Listening to the Past

Listening to the Past

Jennifer Gall explores the recreation of domestic music in Australian house museums

While British house museums boast music collections dating back several centuries, Australian historic homes safeguard intriguing collections of music that encompass published classical repertoire: hand-copied albums carried across the oceans by their owners to new antipodean lives and the musical legacy of the oral tradition.

Shibu Dutta, Lanyon Homestead, 1988,

Sheet music, oral history and folklore have provided sources and contextual documentation for recreating recitals and informal music making in two homes: Lanyon Homestead, a large pastoral homestead near Tharwa, and Mugga Mugga, a modest 1830s stone shepherd’s cottage in south Canberra.

Lanyon Homestead is presented to visitors as it would have appeared in the 1860s. While the house sheet-music collection has not survived, it is possible to reconstruct the repertoire played on the original piano from journals, memoirs, letters and hand-copied music collections. Women provided the foundation of music in the home in the nineteenth century. Wives of pastoralists were usually well educated, with leisure to practice and refine their music to an exceptionally high standard. Popular repertoire—such as The Australian Quadrilles by William Ellard and A Selection of Favourite Quadrilles—reflects a desire to embrace and civilise colonial society.

William Ellard, Much Admired Australian Quadrilles (Dublin: c.1900),

There was an intense bond between pioneer women and their pianos, connecting the owner to home and providing a means of socialising through musical entertainment. In 1846, Mary Mowle described in her diary the journey of her piano on the back of a dray from Duntroon to Ajamatong near Lake George:

It had been packed by Thompson in wet sheep skins, and the result was that the back was loose, the polish taken off part of the top of it, and almost all the keys had been shot the eighth of an inch out of their places.

Annie Baxter Dawbin noted the arrival of her piano at Yesabba after a similar journey in 1840: ‘It is in excellent tune and not the least hurt—I had a good strum’. Clotilda Bayne, newly arrived and lonely in Adelaide wrote on 5 September 1890, ‘I sit and play to myself Moore’s Irish Melodies.’

Sir John Stevenson and Thomas Moore, Irish Melodies (Dublin: James Duffy, c.1860),

The Cunninghams, who lived in the Lanyon region from 1845 to 1926, were of Scottish origin. Song albums such as The Scottish Songs, collected and illustrated by Robert Cham (Edinburgh, 1829) and the later publication, The Illustrated Book of Scottish Songs from the 16th to the 19th Century, edited by Charles Mackay (1867), are typical of the music owned by Scottish settler families in Australia. We know from the handwritten music anthologies belonging to Georgiana McCrae (1804–1890) that the music brought to Australia by Scottish gentlewomen encompassed elaborate vocal scores—both operatic and art song settings, a broad selection of European piano music and a vast range of Irish and Scottish traditional dance music and songs.

Mugga Mugga, in comparison, is a rural labourer’s cottage, first occupied by shepherds working on the Campbell family’s Duntroon estate. The Curley family lived there from 1913 until 1995—Patrick, of Irish birth, and his wife Annie and their three daughters, who were formally instructed in piano and violin. There are many brief, tantalising references to the existence of music in memoirs relating to Mugga Mugga. Like the choice of clothing, food and daily travel, music making was so much an automatic, instinctive behaviour that the details of composition titles were rarely recorded in letters and diaries. Digitised newspapers and musical anecdotes captured in oral history and folklore interviews provide historical insight and help identify the pieces of the musical repertoire puzzle.

J.R.B., Mary Cunningham, Griselda Dorothy Cunningham, T.J., Unity Alexandra Cunningham, A.C. and Alexander William Cunningham, Tuggeranong, between 1910 and 1914,

Home musical performances were occasions when rural workers socialised together, but music also enabled communication between rural workers and their masters. Patrick Curley played for local dances and was invited to Duntroon to play for the Campbell children’s dancing classes. As a young boy, Patrick was fascinated by a Scottish shepherd named Sinclair, whom he would watch play the bagpipes on the slopes of Mount Pleasant. Sinclair’s prowess was reported in the Queanbeyan Age and General Advertiser, Thursday 9 July 1963 in a description of the Hospital Subscription Ball at Gininderra:

The shadows of evening were scarce fallen when the tide of visitors began to pour into Gininderra—Duntroon leading the van with some thirty of its people, at the head of whom was our friend Sinclair, whose pipes loudly (and to some ears musically) proclaimed the fact that ‘the Campbells are coming’.

Charles Mackay (editor), The Illustrated Book of Scottish Songs from the 16th to the 19th Century, (London: Houlston and Wright, 1867),

Mugga Mugga’s musical history embodies the intersection of Patrick Curley’s oral tradition and the post-1913 era, in which his children were taught music formally, with the piano as the musical bridge between the two. Both kinds of skill remained important for making music with others. Patrick’s daughter Sylvia spoke fondly of visits to friends’ homes and the musical evenings they enjoyed with the Young family, who lived on the outskirts of Queanbeyan:

Fred Young and my father, both musical, would get together on a Sunday evening and the young girls, much older than my sister and I, would entertain us singing and playing piano

In her last interview, Sylvia Curley expressed a desire to have the cottage piano repaired—her wish has been granted as a legacy of Listening to the Past, the project that has sought to rediscover the music in the Australian Capital Territory’s three Historic Homes. By hearing historical repertoire played on the Lanyon Broadwood and the Mugga Mugga Renardi pianos, visitors experience not only the sounds of the late nineteenth century, but gain a sense of what this music meant to people at the time.

Dr Jennifer Gall is Acting Curator of Documents and Artefacts at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University School of Music. Since 2014, she has been engaged in a project that connects ACT Historic Places, Sydney Living Museums and the British house museums that are part of the University of Southampton’s Sound Heritage initiative. Each researcher is seeking to reanimate house museums with the music that would have been an integral part of the lives of those who occupied these homes.