Sunday 21 July 2019

The musical pioneers from Down Under

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

The father of Australian music: Isaac Nathan
The father of Australian music: Isaac Nathan

George Hamilton

Today is Australia Day. Amazing to think that on Mozart's birthday, which happens to be 263 years ago tomorrow, the captain of the first of the British fleet of convict ships to enter Sydney Harbour - the event in 1788 that's commemorated in the national holiday - had yet to be born.

Much better known than Henry Lidgbird Ball, the officer in question, is Captain James Cook.

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It was he who first claimed New South Wales for the British crown in 1770. By then, Mozart was 14 and already had a considerable collection of compositions to his name - symphonies, piano concertos, and the first of his masses, written for the consecration of a new orphanage church in Vienna in 1768.

Australia may have come late to the musical party, but there has been a sizable contribution to the playlist nonetheless.

The man deemed the father of Australian music was from England. He was Isaac Nathan, the son of a synagogue cantor.

He'd had success as a composer, writing settings to the poet Byron's Hebrew Melodies. Later, he became music librarian to the British king, George IV.

But his career unravelled in a series of financial difficulties, one of which involved a dispute over money he claimed to be owed by a member of the Irish aristocracy.

The 2nd Baron Langford of Summerhill alleged assault against Nathan, a charge of which he was acquitted.

But with no future in England, he decided to up sticks and take his family to Australia.

That was in 1841. Within two years, he'd an opera ready to go. Merry Freaks in Troublous Times was a comic take on an episode in English history but only extracts of it were ever staged in public.

His subsequent creation, Don John of Austria was premiered in 1847, and so became the first opera to be composed in Australia and given a complete performance there.

The conductor Charles Mackerras was the great-great-great grandson of Isaac Nathan.

It was Mackerras who led the gala concert at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and he was also responsible for reviving the long forgotten Don John of Austria.

In what became a family affair, Charles Mackerras orchestrated the music of his ancestor's opera for a concert performance. It was conducted by Alexander Briger, his nephew.

Australia has given us some of the world's top performers. Nellie Melba was the first great diva, so famous that her name lives on in wafer thin slices of toast and a certain peach-and-ice-cream dessert.

Joan Sutherland sang and Richard Bonynge conducted - one of the most productive husband-and-wife teams in the classical arena.

Australia has been well represented by composers as well. Percy Grainger produced memorable melodies based on folk song. Country Gardens is one of his. There's also a sumptuous arrangement of Danny Boy.

Arthur Benjamin, who wrote an opera based on A Tale of Two Cities, the novel by Charles Dickens, is best remembered for a popular number called Jamaican Rumba.

Working as a music examiner in the Caribbean, he got the inspiration, and was well rewarded when the Jamaican government gifted him a free barrel of rum every year for bringing the country such positive publicity.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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