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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Australian Heritage: Peggy Glanville-Hicks

This is the second instalment in an occasional series I’m calling "Australian Heritage". In these we're looking at Australian composers from earlier generations who have made important contributions to the world of music but who seem to be all too easily forgotten. In this post we survey the life and work of a woman who lived most of her life outside Australia and who became an internationally respected writer and composer. Her name is Peggy Glanville-Hicks.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1928)

Peggy Glanville-Hicks was born in Melbourne (in Barkly Street, St Kilda) on 29 December 1912, the second child and only daughter of Ernest and Myrtle Glanville-Hicks. Her father, Ernest, came from Cornwall and was an Anglican minister. He was working in the ministry in New Zealand when he met Myrtle King. Myrtle was a ceramic artist, originally from Norfolk and was herself the daughter of a minister. She was also, according to Peggy's younger brother, a fine singer and pianist. Ernest and Myrtle fell in love and married soon after moving to Melbourne.

After Peggy's birth her father left the ministry to pursue a desire to address humanitarian issues. After working as a journalist for a few years he devoted himself to charity work. Over about a quarter of a century he raised enormous sums for charitable concerns and was awarded an OBE for his work.

Both her parents encouraged Peggy (and her name was Peggy, not Margaret) in her artistic ambitions. From very early on she wanted to be a composer. She attended the Clyde School, a boarding school which had recently relocated from St Kilda to Woodend, about 75 km northwest of Melbourne.

At Clyde, Glanville-Hicks was a bit of a rough diamond. She didn't fit into the starched, finishing school atmosphere (think Picnic at Hanging Rock - not that far away from Woodend, actually), and her clearly-stated ambitions of being a composer were treated with dismay; composing was not what a proper young lady did in the 1920s, especially in Australia. She studied the piano at the school but beyond that her musical talents were not greatly nurtured.

From the age of 15 Glanville-Hicks was making regular trips to Melbourne to further her musical studies at the Albert Street Conservatorium, later called the Melba Memorial Conservatorium. This was in the late 20s, when the composer Fritz Hart was on the staff. He recognised her talent and determination and became her composition teacher. Over the next few years she learned an enormous amount from him. Hart was a respected opera composer and seven of his operas were performed in Melbourne with Glanville-Hicks assisting backstage. (Where are these works today, I wonder?) It was probably from Hart that Glanville-Hicks developed her lifelong love of the theatre, something evident in the amount of theatrical music she later composed.

Meldrum: Fritz Hart (c. 1925)

Glanville-Hicks by her late teens had still not written a substantial work and her skills as a pianist were not regarded as virtuosic. Yet her sheer musicality, energy and determination made it clear that she deserved the chance to develop further, and in those days that meant going overseas. Glanville-Hicks already had considerable skills as a networker and organiser; her return to Melbourne after the end of her schooling to study full time at the Albert Street Con made it possible for her to connect with powerful and influential figures in Melbourne. These contacts culminated in her being the featured artist in a fund-raising concert in which she appeared as pianist and composer, and her associate artists included the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Hart's direction. Some sources say this concert took place in June 1931, whereas others say it was 1932. Whichever year it was, less than two weeks later the nineteen year old musician was on board a ship bound for London in the company of her mother.

Glanville-Hicks later admitted that she found London completely overwhelming at first, but her determination never left her. She won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music and her list of teachers reads like a who's who of British music at the time. Her composition teacher was Ralph Vaughan Williams; her piano teacher was Arthur Benjamin (a fellow Australian who will be featured in a later post in this series). She also studied in another male-dominated discipline - conducting - and in this her teachers were Constant Lambert and Malcolm Sargent. She also studied with Gordon Jacob (orchestration) and R. O. Morris and Charles Kitson (harmony and counterpoint). Among her fellow students was Benjamin Britten (one year her junior), whom Glanville-Hicks later claimed introduced her to the music of Stravinsky.

Glanville-Hicks's earliest surviving works come from this period, although they are difficult to date. A group of songs was published in 1938 by Éditions de l'Oiseau-lyre in Paris. This French music publishing house had a strong Melbourne connection. It was founded by Louise Hanson-Dyer in 1932. Hanson-Dyer had been a prominent member of Melbourne's social elite, for a while acting as Lady Mayoress of Melbourne. She had been one of Glanville-Hicks's supporters in her efforts to raise funds to go abroad. Now, based in Paris, she founded her own music publishing house with an Australian connection (l'Oiseau-lyre is French for lyre bird) and she became Glanville-Hicks's first publisher.

Among the songs published in 1938 is the Fletcher setting, Come Sleep. [listen]

Louise Hanson-Dyer (1920)

In addition to making the acquaintance of Britten, Glanville-Hicks became close to two other composers studying at the RCM in the early 30s. One was another Australian, Esther Rofe. In an interview in 1988 Rofe spoke fondly of her friendship with Glanville-Hicks in the early 30s, and of her songs said, "Peggy's songs were rather beautiful. They had a mystic quality, an other quality. They were removed. They were a mood that came and passed by. They had an impact always because they were of her."

Esther Rofe

Of Glanville-Hicks herself, Rofe recalled, "She was a professional...she could talk up a storm and get everybody's attention". Another composer Glanville-Hicks met was the Englishman Stanley Bate (who was also a talented pianist), who would later become her first husband.

Stanley Bate

The influence of Vaughan Williams upon Glanville-Hicks should not be underestimated. Vaughan Williams was the leading exponent of the Celtic revival in English music, and his own music of course was imbued with the spirit of the English past. Her earlier studies with Hart in Melbourne - himself a former RCM student and colleague of Vaughan Williams - would only have reinforced this. Throughout her life Glanville-Hicks sought authentic and ancient inspirations for her music, although her inspirations went far wider than those embraced by Vaughan Williams or Hart. But, interestingly, she never seemed to draw ideas from the ancient cultures of her own country.

Nadia Boulanger (1925)

In 1936 Glanville-Hicks won a travelling scholarship which enabled her to spend most of the following two years on the continent. In Paris she studied with Nadia Boulanger, who introduced her to neo-classicism, and in Vienna she worked with Egon Wellesz, who exposed her to Schoenbergian serialism. Given her already-established predilection for tonality and ethnic music, it's perhaps not surprising that she rejected both neo-classicism and serialism. As far as her studies with Boulanger were concerned, she rejected the idea of going back to recent past to rehash old ideas (which is how she viewed neo-classicism, and especially Stravinsky's version of it). And her time with Wellesz confirmed her need to work within a form of tonality, meaning serialism was not for her. Considering Wellesz's widely-admired expertise in Byzantine music, it is perhaps sad that this wasn't the focus of his time with Glanville-Hicks.

Egon Wellesz

An important milestone took place in 1938 when two movements of Glanville-Hicks's Choral Suite were performed in Paris at the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, conducted by Adrian Boult. This work, also published by l'Oiseau-lyre, is scored for three-part female chorus, strings and solo oboe, and it is very beautiful. The only other occasion on which I know of a performance of this work - and perhaps the only time it has ever been performed complete - was when I conducted a performance in Adelaide in the late 1980s. It is a tragedy that this work has to the best of my knowledge never been recorded commercially.

In 1938 Glanville-Hicks married the pianist and composer Stanley Bate and for the duration of their marriage she took his surname. She accompanied Bate on international concert tours in 1940 and 41, which included Melbourne and Sydney, and later, Boston and New York. By 1942 they had settled in New York which was to be Glanville-Hicks's base for many years.

The marriage, though, was a turbulent one - one biography describes it as "uneasy" - with Bate quickly developing a reputation for violence and alcoholism, not to mention his ambivalent sexuality. The couple divorced in 1949, whereupon Bate left the United States. Glanville-Hicks had become a US citizen the previous year and she stayed on. Despite the end of the marriage, Glanville-Hicks continued throughout her life to promote Bate's music and collect his works. Bate remarried but went into a downward spiral and took his own life in 1959 at the age of 46.

In 1939, one year into the marriage, Glanville-Hicks composed her Sonatina for flute and piano. After this, as her husband's professional and personal issues demanded her attention, she composed almost nothing for five years. In 1944. though. she returned to serious composition with a cycle of five songs setting texts by AE Housman. The last two songs - Unlucky Love and Homespun Collars - seem to indicate a greater depth, if not darkness, in her music.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1938)

In 1947, two years before her divorce from Bate, Glanville-Hicks began working for the New York Herald Tribune as a music critic. Thus began one her great creative periods, but as much as a writer as a composer. She was an indefatigable critic, and over seven or eight years she wrote some 500 reviews for the paper, most of which were of performances of new music. Her senior colleague at the Tribune was Virgil Thomson, himself a respected composer and music journalist.

Virgil Thomson (1947)

Glanville-Hicks became a tireless promoter and supporter of new music and young composers through her writings. In addition to being a critic for the Tribune she had articles published in many music journals. Her tastes were clear and unambiguous: she preferred tonality to atonality and was obsessed with "integration", a composer's ability to not only be inspired but to create a satisfying and unified work of art.

The late 40s saw Glanville-Hicks begin an enormously creative phase as a composer (as well as a writer) and it is the works from this period which are best-known today. After the Housman songs came another group of songs called Profiles from China [listen], but it was clear that she was now ready to embark on larger-scale works.

In 1946 she composed the Concertino da Camera for flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano [listen]. This was followed by the Sonata for Harp, written in 1950-51 for the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta. This sonata has remained one of the central works in the harp repertoire ever since. Indeed, Zabaleta himself was still performing it in the late 1980s when he himself was in his 80s. This is the finale. [listen]

Moving to a larger palette, Glanville-Hicks's next work the Sonata for Piano and Percussion, written in 1951. This is perhaps one of the first of her compositions to show her interest in non-western musical cultures, this eternal search she had for "ancient and authentic" inspiration. The first and last movements are inspired by African music, and here too is an indication of what would become an ongoing fascination with percussion instruments.

Rhythm - at the deliberate expense of harmony - would become more and more important in Glanville-Hicks's music in the 50s. In her personal life there was an equivalent turbulence, even passion. While visiting Yehudi Menuhin and his wife Nola in California in 1951 she met the Austrian-Israeli writer and critic Rafael da Costa. They began a passionate affair which resulted in a secret marriage. Sadly, the happiness Glanville-Hicks thought she had found soon evaporated as it became clear that da Costa had only married her so as to be able to achieve US residency and a green card. Glanville-Hicks, understandably, felt used and humiliated, and the marriage ended in 1953, by which time she had written more fascinating music.

In 1952 she travelled to Australia by ship to visit her ailing mother and on board - in addition to having a ship-board romance with the Captain - she began an orchestral work to offer to Bernard Heinze in Melbourne on her arrival.

The work, Sinfonia da Pacifica, was of course named after the ocean on which she was travelling but in reality the musical content of the piece was quite unconnected to anything relating to the Pacific Ocean. At the time her thoughts were occupied with an commission for an opera which was set in India and for which she wanted to create sounds inspired by traditional Indian music. Sinfonia da Pacifica, therefore, is far more Indian in its inspiration, but that doesn't make it any less fascinating as a piece. [listen]

Sadly, Myrtle Glanville-Hicks died before Peggy arrived in Australia; Peggy had received a cable on board the ship informing her of her mother's death. As for the Sinfonia da Pacifica, it gave her the opportunity to work through some of the musical ideas which would form the basis of the Indian opera. The Transposed Heads was written to fulfil a commission from the Louisville Philharmonic Society in Kentucky, her first important commission. Based on a story by Thomas Mann, Glanville-Hicks arranged the libretto herself into a 75-minute work in six scenes.

Anon, Kulu School, India: Krishna and the Gopis (19th century)

Here Glanville-Hicks revels in her theatrical experiences from 20 years before in Melbourne under Fritz Hart, and combines it with her ethnomusicological discoveries (it was Menuhin who had introduced her to Indian music) and her demotion of harmony and elevation of rhythm. The Transposed Heads is a gem. [listen]

Sounds from other ancient cultures permeate two other works from 1953. One is Letters from Morocco, a work for voice and small orchestra which sets extracts of letters written to her from Morocco by her close friend, the composer and author Paul Bowles. [listen] Another series of works, the three Gymnopedies for small ensemble, invokes the same ancient Greek culture which inspired the similarly-titled works of Erik Satie. [listen]

One other major work from this period is the concerto for piano and chamber orchestra known as the Etruscan Concerto. Rhythm again is Glanville-Hicks's major means of projecting a cultural ambience, here in an attempt to suggest the pre-Roman civilisation of the Italian peninsula. We of course have no idea what Etruscan music sounded like; Glanville-Hicks - like the David Herbert Lawrence quotes which preface each movement - draws her inspiration from Etruscan art. But the Etruscan Concerto rapidly became one of Glanville-Hicks's most popular works. [listen]

Etruscan: Tomb of the Leopards (c. 480-450 BCE)

Two more concertos followed, the 1955 Concerto antico for harp and string quartet, and the Concerto romantico for viola and chamber orchestra, written in 1956. [listen]

Meanwhile, Glanville-Hicks's writing work continued, and in increasingly prominent publications. In 1954 she updated the American material in the 5th edition of Grove's Dictionary, including 98 entries on then-current American composers. She also wrote eight further entries on Danish composers.

By the mid-50s Glanville-Hicks had a prodigious knowledge of new music, not only in America but internationally, and she was highly-respected as an expert on contemporary composers from around the world. Meanwhile, her travels had taken her on several occasions to Greece, and from 1959 she decided to make Athens her home. She renovated a home on Mykonos, but still travelled widely, across Europe and back to the United States. She no longer reviewed for the Tribune but her writings on music were still sought-after.

As a composer, Glanville-Hicks became more and more interested in music for the theatre after her relocation to Greece. She wrote a number of ballets on religious themes, including Saul and the Witch of Endor and Jephthah's Daughter in 1959 and 1963 respectively. But her main creations at this time were two operas on ancient Greek themes: Nausicaa in 1960 and Sappho in 1963.

Nausicaa is a major work, an opera in three acts which was successfully premiered in the ancient Theatre of Herod Atticus at the 1961 Athens Festival. (Teresa Stratas sang the title role in one of her first major international productions.) Based on Robert Graves's Homer's Daughter, the opera brought Glanville-Hicks probably her greatest international success as a composer, yet to date no complete recording of the piece exists, to the best of my knowledge. The Athens performance in 1961 was recorded, though, and a selected scenes were released on LP, with a later CD reissue.

Glanville-Hicks at the Theatre of Herod Atticus during the rehearsal period for Nausicaa (1961)

Glanville-Hicks's last major work was Sappho, an opera commissioned by the San Francisco Opera (as a vehicle for Maria Callas!) but rejected by the company (on the basis that its harmony was too modal) and never performed. In 2010, the final scene was recorded for ABC Classics with soprano Deborah Riedel, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and conductor Richard Mills. Then, through the tireless efforts of the Australian conductor Jennifer Condon, the entire opera was recorded under her baton in Portugal in 2011 and given a CD release in 2012. More information abut the complete recording can be found here.

Fortunately, Deborah Riedel’s recording of the final scene is also available on YouTube. [listen]

In 1967 Peggy Glanville-Hicks underwent surgery for a brain tumour and, despite dire predictions that she had only five years to live, she survived much longer. Sadly, though, the urge to compose was gone. In the remaining 23 years of her life she made a few attempts to write new works, but nothing of substance came about.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks

In 1972, primarily through the untiring efforts of James Murdoch - the noted Australian arts administrator, author and pianist - Glanville-Hicks returned to Australia to live. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney in 1987 and from the 1980s her music - finally - started to become better-known in Australia. She lived in a house in Ormond St, Paddington (in inner Sydney) until her death at the age of 77 on 25 June 1990. Her house was bequeathed to the nation as a residence for Australian and visiting overseas composers to use as a base and refuge for periods of work. (Read more about the house here.)

There is no doubt that, had she not been disabled by the brain tumour and surgery in 1967, Peggy Glanville-Hicks would have continued to create new works and develop her many interests, not only as a composer but as a writer. She was a feisty, determined and passionate woman; this article only tells a fraction of the story of her remarkable life and I acknowledge the biographies by Wendy Beckett and James Murdoch as not only indispensible sources but also thoroughly enjoyable reading on the subject of the woman who was known to most people as simply "P.G-H."

An annual forum has been in existence since 1999, relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. Called the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, it has since 2019 been managed by the Australian Music Centre.

A wonderful documentary on Glanville-Hicks was made by the Perth-based company Juniper Films in 1990, the year of her death. Called P.G-H. A Modern Odyssey, you can find out more - and see three short extracts - here.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks

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

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