Speakers: Margaret Nicholls (M), Tonya Lemoh (T)

M:       Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the National Library. Thank you all for attending this evening’s presentation by the Library’s 2022 Creative Arts Fellow either here or online.

My name is Margaret Nichols, I’m Deputy Chair of the Friends of the National Library Committee. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I would also like to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people whose land we are meeting on today.

Each year the Friends sponsor one of the Creative Arts Fellowships, a four-week period which offers Australian artists and writers an opportunity to develop new work that is inspired or informed by the Library’s collection. Since this program commenced in 2015 the $10,000 Creative Arts Fellowship has been awarded to a fascinating array of musicians, choreographers, visual arts and playwrights, all of whom have delved into very different parts of the Library’s collection.

Tonight we welcome Dr Tonya Lemoh, our 2022 Creative Arts Fellow whose fellowship focus is entitled Interiors, a journey through the mystic musical world of Henry Handel Richardson. Tonya is a performer and music researcher with a strong background in Australian music. She holds piano performance degrees from Australia, the USA and Denmark and was a faculty lecturer in Copenhagen University for over 10 years.

Tonya’s research will culminate in a multimedia project which will encompass a stage presentation of Richardson’s creative journey in music expressed through her songs, letters and novels. This work is some months away but the Friends will keep you informed via the newsletters and e-news.

Tonight for this special presentation and concert Tonya will be joined by soprano, Dr Narelle Yeo. The presentation will reveal Tonya’s discoveries as well as showcase works for voice and piano by Henry Handel Richardson and some of her contemporaries. Please join me in welcoming Dr Tonya Lemoh and Dr Narelle Yeo.



T:        September 1932. My motto, nothing in my lifetime and everything afterwards. I decline to be whitewashed when the time comes. The whole truth for me.

Welcome and thank you for joining us in this musical journey. The music you just heard was a piano transcription of one of Henry Handel Richardson’s most beautiful songs, Erst Verlust which means First Longing. You’ll hear this song in its entirety later in the program.

Richardson was one of Australia’s greatest writers and while many of you would have read her books her music has rarely been brought into the public forum even though it played an integral role in her life. Before I continue I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Friends of the Library for this Creative Fellowship which is a rare gift and made all of this research possible.

A brief overview of Richardson’s life, born in 1870 in Victoria and christened Ethel Mary Richardson she aspired to be a concert pianist and composer in her younger years. Her mother moved with the family to Leipzig in 1889 and she entered the Conservatorium. Her earliest pieces were a song for voice in piano and a cantata for voice, piano and strings. She wrote these as a 15-year-old when she was at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College. Those songs have been lost but they’re a testament to the fact that there were early ambitions towards composition as well as performance.

In her final performance exam in Leipzig, despite receiving a high commendation, she realised she was not destined to be a concert pianist. She described the experience of performing as one of dreadful stage fright, writing what did for me and utterly were the eyes for thousands of eyes all fixed like gimlets on my miserable self stuck up aloft before them and their helpless prey. As one cannot be a concert player without presenting oneself to the public gaze and such was the fond idea with which I had been brought to Leipzig there was some reason for considering myself a failure all ‘round.

After a difficult transition period she turned to writing. Her first major work was a translation of the Danish, Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose poems she later set in her songs. Her personal relationships were complex. She married a Scotsman with whom she enjoyed a long and stable partnership but she also describes erotic and romantic fascination towards women in both her novels and her personal correspondence. Her book, The Getting of Wisdom, recounts a passionate attachment between two schoolgirls and the female protagonist in her novel, Maurice Guest, is based on an actress for whom Richardson sustained a long infatuation.

Her final companion, Olga Roncoroni, lived first with the Richardsons together, Richardson and her husband, and subsequently became Richardson’s sole companion after her husband had died. The devotion between the two women is beyond doubt but the question of physical and romantic love remains open due in part to the fact that the correspondence between them was destroyed upon Richardson’s death.

Roncoroni was a pianist who played for silent films and the two often played the piano in duet. They faced the war years together and Olga nursed Richardson through a long and difficult illness. Henry Handel Richardson died in 1946, a celebrated author, having been awarded the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for her novel, Ultima Thule, which was part of her trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and the Silver Jubilee Medal from King George.

With the award of the Silver Jubilee Medal she was also given a certificate which had the wrong name on it, not Henry Handel Richardson so she sent it back, thank you very much and got Henry instead of Ethel printed on the certificate. The writing was translated into numerous European languages and she was a literary sensation in Scandinavia, Germany and America. There are translations of her books in Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, French.

Her music however remained quietly amongst her papers and effects. Robert Duvall and Bruce Steele later created performance editions of her work, some of which we’re using in our performance today.

The title of this presentation, Interiors, was inspired by the fact that while Henry had a celebrated public profile as a writer her songs remained largely private. Few were performed in her lifetime and only one was ever published. The songs thus reveal a hidden side of her. The genre which was her medium of choice is one that captures layered emotional and psychological worlds in miniature using the piano and the voice in a dynamic interaction where there is a constant dialogue between the two.

In a letter to her friend, Mary Kernot, one of her longest standing correspondents, she wrote, where other writers throw off a poem I write a song, music to someone else’s words.

She also wrote to Netty Palmer in 1929, so many people have remarked on the musical form of my work that I begin to feel there must be something in it. I am of course quite unconscious of any such striving while writing. The only thing I sometimes do feel is that what I’m trying to say could be better expressed in tones than in words.

This statement opens the gateway to exploring her inner world through music, adding new perspectives and greater depth to the understanding we already have of her creative work.

The National Library’s special collections and archives have provided a wealth of material about Richardson including her personal and professional correspondence, diaries, manuscripts and some personal effects. It has been an incredible journey to be able to immerse myself in Richardson’s world so completely, allowing different aspects of her to emerge.

Reading through her diaries written in her deft, elegant hand, looking at the mixture of order and chaos in her notes and manuscripts, observing the wild scrawl of an excited idea, whether musical or literary, these are the underlying footprints of the creative process which are all too easily lost when everything is neatly typeset and published.

In this particular research project where the aim is to explore the creative essence of Richardson’s music life, access to her original papers and manuscripts has been invaluable.

Tonight’s presentation is work in progress towards a multimedia staged piece which will explore Richardson’s inner world from a musical perspective. The music itself will feature Richardson’s own songs, original piano transcriptions of these songs as incidental stage music, one of which you heard at the beginning and transcriptions by composers from the romantic period. These composers feature often in her novels such as Maurice Guest and her last novel, The Young Cosima: Liszt, Wagner,  Clara Schumann.

The art of piano transcription blossomed in the 19th century and explores the interchange between vocal text and instrumental expression of the same. It seems an appropriate genre to embrace the intense but fluid relationship Richardson had towards the total immersive experience of language and music. They were both key elements of her creative universe. The staged work will include visual images and a narrator reading excerpts from her correspondence, books and diaries.

The imagery will be based around her various portraits. When I was looking at the collection here I discovered a large number of photographs which are not in the public circulation and it was a very revealing journey, that one so paintings, sculptures, photographs and caricatures. Despite her aversion to being in the public eye Richardson was fascinated by her own portraits and mentions them frequently in her correspondence. When an editor asked for a photo of Richardson she sent him a portrait of Goethe instead, claiming a likeness. Her image is compared in one instance to a hooded cobra and in another to a bird of prey with a cold blue eye.

Access to this collection has provided vital inspiration in how to integrate this part of Richardson into a dramatic framework. My initial research goal was to discover what Richardson was trying to express in her music and investigate her musical creative process. I began with the seemingly very practical straightforward idea of looking through the Library’s extensive collection, finding all her references to her songs, what she said or wrote about each one in her diaries and her letters. I quickly realised that this research journey, like Richardson herself, was not going to be a simple one.

She rarely refers directly to her compositions in specific detail, seemingly preferring to let the music speak for itself. To misquote the great pianist, Anton Rubinstein, life is not about music, music is about life. So instead of looking for what Richardson said about her songs I began to look for what her songs said about her.

She wrote her songs for herself, not for the public nor for the music critics. Her attitude to them being published or performed was very ambivalent. While only one was published during her lifetime she insisted the others be carefully preserved and bound which implies that she felt they had some artistic merit. Perhaps she did not want to compromise her creative reputation as a writer, preferring to appear single-mindedly dedicated to literature. In a letter to Mary she remarked, I have never been able to give my attention to more than one thing at a time.

Prominent musicologists Bruce Steele, Richard Duvall and Rachel Solomon have all contributed greatly to scholarship about Richardson from a music perspective. This project differs in that it is primarily intended for the stage with performance, script and some poetic licence. This will form the basis of an attempt to capture the essence of Richardson through dramatic musical narrative with herself as the main protagonist. The blurring of fact and fiction with a recurrent and rather notorious aspect of her writing, which has run rings around biographers and has been remarked upon by numerous scholars, it seems very fitting then to celebrate her life through music which was such an abiding passion for her.

Richardson had two periods where she received composition instruction, the first was with the harmony teacher, Gustav Ernst Schreck, in Leipzig who encouraged her and the second was during her years in England with the musically conservative, [Ludwig Tui] 16:01 who didn’t encourage her.

According to Richardson’s husband who was a Wagner scholar and academic, [John G Robertson] 16:11, some of the composition lessons with [Tui] in 1908 poured cold water on Richardson’s compositional aspirations with [Tui] accusing her of formlessness.

While this no doubt discouraged her somewhat she continued to compose right up until the very last years of her life. The accusation of formlessness is partly valid, her songs are not always tightly structured nor are they harmonically complex for the most part. However in her inimitable way Richardson turns the formlessness into a freedom and immediacy of emotional expression. This lends the music a freshness and simplicity which reveals a different side to her than do her books and essays which are often highly complex and very carefully structured.

Unencumbered by the need to obey what she referred to as strict rules of counterpoint or to please critical music instructors her songs express in a direct, almost artless manner vulnerability, romantic longing, playfulness, melancholy and mercurial new changes. In her songs about death her music is constructed as a surprisingly light scaffolding for the weightier motions and dramatic images of the text which creates rather a poignant effect.

She published her novel, Maurice Guest, in 1908 under the pseudonym, Henry Handel Richardson, presenting herself to the world as a male writer. This was not only a nom de plume however. Both her husband and her companion, Olga, also called her Henry as did her publishers and most within her circle. Her insistence on this name in both the personal and professional spheres opens up questions about gender identity.

In a letter to Netty Palmer Richardson wrote, about the time I wrote Maurice Guest there was considerable discussion in the press about women’s work as writers and the ease with which its qualities and defects could be recognised. What has since been called an impish desire to test this seized me with what results you know.

It was not ‘til the early 20s that the truth came out. The male pseudonym was certainly a practical solution to ensure she would be taken seriously as a writer at the time however exploring her papers, photographs and correspondence led me to the realisation that her identity as Henry went deeper than a professional pseudonym. Looking through her images in the collections I discovered she frequently changed between feminine and masculine attire and presentation.

In a newspaper cutting from 1896 about her wedding party Richardson’s wedding outfit was described rather dryly by the journalist as, a tailormade costume of Austrian blue military cloth, seal [toke] 19:04 trimmed with fur tails, bright tan shoes and gloves. While other members of the bridal party were described as wearing clothes that were most becoming or handsome the complete lack of such adjectives for Richardson would suggest that it was at best an unusual choice for a young woman’s wedding attire in 1896.

Another image of Richardson taken in Munchen shows her in profile with short hair swept straight back off her face wearing a tailored double-breasted jacket in a militaristic style. It seems that this mask identity actually appeared before her public literary debut as Henry. In a letter to Mary [Kurnock] she discussed her correspondence with her translator, Paul Solanges in 1912 saying, but alas he hasn’t an idea that I’m a woman and a very awkward day is fast approaching when I shall have to face him and tell the truth. It’s so much easier to be a man and save so many complications. I always feel half one and am sure I went wrong in the making.

Her songs perhaps allowed her to freely explore aspects of this side of herself. She set songs such as The King’s Men and Trafalgar about the Battle of Trafalgar which have traditionally masculine march rhythms and a military bent. Richardson’s sister, Lil, was an accomplished violinist but also a passionate suffragette and although Richardson’s own activities in this field were limited to throwing an ink bomb in a letterbox she was a firm supporter of the movement. Her refusal to play traditional gender roles both in the domestic and the professional spheres aligned with her strong feminist beliefs.

One of the most surprising discoveries to emerge from my research in the National Library’s special collections was the nature of Richardson’s diaries. I was struck by the fact that they contained very little emotion and very few personal confidences. It was in her correspondence that she poured out ideas, impressions, feelings. A diary is the most private of documents yet hers are impersonal while her correspondence which is shared with others is intimate and revealing, another contradiction in a woman who seemed acutely aware of fluidity of the boundaries between personal and public life.

A typical diary entry reads read, walked alone in the rain, played Brahms. Next day, read, walked, played Bruckner, bed. Reading between the lines these diaries and their matter of fact listing of activities nevertheless convey the sense of a rich inner life filled with books, contemplation, reflection and immersion in music.

In a letter to Frances McHugh in 1936 Richardson wrote, of recent years when I have felt lyrically inclined I have turned to music which has always contested the literary interest in my mind or at least has never died and so I have numerous little songs in my drawer.

In the year after her death, her companion, Olga Roncoroni, wrote, these little songs were very much Henry Handel in her own difficult to understand way and she had a particularly warm corner in her heart for them.

Do the songs throw light on parts of her that are not revealed in her books? Perhaps more accurately they throw light on what was particularly close to her heart, on intimate personal sentiments and imaginings constructed away from the prying eyes of others. This is Richardson in her free-est creative universe where she can please herself and herself alone.

In this part of my presentation Dr Yeo and I will be performing music by Richardson and other musical figures in her world. I will begin with the piano as Richardson did and as we journey with her towards maturity we will be sharing some of her songs.

Richardson’s mother and father were both musical, both played the piano and her father was a fine amateur singer although he was a medical doctor by profession. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In a recent discovery and a surprise addition to tonight’s program I will be starting this with a piece written by Mary Richardson, Henry Handel Richardson’s mother. Composed by request and respectfully dedicated to the stewards of the Chamber of Commerce Opening Ball, Geelong, 1859.

Richardson often spoke disparagingly of her mother’s musicality, writing, the truth is she hadn’t a note of music in her, was one of the most unmusical people I have ever met. Her ability in this line was just enough to hammer out five-finger exercises into us when we two were five.

Be that as it may it was her mother who made her development as a musician possible. I would therefore like to start this concert by playing her only known composition for piano, Mary Richardson’s only known composition for piano, which was catalogued and identified by Australian musicologist, Graeme Skinner, and was available in the National Library’s catalogue which has enabled me to bring it to your ears tonight, probably heard for the first time since 1859. The title of the piece is Gallop.



T:        I think perhaps her mother was a little bit musical. Yes. The great event of this week, said Richardson, was the arrival of a piano. One wet day we suddenly decided that we couldn’t do without one any longer. It is delightful to have it and I have been waking up the house a little.

This was a letter that Richardson wrote to her mother many years later while she was in Strasbourg and it shows that the piano remained a shared source of delight between the two women and that she did realise that her mother was very instrumental – no pun intended – in her connection with this instrument. So while Richardson’s mother was a driving force beyond her daughter’s career aspirations Richardson firmly believed that her talent came only from her father’s side. She declared, the musical side of Lil and me came entirely from the Richardsons.

Her father Walter’s struggles with mental illness impacted profoundly on her emotional and social life as a child. He died when she was only nine. Richardson’s song, Peacock Pie, with a text by Walter De La Mare is the mad prince’s song. It touches upon this family tragedy.


T:        Richardson’s musical life began in earnest with the move to Germany in 1889. In Leipzig she attended the Conservatorium and she heard the great Clara Schumann perform. The concert was attended by Richardson and her friend, Matt [Maine] 30:25, who was also studying at the time. Matt [Maine] records their memories of the night by saying I shall never forget our feelings, almost of amazement, at having such glorious tones pouring forth from the piano when touched by the magic fingers of that little grey-haired old lady.

I would like to play Clara Schumann’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s [Lead Inder Frender] 30:45 which means In A Foreign Land which I think captures the otherness, the sense of being a stranger in a strange land which Henry Handel Richardson must have felt as an Australian coming into this ancient, rich culture of Schumann and Mendelssohn and feeling perhaps a little bit colonial at the time.


T:        Reflecting on her experience in Leipzig Richardson admitted with rueful insight, I had a gift for music as well as for writing but at the end of the time I gave up my idea of becoming a concert player. There were too many others who were better than I was. In other words, I discovered my true level as a musician.

After turning her back on performing Richardson became infatuated with the great actress, Eleonora Duse just known as Duse, the inspiration for the main female character in Maurice Guest. This story of the love affair between a young music student, Maurice, and his muse, Louise, was written at the same time as this song, Erst Verlust, First Longing. Richardson wrote of Duse, she has interested me extraordinarily, both as an actress and woman, a medusa face opaquely white with deep unfathomable eyes.


T:        In the next song Richardson reveals a rather different, more playful side to her susceptibility to female charms. This song, A la Mode, is short and sweet, set in a major key with a lilting rhythm. Dear Mary, she wrote in 1935, I’ll certainly pass on your message to Connie when next I write. Yes, she was a kind creature and the prettiest ever. I don’t wonder I went off my nut over her.


T:        Letter to Mary [Kurnock], 16th of October 1930. Dear Mary, funny you should mention Suzannah Fry in your letter for I am just going through some unexpected bother about those songlets of mine. A friend in the Heinemann firm whose wife is a singer is plaguing me to let him broadcast some of them. This is obnoxious in the extreme to me and I have struggled all I can against it and struggling is so tiring but I don’t want my poor little songs dragged out to the light of day. Oh why can’t they leave me in peace?

A fortnight later we find Richardson consumed with anxiety. Dear Mary, I thought I was going to escape the song business having put every conceivable difficulty in the way but alas, the singer is to descend on me during the coming week.

Suzannah Fry is one of the few songs Richardson mentions specifically in her correspondence.


T:        Olga Roncoroni wrote of the next composition, The Irishman’s Song. The Irishman’s Song was not the real name of the poem but HH said it so completely summed up her character that she renamed it. Richardson declared, some people allow nothing either for Irishness in Mahony. What seems instability and weakness to them is only Irish volatility. I know, having so much of it in myself.


T:        Initially Richardson was very resistant to having her songs performed or published but after the renowned soprano, Sophia [Vice] 42:47, decided she liked them, Richardson allowed the publication of her [Klist Kempline Swegenlede] 42:55 the following year. This remained the only song she ever published but she seemed proud of it, writing, there is no reason why the carol should not be sung or broadcast anywhere. It’s a mere trifle in itself but I had to choose something very short and appropriate to the season.


T:        Richardson’s husband died in 1933. Her interest in spiritualism and life after death provided some comfort and she claimed to have communed with him several times after his death in seances. Nevertheless she was devastated by the loss. My life is laid waste, she wrote.

Ricardson herself died in 1946 and her last completed song bears the title Regret Not Me. Dear Mary, I’d like to finish up a few more things before my time comes but I’m getting tired of this world and all its stupid fuss and shall pass to the next with gladness and curiosity. I do wonder if, like me, you have come to look on death as a simple passing from one room to the next a mere matter of a different rate of vibration.


T:        We would like to end this journey through Richardson’s musical world with a song, Lad foråret komme, Let the Spring Come. The poem is by Jens Peter Jacobsen, the Danish author whose work was the catalyst for Richardson’s first major literary achievement. The song ends with the assurance that like nature the heart has its own springtime but when will it arrive?



M:       I think that speaks for itself, that applause. Thank you, Tonya, it has been a privilege to hear more about HHR’s amazing legacy. We are so pleased that the Creative Arts Fellowship has provided you with the opportunity to research into the Library’s collections to bring Henry’s words and music to new audiences.

Just on another note, folks, applications for the 2023 round of Fellowships closed last week and we look forward to announcing the news of the 2023 Creative Arts Fellow later in the year.

Our evening must now draw to a close but Tonya has asked me particularly for you to give feedback on the presentation, what was interesting to you? What resonated with you? These comments can be addressed to the Friends email if you please. Thank you for attending and please join me once again in thanking Tonya and Narelle.


In this unique presentation featuring Henry Handel Richardson’s compositions for voice and piano, music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel, letters and scripted narration, Dr Tonya Lemoh will share her research findings on the hidden musician inside this iconic Australian writer.

Dr Tonya Lemoh is the 2022 Creative Arts Fellow, supported by the Friends of the National Library of Australia.