Here and there: music at home in Sydney and London, 1830–1845

On the 28th of March 2017, concert goers at Elizabeth Bay House experienced a magical evening contrasting two different musical worlds.

Now available online, Here and There: Music at Home in Sydney and London, 1830–1845 contrasts the musical soundscape of colonial Sydney with that of cosmopolitan London. An initiative of Sound Heritage Sydney, the first half of the program contains music found in the collections of Sydney residents, while the second half consists of music that was more commonly played in London drawing rooms.

Historic sheet music collections

Much of the history of music making survives in the long-forgotten sheet music of our ancestors. These dusty scores, marked with affectionate inscriptions from friends and family and peppered with the hurried annotations of teachers and students, are often bound into volumes scuffed by constant use.

MHNSW holds an estimated 3000 music publications, dating back to the late 18th century, in its house museum collections and at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. The research value of this music collection has been significantly enhanced by the donation of the Stewart Symonds sheet music collection, with much of its contents provenanced to 19th-century NSW families.

With such a rich musical palette to explore as well as access to the historic house settings in which this type of music was once performed, MHNSW has a rare opportunity to bring to life a lost musical world and one that still surprises.

Music in two hemispheres

The early story of domestic music making in Australia after European settlement is inevitably one of immigration. Before the 1830s, settlers wishing to make music in Sydney relied on sheet music they’d brought with them or memorised from home or obtained through local social networks and at auctions of the possessions of departing colonists. Over the next 20 years Australian compositions began to appear alongside British works in Australian drawing rooms, but the canonic German composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann remained virtually unknown.

MHNSW holds the collection of one such immigrant, Lucy Havens. As a young woman, Scottish-born Lucy emigrated to NSW with her family in December 1839. In her luggage lay a bound volume of her musical favourites ranging from Scottish folk arrangements to a trio sonata by Ignaz Pleyel.

When Lucy arrived in Sydney there were first- and even second-generation colonists making music. Lilias Dowling was one of these first-generation music makers. A bound volume of the music she and her husband enjoyed in the 1830s and 40s was recently discovered in the collections at Rouse Hill Esate. This is the earliest known volume of music bound in Australia and the Dowlings’ markings provide unique evidence of the couple’s musical taste and interpretative approach. MHNSW also holds music collected by Sydney-born Maria Lee; the volume contains many musical works published in Australia and were probably bound together around the time of her marriage in 1847.

What then of the music being played in London in the 1830s and 40s? Our extensive collection of vocal and keyboard music belonging to Emma Chapman, a young singer who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music from 1842 to 1846, provides insight into the repertoire and interpretation of music being studied in the city at the time. While the lieder of Schubert and Schumann were not yet common in London they were gradually making their appearance in the city’s drawing rooms and locally published editions appeared towards the end of the 1830s. We have asked James Doig, who specialises in the self-accompaniment of ‘art song’, to include some lieder to heighten the contrast between the Sydney and London soundscapes.

Our approach to musical performance

Careful research, conservation expertise and an understanding of Australian material culture and social history lies behind the interpretative quality of each of our house museums. We have also been examining how these skills can be applied to the soundscapes of our properties. We have asked ourselves,

what music would the occupants of our houses and their friends have known?

Just as importantly, ‘what would they not have known?’ We are also interested in early music education, performance style and music etiquette in the home.

For this concert we have chosen performers who have studied historical music performance and have a passion for this research-based approach. The Dowling Songbook has been an important source in the ornamentation of the music we know was fashionable in Sydney and, likewise, the performance markings in the Emma Chapman collection have assisted in our London interpretation.

The piano used in this performance is a Collard & Collard square piano made in the 1840s and representative of pianos found in Sydney at the time. We are grateful to Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, Historical Performance Division, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, for his assistance in preparing for the concert and making the piano available for this performance.

Strings, Litchfield Binckes square piano in the morning room, Elizabeth Bay House

Here and there: concert playlist

Experience a concert at Elizabeth Bay House showcasing a magical evening contrasting two different musical worlds

Published on 
Dr Matthew Stephens

Dr Matthew Stephens

Research Librarian

Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Collection. He is particularly fascinated by early book, musical instrument and sheet music collections in NSW and the stories they tell. Addicted to the historical research process, Matthew has reframed the biography of the eighteenth-century British cross-dressing soldier, Hannah Snell, rediscovered the lost library of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and completed a PhD on the early history of the Australian Museum Library and the origins and use of scientific literature in nineteenth-century New South Wales. More recently, Matthew has led the interpretation of the history of domestic music in MHNSW house museums. Since 2015 he has been MHNSW’s representative in the Sound Heritage network (UK) and is co-author and co-editor of Sound Heritage: Making Music Matter in Historic Houses (Routledge, 2022). In 2019, Matthew curated the Songs of Home exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which examined the musical landscape of NSW during the first 70 years of European settlement. He has collaborated with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, on numerous projects including as Partner Investigator on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project ‘Hearing the Music of Early NSW, 1788-1860’ (2021-23). Two research projects led by Matthew on the reinstatement of part of the dispersed Macleay family library at Elizabeth Bay House and the Dowling Songbook Project have received National Trust Heritage Awards.