The harpist and conductor champions Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks in concert.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912 – 1990) is one of Australia’s greatest musical success stories. The intrepid composer left her native Melbourne for the hallowed halls of the Royal College of Music in London, where she studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and befriended Yehudi Menuhin. During the 1940s this unconventional, pipe-smoking redhead enjoyed a vibrant double career in New York, writing hundreds of music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune and dominating cultural life as a woman in what was thought of as a man’s field.

In her will, she bequeathed her terrace house in Paddington, Sydney, as a residence for Australian and visiting overseas composers and musicians. Marshall McGuire, Elena Kats-Chernin, Andrew Ford and Paul Stanhope count themselves among those who have benefited from time in the Composers’ House.

McGuire explains what makes Peggy Glanville-Hicks so special and why he is presenting an all-Peggy program for the Australian National Academy of Music’s Australian Voices concert series.

You must have come to Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ music through her Harp Sonata which you’ve recorded on two different albums. Do you think the work deserves to be part of the major harp repertoire of the twentieth century?

Absolutely. It’s one of only a few harp sonatas written in the twentieth century, two of them by women, actually: one by Peggy, one by the French composer Germaine Tailleferre. I have no hesitation in saying that it’s one of the great works for harp, and ever since I discovered it probably about twenty years ago now, I have been struck by the fact that it just feels right; there’s not a note out of place, it just feels like it emerged fully formed from her imagination and transferred onto the harp perfectly.

It brings out a whole lot of sonorities of the harp which are very satisfying for me as a performer but also for audiences, to give them a view of the harp that may be a bit away from what I call “nymphs and shepherds” music. It’s not just pretty, but it’s got this nice, percussive muscularity to it, which is very appealing.

Your connection with Peggy goes back a long time. You’ve lived in her so-called “Composers’ House”, where you worked on performing editions of her music. What was that experience like?

Oh, it was amazing. There’s something about the house at 45 Ormond Street in Paddington. It’s kind of spooky, as if Peggy’s spirit is there. I remember once I was out in the backyard, there was a big willow tree – one of the reasons she chose the house was apparently because the yard and the tree reminded her of Greece. So I was sitting there on the anniversary of her death, and I looked up into the tree and there was an enormous owl sitting on a branch just looking at me. Peggy had this thing about owls as the symbol of the goddess Athena, and one of the best portraits of Peggy was painted with an owl on her right arm. It was ridiculously spooky, as if she was sitting there physically looking over me.

Is it furnished the way she left it?

She loved chandeliers, and the chandeliers are in the house, but very little else is left of hers, unfortunately.

It reminds me of Virgina Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but for composers. Is that what it was like for you?

It was a little bit, though it must be said that by the time Peggy moved back to Sydney, she had pretty much stopped composing. Most of her great works had been composed a decade or two earlier, so it wasn’t infused with the business of composing, but it was imbued with the spirit of Peggy’s, of her generosity, of her interest in young musicians, and this great pride in her work. She had a tough life, a tough career, and I think it’s just now that we’re able to do these concerts and that recordings are coming out of her music.

Yes, she must have had a difficult career as a woman in a man’s world. I mentioned Virgina Woolf because Peggy was such an amazing female crusader in music, and one of the first at that level. Do you think her music needs to be evaluated with that in mind?

I know she rejected the term “woman composer”, because she said to be a woman composer, you’ve got to be as good as the men. She was resolutely “Peggy”, and I think that’s what drove her throughout her career and also why her music holds up so well now. Her harp sonata for instance is not treated as being a great work by a woman composer – it’s just a great work, full stop. The works that we’re performing in the concert have been chosen because they are great works of chamber music, by any composer. The fact that the came out of the imagination of this great Australian woman just happens to be almost coincidental.

What drove you to rehabilitate some of her music in those editions you created at her home?

One of the mysteries of Peggy is the finding the original source material. It went to a number of different libraries and source collections after her death, and even during her life she assigned copyrights and publishing rights to a number of different companies, and they were often swallowed up by bigger companies, so the paper trail was quite complicated. I like that detective work, to find out what the composer really meant, or whether I can go back to the original source. With the Harp Sonata in particular, there are a number of editions now which I feel contain a number of inaccuracies, and I just wanted to get to the bottom of what was done originally. I wanted to give as honest a hearing to Peggy’s Harp Sonata as I possibly could.

What else is on the concert program? 

We are doing the final scene from her opera Sappho, and I prepared a piano transcription of that final scene, which is a beautiful work, such a great scena for soprano.

Two of her character traits are generosity, which you mentioned earlier, and also her sense of humour. Are these reflected in the works on the program, perhaps in Thomsoniana 
(written as a gift to the composer Virgil Thomson, her editor at the The New York Herald Tribune where she was a music critic)?

Yes, there is a nice generosity about it, but also a good look at her wry sense of humour. Also just to show how versatile she was, setting Thomson’s reviews of five different composers in each composer’s style – a bit of the clever Peggy coming out and saying “Look what I can do!” so it’s a lovely work. She’s having a gentle dig at some of the composers who were household names of the day like Schoenberg who’s twelve-tone system she rejected, but at the same time it’s a very respectful, and very clever and very “Peggy” sort of work.

Do you have a favourite work, other than the Harp Sonata, that’s on the program?

You know, I really, really love the Concerto di Camera. It just sparkles, it’s just beautiful. I think it’s probably her best work, and my favourite work on the program.

As for works with harp, we’re also doing the Concertino Antico for string quartet and harp, which I will be playing with a quartet from ANAM.

You have programmed concert series before for the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room. Why is it important for us to have a series like the Australian Voices dedicated to our nation’s music?

I really applaud Paul Dean and ANAM for putting this series on in his first year as artistic director. When I first heard about Peggy twenty years ago I had no idea who she was. We didn’t hear of these people; they’d been forgotten. And I think it’s not just our generation; we always forget the fact that we’re standing on the shoulders of great people who came before us, and the composers that have been selected by Paul Dean and ANAM are very influential. You can trace the influence from them through to the present day very clearly, and I think it’s important that we know where we’ve come from and how Australian music has developed.

What have you learned from Peggy in your own career?

It’s interesting with Peggy that, for someone who strongly identified herself as an Australian composer, ninety per cent of her career was spent overseas. That in a way is a very Australian story, too – you don’t need to be in Australia to be an Australian and fulfill those requirements. She displayed spirit, tenacity, imagination, fortitude, ballsyness, great belief in herself, and of course that great generosity. I think that’s got a nice feeling about it, something we can all learn, and I guess looking back at what I’ve been doing the last twenty years, some of that has probably rubbed off. Music is more than one pursuit, it’s a whole ethos, it’s a whole way of living, and I think she exemplified that very beautifully. 

As you say, a lot of people here don’t know any of her music, although some will be familiar with her name from the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address. What do you hope your audience will discover in the program?

I’m hoping that, for those who know Peggy already, that we can re-delight them and re-introduce them to these magical works. And it’s the first time so many works of Peggy’s will have been done in one concert for a very long time, so it’s a big dose of Peggy in one go, which is good. Secondly, I think it’s a really good story to tell, and leading up to her centenary next year it’s a great curtain-riser to inspire some interest.

Also I think, importantly, to introduce the students of ANAM to this rich heritage, this rich vein of music running through our history, which they can then become ambassadors for. It’s a good human story, too. I know there’s a film being talked about, there have been two biographies so far, there’s a lot of material in there that makes a ripping good yarn, and I hope people will be fascinated by that as much as by the music.

Do you have any plans for the centenary of her birth next year?

I know that plans are afoot to perform her great published and unperformed opera Sappho, which was a great disappointment for her, this work that she wrote for Maria Callas back in the 1960s which was never performed. It would be a big achievement and a great way to celebrate her centenary. But a greater achievement would be to make sure that Peggy is inserted into our national repertoire of music, so that it doesn’t require a centenary to celebrate Peggy; just a program of great music.

Now that you’ve lived with her music for so long, do you feel that you’ve investigated every angle of her work?

God, there’s so much more. I think the thing I have to do next is travel Peggy’s trail, you know, spend time in Morocco, and spend time in New York…

You’re already part of the way there – you both studied at the Royal College of Music!

That’s right. Walking through the front door of the Royal College I must say there were times when I though of Peggy marching up to the director’s office demanding a scholarship, and she got it, you know. But there’s so much more to her story – her friend the writer and composer Paul Bowles, who sent her a letter saying, “I’ve just arrived in Morocco and there’s this young pop group called the Rolling Stones who have turned up and we’re going to their show” – this is a whole different world which is fascinating and beautiful. So that’s probably my next step, I reckon: the Peggy Glanville-Hicks World Tour.

Marshall McGuire and musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music perform works by Peggy Glanville-Hicks May 18 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. View the event details here.