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Australian Heritage: Margaret Sutherland

Updated: May 30, 2021

When I was making Keys To Music (and other programs) for ABC Radio, I was enormously privileged to have the largest collection of classical recordings in the southern hemisphere at my disposal; indeed, when I worked in Adelaide most of the physical copies of these recordings - around 70,000 of them - were a few steps from my desk. (Sadly, due to changes in ABC policies, most of this collection no longer exists.)


In attempting to adapt my script on Margaret Sutherland for this blog, I discovered that a great deal of the music I originally included - which was available in the ABC Sound Library - is not available on YouTube or other places online which I can link to here. What follows will therefore omit much of the music I wanted to include. Despite this, I firmly believe Margaret Sutherland’s story deserves to be told, but I do so regretting that I can share so little of her marvellous music here. Please search it out; you won’t be disappointed.


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I wish I could share with you a recording of Margaret Sutherland’s violin sonata of 1925. If you can find it, listen to it. (There's an excellent recording on the Tall Poppies label, TP116.) It’s a vitally important Australian work, written by a composer in a spirit of rebellion, and it's a work which establishes a personal voice. The composer is an Australian whose life and work was, I'm ashamed to say, largely unknown to me until I researched the radio program on which this article is based in 2013. But in preparing that program I discovered the work of an extraordinary musical mind, and I want to share a little of it with you.


Margaret Ada Sutherland was born in Adelaide on 20 November 1896. She came from a well-educated and artistically-involved family. Her father, George Sutherland, was born in Scotland and had settled in Melbourne in 1870. Both he and the composer's mother, Ada Alice Sutherland (née Bowen), were amateur musicians, and Margaret received her first music lessons from her aunt Julia, who was a piano teacher. Another aunt, Jessie, was a singer, and there were teachers, academics and other professionals among her close relatives.


George Sutherland had moved from Melbourne to Adelaide in the 1880s but in 1902, when Margaret was four, the family returned to Melbourne, and Melbourne was to be the composer's home base for the rest of her long life.


An early influence on the young Margaret Sutherland was her music teacher at Baldur Girls' Grammar School in Kew, Mona McBurney. McBurney was a composer and this fact may have been vital in opening her student's mind to the possibility that a woman could compose and not be limited to the more traditional female musical activities of pianist or teacher.


Margaret Sutherland

In 1913, at the age of sixteen, Sutherland auditioned for what was then called the Melbourne Conservatorium, later called the Albert Street Conservatorium, and later still the Melba Conservatorium. She boldly played a piano sonata of her own and was offered not one but two scholarships: one for piano (to study with the Czech pianist Edward Goll) and one for composition (to study with Fritz Hart). Sadly, this sonata is lost, but her earliest surviving works come from this period, mostly songs which showed that even in her teens she had a solid understanding of the late Romantic style then popular.


During the first world war Edward Goll was dismissed from the Conservatorium on the grounds of being an "enemy alien". Sutherland's anger at this injustice led to her following him when he was appointed to the staff of the Melbourne University Conservatorium. This strong sense of principle and independence was characteristic of her both as a person and as a composer; while she studied at Melbourne's two major music schools, and won several scholarships and awards for her work, she never completed any formal degrees or qualifications. She regarded such things as straightjackets which prevented true artistic development.


Edward Goll

Goll's teaching, though, helped her develop into a fine pianist and she soon began working as a piano teacher, firstly at PLC Melbourne (from 1918 to 1923) and then at the University Conservatorium (from 1923 to 1938). From this time she also became active as a recitalist and chamber musician, and the fact that she often performed her own music helped her increase awareness of her work as a composer.


At the end of 1923 Sutherland left Australia on her first overseas study trip. Over the next two years she divided her time among London, Paris and Vienna. She didn't undertake any formal course of study, preferring rather to study privately and observe as much as she could. Her principal composition teacher was Arnold Bax. The major work completed during this time was the violin sonata, a substantial three-movement work which was finished in 1925. It impressed many, including Bax. He said that it contained "some remarkable ideas", but perhaps more famous was his comment in which he described it as "the best work I know by a woman".


Arnold Bax (1922)

As I said earlier, the violin sonata was a rebellious work. Sutherland had experienced much in her two years in Europe, and the sonata was her way of summarising what she had learned and where she stood. It marks most obviously a rejection of the English folk-song school and a determination to follow more modernist and more Continental paths. It's clear too that in returning to Australia in 1925 that she saw her home country as her base, like Miriam Hyde, for example, but unlike Peggy Glanville-Hicks.


Not that her perceptions of Australia after her travels were unreservedly positive. She was struck by a profound sense of isolation, and later said that "the barrenness, the absolute vacuum at home, hit me and hurt me".


In mid-1927, a year and a half after her return to Australia, Sutherland married Norman Albiston, a physician and psychiatrist. The couple had two children - a son and a daughter - but the marriage was not happy and eventually ended. The demands of raising two children meant that she did not produce much music at all between the late 20s and the mid-30s.


The music Sutherland wrote after returning to composition in 1935 was mostly on a small scale: songs, chamber music, short choral works and small piano works mostly intended as teaching pieces. There is evidence of the English pastoral style from time to time but she favoured the more modernist sounds she had learned from composers like Bax, John Ireland and Alexander Scriabin. In the later 30s there is also evidence that was attracted to the neo-classical styles then popular in Europe.


Sutherland's first major set of songs appeared in 1936, a set of five songs setting poetry by Australian poet John Shaw Neilson. The whole cycle lasts only a few minutes but the settings are clear, concise, direct and intriguing.


Perhaps the largest part of Margaret Sutherland’s output is chamber music, which makes up more than half her total of some 90 compositions. In 1937, the year after writing the Neilson songs, she produced the first of her three string quartets. Here is work that is not only assured and confident but which also shows that she was perfectly aware of musical trends on the other side of the world.


Margaret Sutherland

The development in Sutherland's style after the second world war is fascinating. She embraced much more wholeheartedly the sounds of European modernism, and especially neoclassicism. The shadows of Bartók, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Shostakovich now fall on her music. Added to this was the increased opportunity for her to write larger scale orchestral works. The developing network of ABC orchestras needed new music - and played it - and Sutherland had opportunities to write and hear her orchestral music in ways that weren't possible before the war.


Some of her most important works were written between the late 40s and the mid 60s. The Concerto for Strings dates from 1948-49. Sutherland sent the score, signed "M. Sutherland", to Boosey and Hawkes in London, who accepted it for publication. However when they found out the M stood for Margaret and that the composer was - horror of horrors - a woman, the offer to publish was withdrawn. The work wasn't heard publicly until the early 50s.


Make no mistake: Margaret Sutherland's Concerto for Strings is an important work in Australian musical history. Written at a time when most Australian composers were content to re-hash English pastoralism, Sutherland showed a new way forward, leaving that sort of prettiness behind and embracing a leaner, tighter, more crystalline sound world. As the Grove article on her astutely points out, she is widely recognised now as one of the first 20th century Australian composers to write in an idiom comparable to that of her generation in Europe, and the Concerto for Strings bears this out. [listen]


In 1950 Sutherland began her second important set of songs, called 6 Australian Songs, setting poetry by Judith Wright. This reached its final form in 1963 and is one of the finest example of the composer's innate gift for word-setting.


1950 also saw the composition of another important work, the orchestral tone poem Haunted Hills. This was intended to evoke the Dandenongs outside Melbourne, but it came to greater prominence when used by Graeme Murphy as the score for his 1976 ballet Glimpses. This ballet, based on the life of Norman Lindsay, was restaged by Murphy and the Sydney Dance Company in 1979 and again in 2000, but Sutherland's original concept of the piece as a purely orchestral work is still valid. Lasting about a quarter of an hour, this work should be better known. [listen]


In 1951-52 Sutherland undertook another trip to Europe, this time in the company of fellow Australian composer Don Banks. During this trip she helped establish the Australian Musical Association in Britain, which aimed to help Australian musicians studying abroad, to arrange concerts of Australian music and to establish a library of Australian scores at Australia House in London.


Don Banks

This was only one of many activities in which Sutherland played a vital role, always aiming to enrich Australia's musical life and its presence in the world at large. As early as the 1940s she was involved in lobbying which eventually succeeding in reserving the site on which the Victorian Arts Centre now stands in Melbourne. Later on she helped found the Victorian branch of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which developed into the Arts Council of Australia. She was also a member of the Australian Music Advisory Committee for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (or UNESCO).


After her return from Europe, Sutherland continued to compose orchestral works as well as more songs and chamber music. In addition she composed more substantial works for her own instrument, the piano. Among the orchestral works is her violin concerto of 1954, yet another work which should be better-known and more widely performed. [listen]


Other orchestral works from the period are the concerto grosso for violin, viola, harpsichord and orchestra, and the concertino for oboe and strings. To the earlier sets of songs there was added the four William Blake settings of 1957. Written to mark the Blake Bicentenary, Sutherland's predilection for poetry celebrating the natural world is in evidence again, as it was in the earlier Neilson and Wright settings. The songs skilfully combine elements of English pastoralism (appropriate for Blake) and European neoclassicism. [listen] [listen] [listen] [listen]


The later piano works are a step apart from the earlier, short teaching pieces (such as the two Suites, the Miniature Ballet Suite, the Miniature Sonata and the 6 Profiles). With the Sonatina of 1956, Sutherland engaged with her own instrument in a new way, as a solo instrument and not just as part of a chamber ensemble. Interestingly, there were two works composed in 1957 for two pianos, the Canonical Piece and the Pavan. The Canonical Piece has very much the air of Bartók or Hindemith about it.


Margaret Sutherland wrote one opera, a one-act chamber opera called The Young Kabbarli. Based on an incident in the life of the Irish-Australian welfare worker and anthropologist Daisy Bates, the text is based on the poetry of Judith Wright and John Shaw Neilson. It was premiered in Hobart in 1965 in a double bill alongside Larry Sitsky's The Fall of the House of Usher. Sutherland's opera was revived by the State Opera of South Australia in 1972 and performed in Adelaide and Melbourne. It was recorded in 1973, amazingly becoming the first Australian opera to be recorded in Australia.


Larry Sitsky

In 1967 - amazing as it may seem given all the work she had produced over many decades - Sutherland received her first professional commission for a new work. This was for her third and final string quartet.


I can only mention here the important contributions Sutherland made to the sonata repertoire with works like the Fantasy Sonata for saxophone and piano, the clarinet sonata (which can also be played on viola) [listen] and the sonatina for oboe (or violin) and piano. The Contrasts for two violins, and the 6 Bagatelles for violin and viola are also well worth exploring and performing.


Sutherland's working life was brought to an end in 1968 by a serious stroke and deteriorating eyesight. In her remaining years she was honoured by many awards, bringing belated recognition to someone who had made such important contributions to Australian art and life. In 1969 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne. In 1970 she received the OBE, and in 1977 the Queen's silver jubilee medal. Her final award was the Order of Australia in 1981, plus her 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays were marked with special celebrations.


Margaret Sutherland died in Melbourne on 12 August 1984 at the age of 83. She was survived by her son, but sadly her daughter had died in 1972. Two months after the composer's death, a memorial concert of her music was held in the foyer of the newly-completed Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall), part of the Victorian Arts Centre whose site she'd fought for some 40 years before. Her work in making that venue a reality was certainly not forgotten.


Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. Hamer Hall is the circular building on the right, with the State Theatre (with the spire) on the left.

To write this article I have relied very much on the work of David Symons, a specialist in a number of mid-20th century Australian composers. Professor Symons's entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Grove Music Online are gratefully acknowledged.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2013.

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