After its extensive navigation of New Zealand, it was Botany Bay in Australia that saw the arrival of James Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour in 1770 on the date of publication for this week’s blog, 29 April. Botany Bay’s postcode is now attached to Sydney, the state capital of New South Wales and the most populous city in Oceania. Those early years on the continent of Australia and its island neighbour New Zealand would have seen a focus on sheer survival rather than high art, though the foundations of classical music composition there can be traced back to the mid-19th century.
Early Australian music leant heavily on European models, and Alfred Hill (1869–1960) was the leading ‘late-Romantic’ Australian-born composer. He studied in Leipzig from 1887 to 1891, meeting composers such as Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. His 17 string quartets naturally draw on these influences, but they are beautifully crafted works in their own right, as you can hear in the searching opening of his Eleventh Quartet (8.572844).
A more recognisable Australian national style began to take shape at the turn of the century, with John Antill (1904–1986) representative of composers who absorbed Aboriginal music into their own idiom. This can be heard in his ballet score Corroboree (8.570241), widely recognised as a landmark in Australian music history. Antill drew both on the material he had notated in Botany Bay in 1913 at an Aboriginal Corroboree (a type of ritual ceremony) and on his subsequent research into Aboriginal music. Here’s part of the ballet’s Welcome Ceremony.
Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) is another leading figure who grew from this generation, and his guitar piece From Kakadu (8.570949) is part of a series of works that were inspired by the rugged terrain of the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. “The work is an intimate one,” Sculthorpe said, “being concerned with the deep contentment that I feel whenever I return to Kakadu.”
The influences of popular culture and film music injected tremendous energy into the music of Graeme Koehne (b. 1956). His Elevator Music (8.555847) grew from an admiration for the music of John Barry, Henry Mancini and Les Baxter. Koehne was drawn by their interest, during the 1950s, in ‘The Beat’, a feeling for driving rhythm responding to rock’n’roll, as this closing section of the work demonstrates.
An emigré from the UK, composer Michael Easton (b. 1954) has lived in Australia since 1982, and his international perspective has led to lighthearted and entertaining works such as the suite An Australian in Paris (8.554368) with its friendly wink at Gershwin’s own musical travelogue. Georges Lentz (b. 1965) is another immigrant to Australia from Europe, but it’s hard to imagine a more powerful expression of the bleak vastness of the Australian desert and the awe-inspiring radiance of its night skies than his remarkable work for electric guitar, Ingwe (8.572483).
Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001) is known as ‘the elder statesman of New Zealand classical music’, and his output was instrumental in establishing a genuinely indigenous musical voice. His Second Symphony (8.555862) from 1951 is particularly associated with the landscape of New Zealand, with its verdant and powerful shapes, while Aotearoa (8.557697) from 1940 is considered a national classic, its title being the indigenous name for New Zealand and meaning ‘Land of the long white cloud’. Here’s the expansive close to the work.
David Farquhar (1928–2007) was a student of Douglas Lilburn and became another leading composer in New Zealand, the introvert qualities of his 1966 Suite (8.572185) for guitar portraying just one aspect of his multi-faceted life and work. The piece’s final movement, Epilogue, opens with this reflective dialogue between a bass pattern and treble chords.
Lyell Creswell (b. 1944) is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished composers. The beauty and terror in his Piano Concerto (8.573199) is explained by its conception as a powerfully expressive memorial to a close friend, Edward Harper. Five of the work’s seven movements were written when his friend was already ill with cancer. Here’s an extract from the sixth movement.
Limitations of space bring us to the tenth and final composer in today’s survey of music from this part of the world—New Zealander Jack Body (1944–2015). Body found inspiration for his music in several Eastern cultures, his Palaran: Poems of Love and War (8.573198) finding its starting point in Javanese gamelan music. “Among the many subtleties that can be found in Javanese gamelan music,” Body explained, “I have always been struck by the exquisite rhythmic dichotomy between the steady pulse of the main body of instruments and the rhythmically freer layering of singer, suling bamboo flute and rebab fiddle.” Here’s the opening of the work.
Australia and New Zealand might seem like physically distant worlds to those of us who have not yet visited them, but music is a global bridge. The vistas of vast oceans may divide continents, true; but not creative minds.