley, Christopher Brennan, John Shaw Nielson and Vincent Buckley, and there have been some fruitful collaborations, as between Anne Boyd and Korean-Australian poet Don’o Kim, or Martin Wesley-Smith with his brother Peter.

Composers have also looked to the wider literary Anglosphere, with the words of poets as diverse as Donne, Shakespeare, Hart Crane, Yeats and Emily Dickinson appearing in Australian settings. D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, depicting life in the NSW Illawarra region, was a major inspiration for Peter Sculthorpe’s Fifth Continent. Some have also ventured into foreign language texts (in the original or English translation), ranging from the Akkadian sources used by Carl Vine in his Sixth Symphony, through the medieval mystics Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich (beloved of Nigel Butterley) to Chinese and Japanese texts, Pindaric Odes, French symbolist poetry and so on. Butterley, like a number of colleagues, is fond of the macaronic text, where material from a number of sources and languages is grouped into a thematic unit.

Malouf’s novel Fly Away Peter provided the scenario for Graeme Koehne’s ballet 1914 (and was the source of Brian Howard’s wind quintet); Carl Vine had some success with Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a ballet. Brett Dean transforms Peter Carey’s novel in his 2010 opera Bliss. Literary images and ideas also underpin tone poems, chamber music and solo instrumental pieces. Many of Larry Sitsky’s pieces take their titles from works of literary, scientific, theosophical or metaphysical provenance; Graham Hair’s Ganymede/Prometheus filters Greek myth through Goethe’s poetry into stunning chamber music.


Representative Works

  Work Notes
Five songs by Margaret Sutherlandthese songs to poetry of John Shaw Nielson show this composer’s understated genius.
De Profundis (1982) by Larry Sitsky and Gwen Harwooda monodrama with libretto by the great poet Gwen Harwood, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s cri-de-coeur.
Forbidden colours (1988) by Gerard Brophyis a shamelessly beautiful response to Yukio Mishima’s novel, set in the gay subculture of 1950s Tokyo; here one suspects the ‘forbidden colours’ are in fact musical elements eschewed by certain sections of the avant-garde.
Deep and dissolving verticals of light (1994) by Elliott Gygeris an orchestral evocation of Kenneth Slessor’s poem, 'Five Bells', a kind of Lycidas of Sydney Harbour.
Such sweet thunder (1999) by Gordon Kerryis an orchestral meditation on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Midnite (2004) by Raffæle Marcellinois adapted from the classic children’s book by Randolph Stow, with a libretto by Doug MacLeod.
Picnic at Hanging Rock suite (2009) by Peggy Poliasthis suite of piano pieces was was written in response to Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel.

Broader categories of Literature & Poetry