A 'musical jolt' in early colonial Sydney

A few years ago, along with about 500 other people, I enjoyed a concert of harpsichord music in an old abbey in France. At the finale, harpsichordist Jean Rondeau launched into an unidentified encore.

It was fast and flashy in parts, while reflective in others and the mainly French audience was utterly captivated and confused. What was Rondeau playing? Even the festival director could be heard asking 'what is this piece?' The moment was electric and climaxed with wild applause for the performance of a little-known composition called 'Le Vertigo' by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (1705-1755).

This was one of those magical moments in life I call a 'musical jolt'. It's those times when one experiences a musical revelation: often it is the personal discovery of a new piece of music, a new composer or compositional style, an interpretation of a piece you already know but that turns your musical understanding on its head, or even new technology that delivers music in an innovative way.

Recently, while researching the musical sound world of the Sydney home in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, I have wondered what a musical jolt might have sounded like in those decades following the colony's settlement.

Imagine for a moment how the place we call 'Sydney' sounded when Europeans first ventured onto Gadigal land in 1788. Across the bays, gullies and rocky outcrops rang the songs of millennia. For those landing on the shore this was an entirely new sound world, but they too harboured a musical jolt for Australia's First Peoples. Regimental music, English, Irish and Scottish songs quickly leaked out across the landscape.

Rather than being combative, these musical jolts often seemed to offer an opportunity for cultural exchange. John White, Surgeon-General of New South Wales, observed one of these interactions with Aboriginal women in 1790:1

…one of the gentlemen with me sang some songs; and when he had done, the females in the canoes either sang one of their own songs, or imitated him, in which they succeeded beyond conception.

A number of these indigenous songs were transcribed and have survived; one of the best-known transcriptions being of a song sung by Bennelong and Yammerawanne in a London townhouse, in July 1793, and undoubtedly a performance that offered a significant musical jolt for passers-by.

Back in Sydney, new immigrants brought with them their 'songs of home' in what could be considered a move to ensure cultural consistency and a way to avoid musical jolts. While the earliest surviving settler composition, 'Currency Lasses', written in c1825 by Tempest Margaret Paul was in a style entirely familiar to European settlers, the kangaroo emblazoned on the cover, published in c1830, may well have offered a graphical jolt to those born here.

In 1826, Sydneysiders were treated to a series of concerts performed by local musicians with a variety of repertoire ranging from composers little-known today to Mozart overtures and Corelli violin sonatas. One can only imagine how many musical jolts were experienced by members of the audience, particularly those raised in Sydney, as they heard music that must have been unfamiliar.

By the 1830s, new technologies were appearing in the colony such as the latest pianos as well as barrel organs that could store more than twenty minutes of music with many of the latest hits from Britain. While improved technology offered better access to hits such as 'Home! Sweet Home!', one can only speculate which of the pieces may have provided that musical jolt.

In 1846 a young Sydney-trained composer and pianist, Frederick Ellard, performed a new song, 'I think of thee', based on a Goethe poem, which was published and sold by his father, music seller and music engraver Francis Ellard.2 There may have been little innovation in this 20-year-old's composition, but one can imagine a jolt for those who recognised the promise of this home-grown talent.

Perhaps the greatest musical jolt has been left for those of us in the 21st century looking back towards this unfamiliar soundscape. We need to abandon our preconceptions to understand what music in the home in Sydney before the 1850s might have sounded like. Bach and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann were virtually unknown, while the intersection of indigenous and European music in the earlier years along with a swathe of European composers we have barely heard of today offers us the opportunity to discover a world of music full of surprises.

This article first appeared on the ABC Classic website in association with the Songs of Home exhibition, Museum of Sydney, August-November, 2019.

For a comprehensive and ongoing documentation of music in early Australia see Graeme Skinner, Australharmony: An online resource toward the history of music in colonial and early Federation Australia.

A Pre-1850 Sydney Playlist

  1. Barabul-la Clan Song (sourced from ‘A song of the natives of New South Wales’ and transcribed 1793) AUDIO
  2. Tempest Margaret Paul, ‘Currency lasses, an admir’d Australian quadrille’ (c1825) AUDIO | VIDEO
  3. Arcangelo Corelli, Violin sonata in D major, Op 5 no 1, movements 1 and 2 (performed Sydney, 1826) AUDIO | VIDEO
  4. ‘Home! Sweet home!’ Played on English barrel organ, c1830. AUDIO
  5. Frederick Ellard, 'I think of Thee' (1846) AUDIO


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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.

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