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Mission to chronicle 100 years of Australian symphonies

Professor Rhoderick McNeill is determined to create a comprehensive survey of Australia’s symphony composers and their music
Australia’s art music history is little-known and much of our musical heritage silent.

There has been an extended repertoire of symphonies by Australian composers from 1893 to the present, each decade presenting new facets of stylistic development.

But where can these home-grown, large-scale orchestral works be found and heard?

Professor Rhoderick McNeill, head of USQ’s School of Arts & Communication, is determined to create a comprehensive survey of Australia’s symphony composers and their music.

He is the author of The Australian Symphony from Federation to 1960 (Ashgate/Routledge 2014) and The Music of Carl Vine (Wildbird, 2017). Professor McNeill’s current project is a second volume on the Australian Symphony covering the 1960s to now.

“This is about reinvigorating interest in our local creative product,” Professor McNeill said.

“There's been no systematic evaluation of these works and certainly no critique or description of the music. You’ve got to go to places like the Australian Music Centre to even access the scores. In some cases the music has never been recorded or performed.

“We've got some of the best composers in the world working in Australia, but they've somehow become invisible.”

Professor McNeill said modern films had returned to the practice of using full orchestral scores like the early Golden Age of Hollywood (1930s and 1940s).

“In addition to filmmakers, that trend has spread into the concert arena since the early 1980s,” Professor McNeill said.

“However, during the 60s and 70s writing symphonies for large orchestras was considered outmoded and not best practice in serious music composition. There are still some 15 to 20 major works composed in Australia during that period, nevertheless.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that the symphony re-emerged as a major form in Europe, America and Australia.”

His most recent publication focused on the work of a major figure in Australian symphonic composition, Carl Vine AO.

Professor McNeill said the general public would recognise Carl Vine’s vibrant and dynamic contemporary classical music.

“They might say they've not heard of him, but the reality is that they've likely heard Carl Vine’s music without realising it,” he said.

“For example, they heard it during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony and in television series such as The Battlers (1993) and The Potato Factory (1999). He was also part of the orchestration team of the film Babe (1995), although not the composer.

“I believe he's better known overseas than here in Australia. We don’t seem to value our own cultural heroes properly. His last major work Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra was premiered in Chicago in October last year before it was heard in Sydney this April.”

Professor McNeill recently presented at a USQ School of Arts and Communication Research Seminar on the topic ‘Australian Symphonies during the 1960s – a preliminary overview’.

The School of Arts and Communication includes a variety of study areas in the fields of Humanities, Communication and Creative Arts. Learn more at www.usq.edu.au/bela/school-of-arts-and-communication.