International Women’s Day

Paul Cooke Celebrates Australia’s Female Composers

It can’t have been easy for any Australian composer in the first decades of the 20th century! Roy Agnew lamented the lack of opportunity of “keeping in touch with contemporary musical thought”, especially when it came to large-scale ‘serious’ music. Most of Alfred Hill’s symphonies, for example, started out as string quartets because of a dearth of symphony orchestras of professional standard.

For women who wished to compose, it was even more difficult. They were often homemaker and child-bearer often had to work around the competing claims of their partner’s occupation, and often had to submit to the criticism or ‘helpful’ advice of those who considered they were encroaching on a masculine realm. Nevertheless, many were not to be deterred. Close to a third of those whose work was written or performed in 1920 were women. Here are a few of them.

Kitty Parker (1886-1971) found success as a pianist, winning the Piano Solo Gold Medal at the Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work in 1907. In 1909, she set off to England to study piano with Percy Grainger, who regarded her as “the most gifted piano pupil I have ever had”. Many of Parker’s compositions were written for voice and piano, or for solo piano, which perfectly suited her and her English tenor husband Hubert Eisdell. Together they performed Parker’s compositions on a concert tour of Australia in 1920. Her most successful piece was Down Longford Way, one of four musical sketches for piano, described as “an opulently Romantic piece of striking contract and colour”. Grainger later orchestrated it, having failed to convince Parker to do so. She was prone to bouts of depression and
self-doubt, and after the breakdown of her marriage, ceased to compose, resuming work as an accompanist and later teaching.

Linda Phillips (1899-2002) was a more ambitious composer. She studied composition with Fritz Hart, who encouraged her to write songs and chamber music. Her songs proved popular in eisteddfods and were also
performed by such luminaries as Joan Sutherland, Joan Hammond and Marjorie Lawrence. Phillips’ chamber works included the Rhapsody Sonata, which is in an English Pastoral style, and compositions such as Exultation which were influenced by ancient Judaic music. She described her music as “moderately modern and similar to Samuel Barber in that it has a between the wars lyricism”. Like Parker, Phillips didn’t have the Paul Cooke Celebrates Australia’s Female Composers opportunity to learn orchestration and broaden her range of works. After the death of her husband, and with income from her work as composer and pianist sporadic, she spent 27 years as the music critic for the Melbourne Sun-News Pictorial.

Florence Ewart (1864-1949) was born in England, and studied with Arthur Sullivan in London, and Joseph Joachim and Adolph Brodsky in Germany. She arrived in Australia in her forties, accompanying her husband Alfred, a Professor of Botany, and their two sons. Ewart composed many works for large forces including four operas, one of which, The Courtship of Miles Standish, was premiered in concert form in 1931. She seemed not to be deterred by the knowledge that many of her larger works were unlikely to be performed. Better to compose them, than nothing at all!

It would be wonderful to see more of the compositions of these and other pioneering women performed.

Monday 8 March 2021, 2pm

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