the beauty of repertoire
A few people asked me to put up the text of a talk I gave recently at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference in Melbourne. A busy conference it was, full to the brim with varied and interesting presentations. One of the highlights was Piers Lane’s recreation of a wartime recital by Myra Hess.
These are a few thoughts I’d like to share with you concerning the nature of repertoire, what it means to me, and why I have found the pursuit of it so engrossing, since I began collecting it with my pocket money when I was about 12 years old, and why it feels now that I know even less than I did before. I doubt whether any of the following observations will strike you as original or comprehensive, but they stem from a life-long appreciation of areas of repertoire that are often dismissed as unimportant or worse, as well as the notion that demarcating and subdividing areas of repertoire is useful but also partly arbitrary — everything we do in music, and everything that our musical forebears have done, much of which they have left us to enjoy and from which to learn — is a contribution to an inheritance: a whole, living thing that forms a unique collective human utterance.
These are a couple of definitions of ‘repertoire’ that come readily to hand:
– a stock of plays, dances, or items that a company or a performer knows or is prepared to perform
– the whole body of items which are regularly performed; a stock of skills or types of behaviour that a person habitually uses.
Any definitions of ‘repertoire’ I can find immediately imply inclusion and, by extension, exclusion — what one can play, chooses to do, opts not to. In fact, is there even a satisfactory word for the whole of what has been written, including that which has been written and lost? The best I can come up with is ‘extant musical literature,’ although ‘extant’ would suggest what has survived to the present, rather than everything that existed at all. In any case, it is this concept to which I refer when I talk about repertoire.
When I was a student here at the College of the Arts in the 1980s, the opportunity to ransack the music library and get my hands on more piano music than I had ever seen before was a source of great pleasure. And where there is now a vacant lot on the corner of City Rd and Sturt St there used to be an old flat-iron building, formerly the YMCA, where the VCA rented rooms installed with pianos so that we had extra space in which to practise. In the corridors were boxes of old music donated by kindly folk who would rather we had it than throw it out, I guess, and that provided an additional supply of often peculiar scores reflecting the tastes of an earlier era. Fossicking among the dusty sheets I recall finding pieces by Norman O’Neill, Rudolf Friml and those ubiquitous Ketèlbys and Gabriel Morels, Bendels and Raffs, along with Schubert, Bach and Mozart and all the other granddaddies. It was all grist to the mill in those days, and there was little that I would find to reject. There were others similarly obsessed. The pianist Tony Gray, who was then completing his Graduate Diploma, told me that his ambition was to play, or at least play through, every piece that had ever been written for the piano. Given that he was not one to waste much time practising — he freely admitted — he reckoned that he would have the time to accomplish the feat within a lifetime, with a bit to spare. I sometimes wonder how he’s going with that — it was hard to tell whether Tony was being absolutely serious. When I met Leslie Howard in London a few years later, we had a similar conversation, and Leslie was the first person I knew who could fairly be described as having an ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’, to employ that overused expression.
There are those, then, who have a fascination for the breadth of repertoire and who enjoy the hunt for the more obscure items, which was always part of the fun when it involved junk shops, antiquarian dealers and ringing up fellow piano nerds to swap photocopies. Now, there is IMSLP.org, which has made the ten or so years Leslie and I slowly pieced together a worklist for Moritz Moszkowski redundant, if not quite a waste of time. Without those expeditions into London to Cecil Court and Bell Street, or the now defunct Atiquariat at Doblingers in Vienna, or the Westminster Library, or the bargain bins at Francis Music Supply in Gerrard St Soho (between the Chinese grocery and the sex shop) I would not have met the appealingly odd repertoire of David Wendell Fentress Guion, Nathaniel Dett, Serge Lancen, Gustav Jensen or Halfdan Kjerulf, and my life would be the less interesting for it.
But not everyone is bitten by the repertoire bug. I have had conversations with a number of colleagues who roll their eyes or simply smile in bemusement when I get all enthused about Carlos Guastavino, Sigismond Stojowski or Iris de Cairos Rego. “If they had been worth playing, we would have heard of them by now,” they say, or “There’s probably a good reason why they were forgotten,” or words to those effects — no doubt I’m being a bit unfair in my paraphrasing — and in a sense, they’re right. I have no argument with the fact that there is great music —sometimes embodying the sublime and crossing over into another territory in ways that could be rightly called ineffable. And yet, the people who created that aural art were echte Menschen, flesh and blood humans who lived and live among us; they belong to the societies that host them, sometimes sustaining them and sometimes not so much. How else to appreciate the magic than to gain the perspective afforded only by knowing above which landscapes they stood aloft, to adopt a rather Nineteenth Century turn of phrase. Just because you know and love the Flute Quartets of Mozart is no reason not to know the actually rather lovely but unloved quartets by Leopold Kozeluh, the man Beethoven referred to as a ‘miserabilis’. The one doesn’t occlude the other, or have to.
Within the more or less undisputed canon, too, are plenty of examples of music that one might regard as essential desert island hand luggage, and another might disregard as muck. A good friend and colleague of mine was once forced by circumstance to play the G minor string quartet by Grieg. It’s a beautiful but not frequently-played work, with an evocative, tartly sweet Nordic romance at its heart, and the audience loved it. My friend loathed it, as he declared he loathed all Grieg’s music. He went on about how much he loathed it for several years afterwards, quoting a gnomic remark of John Painter’s: “I haven’t ever heard Grieg’s string quartet, and I don’t want to hear it again!” Now, not so long ago, the Sydney Symphony performed a concert version of the entire Peer Gynt, and my friend, I happened to know, was rostered to play in it. I was curious to know how he got on, so when I saw him next, I asked him. With tears welling up in his eyes, he replied, “It was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life.” To his enormous credit. Preconceptions are often just another word for not knowing stuff, and sometimes they can be destroyed in the pleasantest of ways.
One of Grieg’s greatest admirers was Percy Grainger, a composer with whom my friend has even more of a problem. For him, and others, it’s evidently the Morris dancing and twee, tweedy, Englishness of the folk music settings, although it’s worth remembering that Grainger was adamant that Country Gardens was a piece full of anger and grit, so at least some of it is a misunderstanding of Grainger’s intentions. I believe that there is a special element that contributes to the feelings of unease and aversion, and it has to do with bad taste: the cringe that we feel when emotionalism just veers over that boundary into bad taste, like most pop music has since about 1970. Percy was well aware of this, and told plenty of self-depreciating stories, including the one involving Sir Thomas Beecham when he conducted Colonial Song at the Proms. “My dear Grainger,” boomed the rotund knight, “you have achieved the near impossible: you have written the worst piece of modern times!” In a general observation about his life’s work and where he stood in relation to the mainstream, he once remarked, “My life has been one of kicking out into space, while the world around us is dying of good taste.” He believed that bad taste was not a barrier to good music, a notion to which CPE Bach stood diametrically opposed, as many do. I’m probably more with Grainger on this one, for a whole bunch of reasons, and we have some surprising allies (Mozart, for instance. One only ahs to think of the canons…). Just as there is nothing more superficial than the veneer of a person who scrupulously hides all his defects, a composer who is concerned only with surface decorum, and the disguise of all revealing foibles, is usually a composer who leaves us cold. Ally that with a desire to impress, rather than move or delight, and you have an altogether irritating musical irrelevance. Anyway, whatever good taste is, it’s really best judged personally, but tends to be subject to societal norms, and societal norms are all very well in some ways, but usually not a great prompter of good art, except in critique, I suppose. Additionally, good taste is inherently prescriptive and, worse, proscriptive, with the inevitable effect of limitation: limitation of that which is deemed worthy, and therefore choking off utterance before it gets a chance to be heard. All sorts of effects follow, but I don’t want to dwell on them, because it’s not the focus of this talk.
Grieg might be regarded as a great composer by some — Grainger did — but let’s take an unarguable example. Who with a passion for Beethoven would possibly not want to hear and know everything he wrote? And yet, we are prepared to hear certain works again and again before we listen to some others even for the first time. Why is that? Is it in fact true that Wellington’s Victory is a lousy piece? Does it really matter? Many of Beethoven’s key ideas were worked out in those little factories of invention: the sets of variations, some of which turned out to be, like the Diabelli Variations, among his most inspired works; many others are almost forgotten. There are around thirty sets of variations dating from his teens to his last years and numbering over 250 individual movements. They were clearly important to Beethoven, and a key element in his musical thinking, and to the process by which his ideas grew and made sense. When I toured for the ABC in the 1990s, I was interviewed on radio in Hobart by a fellow about Tchaikowsky’s second piano concerto, which I was playing with the TSO. “Critics agree that it’s a weak piece in comparison with the first, poorly constructed and lacking melodic inventiveness,” he stated, and I spent most of the interview defending the composer, who really needed none, and trying to convince people to turn up and hear for themselves a concerto that is not played all that often. When we went off air, I asked him whether he really disliked the piece as much as he seemed to. “Oh, I haven’t heard it,” he said, “but I’ve read about it.” I’m always grateful when people are candid on such matters. At least you know what you’re dealing with. But again, we have the twin problems: repertoire that has been prejudged, before hearing, and the attendant lack of — loss of — perspective that follows. How much better for a lover and admirer of Tchaikowsky to know the concerti; to know not just the Seasons and Dumka and, perhaps, the Variations op.19 no.6, but also the exceptionally fine op.72 collection, which contains — yes — a few gnarly Tchaikowsky nuggets but rewards with a lullaby of painfully sweet beauty. When I was going through a Schubert fad in the 1980s, it was the sonatas that kept challenging and intriguing me, and from the moment I discovered the Reliquie Sonata D840, one of the great enigmas of Schubert, the unfinished sonatas became something of an obsession for a few years, and I collected various editorial completions and started trying to write my own. Among the writings addressing this repertoire, I soon came across an essay by Dennis Matthews, the English pianist and scholar, a fine musician who made a valuable contribution to English piano pedagogy. His view was that the ten works usually identified as incomplete sonatas — to say nothing of the dozen or so miscellaneous pieces also left incomplete — were of not much more than theoretical value, with the exception of the Reliquie. It was the way he summed it up that bothered me, more than the preceding discussion. “There’s plenty of finished Schubert yet to be discovered.”
It’s not an invalid point! There is. But, why must we choose one or the other? It’s a false dichotomy.
From time to time, the Melbourne pianist Stephen McIntyre tells the story of a day with his then teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangli, one of the finest pianists of the twentieth century. Michelangeli was renowned for his legendary finesse and perfection, but not for having a large repertoire. Stephen asked if he might learn a Schubert sonata — I don’t recall which one, but it’s likely to have been the one Michelangeli recorded, in A minor D537. But il docente countered with, “What about this one?” and played a different one… followed by another. I can’t find any record of his having played any other Schubert sonatas, and he certainly only recorded one, but there it is: his ‘playing repertoire’ was informed by a wider pool of music which he kept for himself; his public music was fed and sustained by a much more comprehensive private repertoire.
We can get caught in the ‘masterpiece’ trap: constructing canons that ‘privilege’ (to use a dreadful post-modern term) the perfect work over the imperfect. In many cases, this might be quite apt, but even for some major musical minds, it doesn’t work so well. Think of Schumann — was there ever a more perfect ‘flawed’ composer? — a man who had a tendency to pack musical content of the most sublime quality into faultily-engineered vessels, apparently not knowing how to orchestrate, or when to stop — or so it has seemed to many critics from his time right up until ours. True, a long cycle like the Novellettes op.21 — eight untitled character pieces of awkwardly difficult technique, insufficiently contrasting tempi and dynamics, and with a rather perfunctory ending — contain some of Schumann’s most sublime moments. Schubert’s waltz chains (he wrote in the order of 500 waltzes for the piano alone), are hard to programme because they are long, harmonically disjointed, organisationally arbitrary and rhythmically unvariegated, and yet it is inconceivable to know Schubert’s music, to love it but not come to terms with the waltzes, Ecossaises, Galops, Polonaises, Cotillons and other various dances that formed one of the main bases of his compositional practice, or, like Beethoven and his variations, an essential factory of ideas. Not to mention, many of the best waltzes are sublime in their miniature perfection of melody and harmony.
From a composer’s perspective, perhaps, the concept of the oeuvre is more of a lived, daily, experience than a theoretical nicety. Beethoven might have been working on the Missa Solemnis at the same time as he was writing the thirtieth piano sonata op.110, and the material from one might have leeched into the other. Across the expanse of his complete works, the stylistic and creative variation is breathtaking, but there is an unmistakable ‘Beethovenness’ to it all that binds it to the mind that dreamt it and fashioned it.
One composer from hereabouts demonstrates the phenomenon much more clearly. In 1981, when a few in this room today were junior members of the Musical Society of Victoria, the Society decided to commission a new solo piano work in celebration of MSV’s 120th anniversary. Peter Sculthorpe wrote Nocturnal, a ten minute piece that opened with a brooding, granite-like chordal introduction, closely related to his Sydney International Piano Competition commission, Mountains, which was the set piece that year. Interspersed with that chordal theme were long toccata-like episodes with a brief cadenza. When I first contacted Peter in about 1985, he told me that he had forgotten all about Nocturnal, but he was happy for me to play it. I didn’t ask him how he felt about all the copies floating round, because he declared that he had withdrawn it. When I heard marvellous Piano Concerto from 1983, I realised why. Peter had transformed the earlier, smaller, work into the later, larger, one. Not only that but he also wrote an entirely unrelated piece the same year, which he also called Nocturnal, which bears the work number W161. Our Nocturnal does not appear at all in Peter’s official worklist. There is no mystery here. Peter’s life’s work was a body of composition that is highly interrelated, and he was famous for revisiting earlier pieces, particularly the string quartets, and restyling them with added didgeridoo after he met the charismatic didge virtuoso and composer William Barton. If you go to the Sculthorpe website at petersculthorpe.com.au you will find lists of discrete pieces with Wnumbers, but if you listen to enough of his music, the Wnumbers will fade away, and you will start to hear that Peter’s music, in a very real sense, comes together as a sort of collective great musical statement: a panorama of the essence of Peter Sculthorpe. All the borrowings, insertions, repetitions, foibles, aural symbols and even deletions are an expression of the man himself, of his wholeness. You may or may not like a particular work of Sculthorpe, but if you care about the value and contribution of Australian music in a world of music, then you will probably be interested enough to reach this point of understanding of what this one man was able to contribute, by a sheer force of will and imagination, and love of music, by listening to him.
It seems that I am in disagreement with many, if not most, of my colleagues on a core question: is music a language? I don’t believe that it is. I don’t know what music is, apart from itself, but I don’t think it is anything more than like a language, when we want it to be. I’m frequently told, when I ask the question (as I enjoy doing, because the answers interest me), that yes, music is a language: a language of the emotions. Rather than argue the point, which might be a logical thing to do, instead I’d like to read you something by the British poet Craig Raine, whose literary criticism is exceptionally penetrating. This from an essay he wrote in 1997 titled A Criticism of Life.
“In my naïve, untheoretical, writerly way, I believe in language.
“Edmund White’s autofiction, The Farewell Symphony, tells us that ‘the tragedy of sex is that one can never know what this most intimate and moving form of communication has actually said to the other person and whether the message, if received, was welcome’. I have annotated this sentence with one tart word: talk?
“Steven Pinker is a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He specialises in the psychology of language. In 1994, he wrote a brilliant book, The Language Instinct. His initial proposition is that human beings can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. ‘I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science,’ he writes. ‘These are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. This ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.’ We are, says Pinker, liable to forget what a miracle this is.”
Raine makes the case that we routinely treat language with the contempt bred of the familiar, not just taking for granted but overlooking the unique gift that it is and the miraculous properties that it has. I would say, as a sort of extension of that concept, that we musicians are capable of doing the same with music. There is debate in linguistic circles as to what came first, the large modern brain or the invention of language, and it would be interesting to ask a similar question about music, which may have developed even earlier. Whether one regards music as a type of language, or a relative, close or distant, which I guess I’d be prepared to accept, the fact remains that it has so many aspects that are unique to itself, while also being quite incapable of fulfilling many of the basic functions of language. How does one order a cup of coffee in Music?
It also seems to me that to perceive music and the other arts as branches of the tree of languages is to diminish, as Raine points out, the immense power and uniqueness of both language and music. Why can’t we simply say: language is language; music is music, and they are both unique and wonderful? Just as Pinker insists on the miraculous quality of language to go beyond what ESP is supposed to do in the movies, so does music alter perceptions, communicate beyond words and cause to arise changes in the brains of those who hear it, at the urging of those who create it. I am frequently and repeatedly amazed, as a composer, when people come up to me and tell me what they thought when they hear a piece I have written. I don’t mean, they say, “I liked it,” or otherwise; I mean, they tell me about the thoughts that arose, and it is a much greater joy to hear and marvel at these things than to get a good review, I can honestly tell you.
The way we experience music is often a complex and unlikely process. Some individuals with a yen to share their musical imaginations dream of a web of expressions, inherently personal, innately descriptive of their minds. They spend many hours contemplating, developing and refining those ideas, each according to their fashion. From that, a ‘work’ emerges. Most often, that work is given to others to learn, comprehend, re-imagine, re-express according to their fashion, and for us to hear. Or, we might read and play that work for ourselves. Or, we might read and silently imagine that music. I’m sure there are other ways. The fact remains, unless one is a composer, and one imagines one’s own music, there is this matter of interpretation, which is often a fancy way of saying: making the music sound — not exist — sound. But in essence, we take someone’s ‘work’, a deeply and keenly felt expression of mind, re-experience that and pass it on. It’s a marvellous thing.
Then, there is the question of interpretation. We are, as players, ‘interpretive’ artists; teh art of performance is a recreation rather than a creation, but beyond a certain point, obviously, the creativity in re-creation is a creation in itself. We are in relation to the music we play something akin to what an actor is to a script: we take the musical words of someone else and relive them, in us and through us — it begins to sound religious, doesn’t it? — and the music is recombined inside us, in a way. Beethoven becomes Beethoven plus Brendel; Chopin becomes Chopin plus Rubinstein, and the amount to which we ‘inject’ ourselves, if you like, not only is up to us but also expresses how we think and what we think is important, which in itself is a kind of interpretation. For a composer, this expression of self, and finding self, is probably more in the dreaming and writing of the notes; for a composer-player, it is in both; for a performer who does not compose, it may be in the declamation of the notes; and for someone who believes in the sanctity of the Urtext, that serious respect for the scholarship of the edition is also an expression of self. For teachers, it must embrace all these aspects and more, in order to pass on what one has learned, what technical means is needed to gain traction But, in all of this, we are all different; we really are. In what way can we serve Music best? Well, we can find what it is that we do best, which music resonates with us, and devote ourselves to that. How do we know, though? There’s the rub. In order to find out, we go on a journey, and it’s a lifelong one, and we often don’t know what it is we’re looking for, or know when we’ve found it. Looking for repertoire that suits us, and to which we can give the best of ourselves and the best service, goes hand-in-hand with looking for ourselves.
From this viewpoint, the repertoire we choose to experience becomes more than a collection of chosen ‘works’: it becomes an enactment of minds, communicating with ours, in the mysterious medium of music. We are able, through the repertoire bequeathed to us by people we never knew, able to imagine thinking the musical thoughts of others if we choose, being inside some of the greatest minds who ever lived. This communication and imagination is what music is about, and E. M. Forster in his epigrammatic title page to Howard’s End was indicating, perhaps, what all music — all good music — is about: “Only connect,” he wrote. Meaning: if life is meant for anything, it is meant for reaching out and being part of a greater thing; reaching out and making contact.
Perhaps all this is beginning to sound a bit cosmic, but these are hardly original thoughts or observations. When I have a piece to write, I often agonise until I have an idea or ideas I’m happy with, interested enough to take further, and can then go on. It’s a bit like catching the end of a thread and holding onto it, and I think that the thought processes prompted by the music we play can be like that too. There might be a piece you love by Chopin; say, the extraordinary Barcarolle op.60, with its astonishing coda, a slow harmonic explosion of genius, preceded by a lilting Venetian evocation of such sweet invention that you can imagine gondoliers themselves becoming enraptured and blowing hand-kisses. Gabriel Fauré evidently thought so, and so wrote thirteen of his own over a period of more than thirty years. But Chopin himself, at the time of writing his Barcarolle forty years before Fauré began his series, was a friend of Franz Liszt, who wrote his first version of Venezia e Napoli, with its Venetian gondola song as its third movement in about 1838, seven or eight years before Chopin. Liszt, in his turn, had borrowed from the earlier Italian composer Giovanni Battista Perucchini, who wrote a good many barcarolle-songs over a long period. The conversations between Chopin and Liszt were actual, at times, as the men knew and admired each other in their different ways. The exchange of ideas between Perucchini and Liszt, and Chopin and Fauré, was more remote physically, but still part of a coming together of minds, in music, and these are only a few of the much more numerous connections that branch out in all directions from such minds, active and fascinated as they were and are by the musical ideas around them. Perhaps thsi is what Stravinsky meant when he famously, or perhaps apocryphally, said that “all good composers borrow; great ones steal.” But it seems that he may even have been borrowing or stealing that thought, from T. S. Eliot, or Picasso, or someone else. Even the comment itself is revealing about how our minds can intermingle.
One man wrote along these lines, in 1623, on the seventeenth day of a 23-day illness that brought him close to death:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
from Meditation 17
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness
Closely related to that thought, it’s perhaps this that E. M. Forster is talking about. “Only connect,” he urges in the epigraph to the class-ridden Edwardian tragedy. But how? Certainly, in his chosen world of words, and his thematic focus, the qualities of societal norms that obstruct what we seek, which is, according to, Forster, closeness between people, and minds, and souls, the word is a powerful tool; but Forster was also a music lover, and acknowledged the other powerful tools that enable closeness of mind, like music.
I would venture to bet that many of you have had the experience with students I have, when choosing repertoire for them. You’re at the start of semester, looking ahead thirteen weeks or so to assessments and recitals. Student X asks: “What will I play?” Or sometimes, Student Y will say, “I heard this cool song I want to learn,” which is modified rapture to your ears, usually, because it means there’s an enthusiasm that could translate to sustained work over enough of a period to get them there, even if you might see the benefit of not playing Rachmaninov’s third concerto at this stage. It also means that they are of their own volition listening to and thinking about music themselves, and building a knowledge of repertoire that is not just a small database but a living understanding of what exists and how they feel about it. More often, though, it happens that you choose the pieces, and you give a good deal of thought to what the individual student, with their unique traits, what they might enjoy and what would be beneficial for them at that stage of their growth. Then along comes Week 4, or 6, or 8. “I don’t like it,” they timidly complain. What we are seeking to do in our teaching is to impart enough knowledge and skill to set them free to complete their training on their own. We want for them what we should desire for ourselves: to become the most complete musicians we can.
I believe that that process stems from a hunger, only ever momentarily satisfied, for knowledge, a wider knowledge and understanding, of music, and for the refinement of the skills we need to communicate what we know to the utmost. “Only connect” is, for us in music, so important as musicians, on stage as performers; at the desk or piano or laptop or wherever it is that we write down the music we dream as composers; in the studio as we seek as teachers to impart all that to our young colleagues in the early stages of musical growth; and as we consider the attempts by colleagues from previous eras who sought to do all that before us, leaving repertoire behind to continue the conversation after they were long dead.
The idea that the formation of the canon is over and done with is nonsense, too. Without making a to-do of it, we particpate in the re-formation of the Canon all the time. In the late 1980s, I toured Northern Ireland for the Arts Council of Great Britain. In the town of Enniskillen, the scene of a deadly IRA bomb attack two years earlier, I met the remarkable Joan Trimble, one half of the Trimble Sisters, who were a famous piano duo in Britain from the 1940s until the 1960s, when she took control of the family newspaper The Impartial Reporter. Joan wanted to tell me about Arthur Benjamin, the Australian composer who taught the Trimbles at the Royal College of Music and who wrote the world famous Jamaican Rumba for them, which became their signature tune. From that point, I became fascinated with Benjamin, whose music went way beyond that charming ditty, and began to research and play everything I could find, hampered only by the fact that most of it was out of print, but encouraged by the opportunity that undeserved neglect offers for the joy of rediscovery and advocacy. Since then, although through no great effect of mine, Benjamin’s music has undergone a bit of a revival, I’m pleased to say, and Wendy Hiscocks, also speaking at this conference, has done some great work in assembling a detailed biography of him. Last year, a project to unearth and perform for the first time Benjamin’s clarinet quintet, the last piece he wrote as a student in 1914 before heading off for service in World War I, came to fruition. As part of the Australia Ensemble series in Sydney, this major piece of missing Australian repertoire was heard for the first time in 101 years, and it was glorious, a great Brahmsian rhapsody with touches of the Australian vernacular.
Even closer to my heart is the story of Katharine “Kitty” Parker. Kitty Parker was a Tasmanian, from the north in the region of Lake River near Longford. The property ‘Parknook’, established by her forebears in the 1820s, was one of two pioneering farms in the area, and she grew up among the sheep, in the foothils of the magnificent Western Tiers. By the time she reached London, Percy Grainger, her teacher, declared her “the most gifted student I ever had.” Her marriage to English tenor Hubert Eisdell helped to prompt a modestly successful career as accompanist and composer of nostalgic Edwardian songs but also led, in its eventual crumbling, to her losing faith in her musical abilities, and her last published work were the Six Songs from the Chinese, miniature gems of piquant mastery. This was about 1930. Over the next forty years, and after her return to Tasmania until her final years in Sydney, she appears to have attempted to write but had little success. It’s a sad story, made beautiful by the music itself. But the music itself, when I first encountered it, was largely forgotten and gathering dust, literally. The powerfully moving, grand miniature piano solo ‘Down Longford Way’ may still be found occasionally at second-hand music shops, if any of those exist any more, and I found a copy in a shop in Sydney Road. It bewitched me, and I started on a journey to know more about this lady and her music. Various people helped along the way, some donating music, others relating their memories, the current owners of ‘Parknook’ showing me around the remains of the shearing-shed. I’m indebted to my friend Jodie Heald, through whose endeavours ‘Down Longford Way’ is now on the AMEB syllabus. In 2004, after over ten years of collecting music and stories, Belinda Webster and I published a CD of the piano music and songs, almost all of them, with Soprano Jane Edwards. I can’t tell you how much personal satisfaction this brought me, and there are further projects in the pipeline. Applying the defibrillating paddles to undeservedly forgotten repertoire brings a special kind of joy, which comes, essentially, from a feeling of taking part in a greater conversation, to which we are all open and welcome to contribute.
In some ways, these are very minor stories, and I don’t expect anyone else to get quite the same frisson from them as I have, but that’s all right. I know that there are plenty of people who have been touched and surprised by Kitty Parker’s music and her story, partly because they have told me, and partly because I know that the music itself has within it that elusive, magical, miraculous quality to connect and to touch, and that is exactly what I’m talking about. There are pieces, and concerts, and recordings, which dazzle, which impress, or which promote this or that cause or message, or which mesmerise with minimalist repetitive rhythm, or which seek to bring forward and amaze with avant-garde sounds never heard before. But, at the core of what we really want to experience and pass on as musicians — actually, as people — is as simple as it is mystical and inexplicable — we want to connect. Only connect. And this, I think, is what repertoire does, and why it’s so important, and beautiful.
I have a final quotation from Grainger, a man who, despite his zany reputation, was a brilliant and serious thinker, passionate about music and life. He once wrote, “If you love music with disinterested devotion, not for what it can do for you … then it will repay you with fourfold interest.” Looking at his personal library of music by other composers, the collecting of folk songs from the British Isles and Faeroes he did himself in his younger years, the quest for music from popular to experimental, the involvement in wind and brass bands as writer, player and conductor, writer on music, concert artist, you have to say that there was a man who sought to become the deepest musician he had it in himself to become, and his expansive perception of what repertoire was, and what was valuable (which was almost everything!) provides a model for an ambitious and inclusive view of repertoire that has great application for all musicians. It appeals to me, anyway, and I hope that it does to you, too.