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The Australian Choral landscape since Colonisation

Updated: Apr 10

The current choral landscape of Australia exists today because of the cultural diversity in the choral arts that this country has experienced since colonisation and before. Of course, the music scene today is very different from that of a century ago. This article will trace the important compositional figures that have arrived in Australia, and pinpoint some of the influences that composers have had over its 237 years. 


Parallel to similar developments in other countries, and particularly those countries who have begun their written history as a colonised state, Australian artists have faced questions about their collective and individual identity. In the musical landscape of Australia, numerous musicians attempted to create their own patriotic songs in the early days of colonisation, and, in more recent times, to create their own unique sounds. But it was particularly  in the 19th century when mostly European musicians landed on the shores of Australia and may have been influenced by the limited interaction they had with the Australian First Nations people, its flora and fauna.


Relatively little research appears in music history texts that address the state of Australian music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, least of all Australian choral music. This is not due to a lack of composers or compositions but perhaps to the continent’s geographical location and its distance from the rest of the world. It is important to note that although Europeans did not settle in Australia until 1787, the First Nations people had been inhabiting this land for over 65, 000 years. It was not until the twentieth century that Australian researchers in a variety of fields, including musicology and ethnomusicology, began to turn to this country’s history prior to 1787.


A comprehensive document written by Graeme Skinner titled: “Toward a General History of Australian Musical Composition” traces the lives and output of prominent musicians since colonisation. The first settlers attempted to transplant their European tradition onto a land that showed no similarity to Europe and continued in this vein for the next 100 years, disregarding its rich indigenous history. Colonial composers wrote works for colonial occasions and events.  Some names that surface during early colonisation for their choral output, no matter how small, are Isaac Nathan (1792-1864), William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), Stephen Marsh (1808-1888), and Sidney Nelson (1800-1861). It should be noted that some of these composers also left a number of works for orchestra and other instrumental combinations.

Isaac Nathan (1792-1864)

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Australia soared as its population almost doubled, and economic activity saw an enormous increase.  As a result, the growth in intellectual life brought about an expanded artistic practice. The country became less isolated from the rest of the world and more determined to promote itself with an artistic voice. With the rise and establishment of choral societies in the mid-nineteenth century there came an increase in commissioned works. Alfred Hill (1870-1960), Ernest Edwin Philip Truman (1869-1948), and Percy Brier (1885-1970), G.W.L. Marshall Hall (1862-1915), Arundel Orchard (1867-1961), Mona McBurney (1862-1932), Florence Donaldson Ewart (1864-1949), Ernest Hutcheson (1871-19510, and George F. Boyle (1886-1948) stand as distinct composers in Australia who wrote in the European style during this time. At this point in Australia’s history, the white settlers would probably have identified themselves as a subsection of Britain, rather than Australia as its own nation. Small glimpses of Australian nationalistic flavour can be seen in the work of Henry Tate (1873-1926), a contemporary of Percy Grainger (1882-1961), who encouraged research into Australian Aboriginal music.


Throughout the twentieth century several composers, either born in Australia or immigrating from Europe, struggled to find their own artistic voice in a vast, arid country with the absence of a long-standing recorded history. The establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932, under the direction of Sir Bernhard Heinze, laid the foundation for permanent professional orchestras and choruses. This gave rise to a selection of middle generation composers that include Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984), Clive Douglas (1903-77), Robert Watson Hughes (1912-2007), John Antill (1904-86), Dorian Le Gallienne (1915-63), Martin Mather (1927-2007), and Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990).


The 1960s and 70s yielded a rich harvest of Australian orchestral and chamber music and left the choral genre virtually unexplored.  In the course of the 1980s, however, the establishment and flourishing of chamber choirs with the skills and commitment to tackle demanding new music encouraged a whole new generation of composers for whom choral music became a viable medium for major musical statements. With relatively few traditional models, composers felt free to explore the potential of the medium in various directions, drawing on other cultures and creating a rich body of textural explorations.


An exciting new wave of composers grew in the 1960s that contributed to an original concept of Australian musical language. These consisted of Russian born Larry Sitsky (b. 1934), German born Felix Werder (1922-2012), Wendy Morrissey (1926-2005), Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), Richard Meale (b. 1932), Colin Brumby (1933-2018), Nigel Butterley (1935-2022) and Jennifer Fowler (b. 1939).

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

It is in the choral works of Sculthorpe that we begin to see innovation and some acknowledgement of Australia prior to colonisation. Whilst on a Harkness Fellowship to Yale University, Sculthorpe composed Sun Music for Voices and Percussion (1966), written for SATB choir, piano, and 3 percussionists. The exploration of different parameters in sound combinations of the human voice in this work created new, for its time, clusters of sounds, although it is clearly the rhythmic motives that govern this work. In 1972-3 Sculthorpe composed Rites of Passage, an opera exploring concepts of the genre at the time of Jean-Baptiste Lully, that was intended for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. A combination of choral singing, dancing, poetry, and scenic effects, Sculthorpe used Boethius’ De consolation philosophiae for the text of the chorales, and a selection of southern Aranda (tribal group from the Arrernte region in Central Australia) poetry for the text of the Rites. Sculthorpe’s musical language is a reflection of the physical and climatic characteristic of the Australian outback landscape, as well as the evocation of loneliness they can instil in an individual. 

Peter Sculthorpe, Sun Music for Voices and Percussion, mm. 25-40

Peter Sculthorpe’s influence, both in style and in thought, on Australian composers is immeasurable. Of the students that studied with him during his first years at the University of Sydney, two are notable for their writing for voices. Ross Edwards (b. 1944) and Anne Boyd (b. 1946) create a second generation of compositional thought and further development in the search for innovation and originality less concerned with the criteria from the European or American signatures. 


The writings of Lady Sarashina (b. AD1008), an eleventh-century Japanese noblewoman, are Boyd’s inspiration for As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (1975). Boyd chose three of Lady Sarashina’s dreams to create the mood and text, combining the text with the sound of humming to create a musical meditation. With light at the centre of each of the Buddhas in the dreams, Boyd makes great use of this image and its magnificent transfer into musical sound, influenced by the sounds of the instruments of the gagaku.

Anne Boyd, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, mm. 111-116

 In contrast, Edwards works are minimalistic and reflect the micro-level within Australian flora and fauna. This is evident in his maninya style of which his Flower Songs (1986-7) features. Written for SATB chorus of 16 voices and two percussionists, the text is a series of scientific Latin and Greek names of several central eastern Australian wildflowers. His setting of the text is like building or landscaping a garden, repeating, superimposing, and juxtaposing short motifs to build the texture of a hypnotic nature. Edwards’Dawn Mantras (2000) which was first performed on the sails of the Sydney Opera House at sunrise on the first day of this millennium, combines a diverse range of timbres into an atmospheric whole. The work exhibits dialogues between the shakuhachi, tenor saxophone, didjeridu, percussion, child soprano solo, children’s chorus, and men’s chorus, combining texts from the Asia-Pacific region.

Ross Edwards, Flower Songs, Movement 2, mm. 19-30

The composers and works featured above have merely scratched the surface of choral compositional life in Australia leading up to the 1990s. The composers chosen are representative of the flourishing and ever evolving state of choral music written for the singing voice. The later works above deliberately seek a reorientation of ‘the Australian’ as part of the larger Pacific identity.


Dr Debra Shearer-Dirié is a Brisbane-based conductor, music educator, and singer. Debra’s career has taken her from Hungary and through western Europe to north America. She attended Indiana University in the United States where she obtained a Master of Music Education degree and a Doctor of Music degree in Choral Conducting. Prior to arriving in Brisbane in 2003, Debra directed the Indiana University Children’s and Youth Choir, was assistant director to maestro Paul Hillier with the Pro Arte Singers, and Director of the International Vocal Ensemble at Indiana University for two years. From 2001-2002 Debra was Musical Director of the Northwest Girlchoir in Seattle, a 400-voice organisation of young women who performed frequently with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. In 2005 she was appointed Director of Music of Brisbane Concert Choir, in 2006 founded Vox Pacifica Chamber Choir and in 2009 founded Fusion, a semi-professional adult a cappella ensemble. Her most recent vocal ensemble is Vintage Voices, involving a program for elders to engage with the community through singing, and she is continually in search of opportunities to collaborate with the wider music arts community. Debra enjoys the adventure and global embrace of a career dedicated to music. She thrives on the creative discovery that flows from collaborative musical opportunities, whether working with combinations of choirs or with other composers, dancers, visual artists and cultural groups: the challenge often as rewarding as the music.


Edited by Caroline Maxwell, UK

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