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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Australian Heritage: Miriam Hyde

I was a tertiary student in the late 1970s. "New music" in those days was, virtually by definition, atonal. To write conventional chords in conventional keys was anathema. Being outrageous, noisy, challenging and abstract was the way to go if you were get any street cred in new music circles.

The thought that within 20 years, good ol' tonality would make a Lazarus-like comeback in the compositional mainstream was unthinkable back then. But minimalism and neo-tonality have proved that there's more than one way to skin a chord of C major.

The overwhelming dominance of atonality and electronic music in the 60s and 70s meant that composers from earlier generations who wrote music which avoided the avant garde were regarded as passé and not to be taken seriously. Perhaps only now are we starting to realise our loss in the prevalence of that attitude. Some very fine music was written by composers who, for want of a better catch-all term, wrote in a "neo-romantic" style. What's more, many of these composers were Australian.

In an attempt to bring just some of the treasures of the past to light, Keys To Music (my ABC radio program which ran from 2003-2017) ran an occasional series called Australian Heritage, looking at composers from our past whose music and reputations should not be allowed to gather dust. This post is based on the first program in that series. Subject to musical examples being available online, I hope to be able to share more from this group of programs in later posts

Our focus today is on Miriam Hyde, a woman who is remembered by many as having played an enormous role in music education in this country. Her work over many decades for the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) alone is legendary, and she was an accomplished pianist of the first rank. But in this post I want to focus particularly on Miriam Hyde's work as a composer. For too long she has been regarded as someone who "just wrote exam pieces". Of course she did write exam pieces, but as I hope to demonstrate, she also wrote much more.

Pier: Miriam Hyde (1957)

Miriam Beatrice Hyde was born in Adelaide on 15 January 1913. Her first teacher was her mother, Muriel Hyde (née Gmeiner), who was a professional pianist. Her father, Clarence Hyde, spent his entire working life as an employee of the Adelaide Steamship Company. Both Miriam and her sister Pauline were raised in a loving, educated and above all musical environment; not privileged or wealthy, but making the most of every opportunity and applying themselves with hard work.

At the age of 12 Miriam Hyde won a scholarship to study piano at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. Already by this stage she was starting to compose little pieces; within her family these were called her "maker ups". Her piano teacher at the Conservatorium was William Silver and one of the works to come from this period was A River Idyll. This was composed in 1931 and is a memento of family holidays at the mouth of the Hindmarsh River near Port Elliot, south of Adelaide. [listen]

In her mid teens, Hyde made her first broadcasts for the ABC, and around 1929 she ventured further afield to play the Chopin E minor concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1931 - aged only 18 - and by this time she was already an experienced recitalist and concerto soloist, both in live concerts and for radio broadcasts.

By this time composition was a permanent part of Hyde's musical life, in tandem with her life as a pianist. Even before she left to further her studies in London she had started writing her first piano concerto. In 1932, aged 19, she sailed to London to study at the Royal College of Music, a three-year period of study funded by her winning of the Elder Scholarship for that year.

In London at the RCM she studied piano with Howard Hadley, and later with the Australian-born composer and pianist Arthur Benjamin. Initial hopes to study composition with Vaughan Williams were not fulfilled, but her studies initially with R.O. Morris and, later, with Gordon Jacob, clearly bore fruit. Amongst her earliest works heard in London was the Fantasy Trio. [listen]

Arthur Benjamin

By her own admission, the completion of her first piano concerto took up a great deal of Hyde's first year in London. It was performed in February 1934 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the composer herself as the soloist. The occasion was a concert presented by the Patron's Fund, designed to to promote the work of young composers and performers. Critical response was positive, and the concerto was given again on the BBC the following year.

Fortunately, in 1975, both of Miriam Hyde's piano concertos were recorded in Perth with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under Geoffrey Simon. The 62 year old composer was again the soloist, showing that these works - and her technique - had more than stood the test of time. This is the first concerto from that recording. [listen]

Almost immediately after writing the first piano concerto, Hyde embarked on a second, although 1934 was marred by a nervous collapse which necessitated a break from all work to ensure a recovery. She eventually continued the round of amazing musical experiences which London offered in those heady days before the second world war and which she outlines with such joy in her autobiography. The second concerto was premiered in 1935 with the London Symphony Orchestra and it too shows that this young Australian woman - still only 22 - was out to impress. [listen]

With her planned return to Adelaide coinciding with the South Australian Centenary celebrations in 1936, Hyde composed another orchestral work in London in 1935. She returned to Adelaide in late 1935, and The Adelaide Overture was eventually premiered in her home town in October 1936, conducted by Dr (later Sir) Malcolm Sargent, as part of the state's centenary celebrations. Sadly, it seems as if there is no recording of this work available today.

Another project in these celebrations was a theatrical pageant called Heritage, for which Hyde wrote most of the incidental music. A large-scale community project, most of the music for this was ephemeral and occasional, in the best sense of the word, but one movement survived to be known in many arrangements for different forces. The cheeky, neo-Baroque Fantasia on 'Waltzing Matilda' was originally written for a small pit orchestra and later arranged for full orchestra. Her later versions of it include this one, for piano. [listen]

It was just after her return to Adelaide that Hyde saw the first of her music in print. Allans published her Forest Echoes, a set of five piano pieces. The company decided to print them as her Opus 12, whereas they were of course her Opus 1. The company believed that no-one would buy an opus 1 from an unknown female composer; an Opus 12 showed she must be all right.

This is the second piece in the set, called Lonely Trees. In her autobiography, Hyde reveals that this was written many years before, when she was fifteen and in bed recovering from chicken pox. [listen]

After the South Australian Centenary had passed, Hyde decided that she would have more opportunities to play and compose in Sydney, something Arthur Benjamin had said would be the case even before she left London. Late in 1936 she moved to Sydney which would be her home base for almost the rest of her long life.

In Sydney she continued to compose, of course, and she broadcast regularly for the ABC in Sydney as well. Before long she became a regular recitalist in Sydney as well as in regional centres of NSW. She made contact and established friendships with some of the most important names in the Sydney musical scene of the late 1930s, including Edgar Bainton (Director of the Conservatorium) and Frank Hutchens, the respected pianist and teacher. But in order to have a regular income she started to teach part-time at Kambala School in Rose Bay, replacing Dulcie Holland who went overseas to further her own studies.

Edgar Bainton

A work from Hyde's early Sydney years is the Viola Sonata, a substantial piece written in 1937, a gloriously expansive, romantic work. (A CD recording exists, but I've been unable to find one online to link to this article.)

In 1938 Hyde's first piano concerto had its Australian premiere in an all-Australian program conducted by Edgar Bainton. Later that year she became engaged to Marcus Edwards, whom she had met not long after her arrival in Sydney and they were married on Boxing Day 1939, in the early days of the second world war. As soon as the war had been declared, Marcus had enlisted. After a four-day honeymoon he left for active duty, first in North Africa and later in Greece. He was eventually captured and imprisoned as a POW, but for many weeks was listed back home as missing. The anguish of not knowing if her husband was dead or alive weighed on Hyde for years, and even after receiving news that he was alive but in German custody, the stress was of course enormous. And it was a situation endured by countless women during that time.

Hyde spent most of the war years back in Adelaide so as to be near her family, and she taught at the Elder Conservatorium. It wasn't until mid-1945 - more than five years after he'd been captured - that she received news that Marcus had made it to England.

During the war years, Hyde's major composition was the G minor Piano Sonata. The composer herself acknowledged that the work reflected her anguish of being separated from her husband and not knowing his fate. It's a major work, lasting more than 20 minutes, and one which deservers to be better known. This recording is of a 2003 concert performance given (and briefly introduced) by the late Geoffrey Tozer. [listen]

The war years also saw Hyde create a major orchestral work, Village Fair. Originally conceived for ballet, this work was composed in 1943. To the best of my knowledge this 12-minute work has never been used for choreography but it was recorded by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Dobbs Franks in 1979. It shows a natural and apparently effortless orchestral technique and would be well worth reviving today. [listen]

After being reunited at the end of the war, Hyde and her husband worked on establishing themselves and their family life in Sydney after such enormous upheaval. Their daughter, Christine, was born in 1950, and their son, Robert, arrived sixteen months later. Hyde's autobiography attests to a loving and warm family environment and family events such as the births of her children were marked with the creation of new pieces or the writing of poems. In fact, Hyde was a gifted writer and she wrote about 500 poems. The home environment often inspired her muse, and moving to a new home in Kelso Street, Enfield in Sydney in 1959 led to a short orchestral work, the Kelso Overture. It's a dynamic, energetic miniature which is virtually unknown today. This mono recording dates from 1961. [listen]

Miriam Hyde's name is remembered in the annals of Australian music education by virtue of her work as an examiner and teacher. The fact that she wrote many graded pieces for piano students was an offshoot of her work from 1945 to 1982 as an examiner, mostly for the Australian Music Examinations Board. She was a driving force in the development of new curricula for examinations, for systematising and clarifying the work of examiners and in providing training and development opportunities for music teachers. Her lectures, master classes and in-service courses were highly sought-after as her years of experience and sheer artistry were made available for the benefit of others.

Hyde's family life, composing life and educational life all continued in tandem for decades. During the 1950s she wrote many works for various competitions mounted by the ABC and APRA (the Australasian Performing Right Association). One such work was composed in 1955. Nightfall and Merrymaking was broadcast by the Czech-born oboist Jiři Tancibudek, who had not long before arrived in Australia at the behest of Eugene Goossens.

Jiři Tancibudek

Other works which won prizes at this time were some songs which were awarded the Anzac Song Prize in 1951, 52 and 55, and the Prelude and Scherzo for flute, oboe and piano, which won an award in a competition designed to honour the South Australian composer Hooper Brewster Jones.

In 1957, at the suggestion of Lindley Evans, Hyde composed at very short notice an orchestral work for the first concert to be given by the Australian Youth Orchestra. The Happy Occasion Overture was written in the space of a couple of days and the composer described it in these terms: "It was conceived in a spirit of recreation and aims at giving all the players a 'say'." Only she would see writing a work for full orchestra from scratch in the space of a weekend as "recreation" but then that gives an idea of how important she regarded the creation of music for young people. [listen]

Dozens of new piano works - and other works besides - came from Miriam Hyde's pen during the 1960s and 70s. Many of the piano works were graded pieces for students, others were major concert works. One work which became internationally famous was Valley of Rocks, composed in 1975. The piece itself was inspired by discovering the Valley of Rocks in North Devon in the UK the previous year. But the piece's international fame stems from the fact that it was one of seven Australian works submitted to the competitors in the 1988 Sydney International Piano Competition. 23 of the 38 competitors chose it as their Australian work, and Hyde herself recorded it in 1991 at the age of 78; in this recording we hear Kathryn Selby. [listen]

Brady: Miriam Hyde (1985)

Miriam Hyde continued composing well into her later years. Among her late works is The Vision of Mary Mackillop, a piano work composed in 1992 in commemoration of the woman who would later become Australia's first Catholic saint. Then in 1995, aged 82, she completed her Nocturne for flute and piano. This work was written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 2MBS-FM (now Fine Music 102.5) in Sydney. [listen]

In her final years Miriam Hyde was accorded many honours in recognition of her life's work. Her OBE in 1981 was followed by the Order of Australia in 1991. She was named International Woman of the Year in 1991-92 by the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, and the AMEB bestowed on her the Fellowship Level, the F.Mus.A, in 1995. Macquarie University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate, and she received APRA/Australian Music Centre Awards in 2002 and 2004.

Miriam Hyde at the age of 80 (1993)

Miriam Hyde died on 11 January 2005, a few days short of her 92nd birthday. She left a rich legacy of music, but sadly, only about a quarter of her approximately 100 piano works have ever been published, and her chamber and orchestral works are nowhere as well-known as they should be. Thankfully, her autobiography, Complete Accord, is a wonderful and enlightening read. It was published in 1991 and it was of course an invaluable source for this article. Miriam Hyde's place in Australian musical history is important and I hope that more of her music becomes available and more widely-performed in future years.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2012.

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