A celebration of Australian composer Raymond Hanson in his 100th anniversary year.

If I mentioned the names Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Robert Hughes, Dorian Le Gallienne, Miriam Hyde, Dulcie Holland and Raymond Hanson – how many of these names would you recognise? All of these individuals are highly respected Australian composers who wrote music predominantly in the middle of the twentieth century and during this decade they all will be celebrating their centenary birthdays.  In addition, their compositional life and influences align with international counterparts that include Igor Stravinsky, Serge Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber. 

Through their music and cultural influence these Australian composers from the mid-20th century worked hard to facilitate a change in how Australians appreciated and perceived classical music. For example, Melbourne based composer Dorian Le Gallienne (1915-1963) was primarily a music critic for The Argus and The Age and at times was known to write in support of local acts in favour of imported artists in the hopes to encourage our emerging culture. Le Gallienne’s friend and colleague Robert Hughes (1912-2007) was arranger and composer for the Melbourne Symphony and importantly Chairman of APRA for many years. In addition, through The Fellowship of Australian Composers and his position at the ABC, Hughes worked tirelessly with his colleagues to ensure the establishment of organisations such as the Australian Music Centre and the Australia Council.

In 2013 we celebrate the centenary of Raymond Hanson (1913-1976), a Sydney-based composer who taught aural skills, harmony and composition at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. This position allowed him the opportunity to be an important influence on the next generation of significant Australian composers that include Richard Meale, Nigel Butterley and Larry Sitsky.  

Hanson, the youngest of five children, was raised by his mother as she had been granted a legal separation from Hanson’s father. In an interview with Hazel de Berg in 1973 which is kept at the National Library of Australia, Hanson revealed a wealth of information regarding his early musical influences. His initial interest in music came from listening to his older sister practice religious songs, and works by Bach, Chaminade and the lighter romantic composers. In the Hazel de Berg interview, Hanson mentioned the difficulties of growing up during the Depression in Australia and discussed the odd jobs he had to undertake to support the family. During this time his musical education consisted of piano lessons with Miss Ann Spillane, supported by various sponsors, and composition with Marian Bolton. 

Prior to his study at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, Hanson composed a number of works where his major influence was his composition teacher Alex Burnard.  Subsequently, Burnard encouraged Hanson to take a teaching position at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. However, before this appointment Hanson served for 22 months in the Army, where he was stationed in Tasmania.  It was here that he was first introduced to jazz, which would later be an important source of inspiration for his composition.  In the Hazel de Berg interview Hanson stated:

“My great interest in jazz really stemmed from Army experience, because there I was asked by my brigade commander to form a concert party, which I did. It was not the usual type of band that we had, it was about a 16-piece and I had to make my own arrangements…But through this I contacted jazz itself, that is the real improvisation of jazz.  I met so many people [in Tasmania], Americans in particular, and I then [sic] of course regarded as being a vital factor in the twentieth century and particularly in twentieth century music in America. The influence has gone through the whole world the influence of jazz.”

In addition to being fascinated by the intricacies of jazz, Hanson’s diverse compositional style was influenced by an eclectic mix of composers. In her dissertation on The Violin and Piano Music of Raymond Hanson, Susan Collins has drawn parallels between the music of Hanson with the compositional styles of Shostakovich, Bartók and Sibelius. Features discussed include the use of short ostinato motifs, emphasis on the tritone and application of large scale forms. Collins discusses the similarities of Hanson’s writing in his violin sonata with the opening of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and quotes David Rumsey who explained that Hanson “often took Sibelius as a role model, frequently speaking of his admiration for the Finnish master to his harmony, aural and composition classes”.

Another great influence on Hanson was the composer Paul Hindemith and his texts on composition The Craft of Musical Composition and The Composer’s World. In his important book Australian Piano Music of the Twentieth Century Larry Sitsky writes: “Later in his career, he (Hanson) was allowed to teach what was then considered composition, but in reality was a historically driven style of harmony and counterpoint, as well as orchestration.  Hanson had discovered the Hindemith textbooks and writings and for him this was a way into a contemporary sound world without throwing away his tonal roots.  Not that Hanson’s music sounds like Hindemith; not at all; it was actually closer to composers such as Prokofiev in his approach to the piano.”

Hanson was especially drawn to the rhythmic drive of Hindemith’s music and was fascinated with Hindemith’s application of the harmonic series. It is these elements that are evident in Hanson’s music as in the opening of his Symphony Op 28.  The comment toward the end of quotation is most interesting because of the reference to the Russian influence with the mention of Prokofiev.  Hanson appreciated the music of Russian composers and performers, and did his best to help promote Russian musicians on their visits to Australia. During a discussion I had with composer Larry Sitsky in 2006, Sitsky recalled one occasion where Hanson organised a series of concerts for the internationally renowned concert violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974). Sitsky, like all Hanson’s students, was excited by these performances and believed that it was the best way to introduce Russian music to Australian audiences.

However, Hanson’s interest in Russian music was often misinterpreted by others as being more political than artistic.  Hanson believed that music was for everyone and would often play recitals for the Railway Union or Waterside Workers, and at one point endeavoured to establish an Australian Trade Union Orchestra. Diane Collins in her book Sounds from the Stables about the history of the Sydney Conservatorium writes that he held these opinions when Australians were wary of such individuals during the McCarthyist 1950s. Unfortunately many of Hanson’s ideas were not popular and Sitsky writes that Hanson’s interests at times affected his ‘compositional prospects’. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that Hanson established his position in Australia’s cultural development through his composition, teaching and by introducing new music to audiences. These actions brought a much-needed influx of new and diverse cultures into the Australian artistic community.

Hanson teaching

Hanson composed for a range of genres from intimate chamber music through to orchestral works with chorus. His piano works have been championed by Larry Sitsky and have been discussed in detail in Sitsky’s book Australian Piano Music of the Twentieth Century.  Hanson’s orchestral works include his Symphony Op 28 (1951/52), the ballet Dhoogor (1945), concertos for piano, violin, trumpet and trombone, works written for film and documentaries and shorter orchestral works such as Gula (1968) and Novelette (1947). Much of his writing for documentaries came from the need to earn a living, and like many of his contemporaries that included Robert Hughes, he wrote background music for cinema style advertisements for the large oil companies, Caltex and BP. 

One of Hanson’s major works was the oratorio The Immortal Touch with a text from the poet Rabinadrath Tagore. The oratorio is in two parts and the second part was completed just prior to Hanson’s death in 1976. The first part was performed in 1975 with Richard Gill (a student of Hanson at the time) conducting the choir and orchestra of the NSW Conservatorium of Music. The second part is now undergoing a restoration process by a research team headed by Dr Neil McEwan at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for a performance in 2014.

Hanson’s music was championed by numerous conductors and performers that included Eugene Goossens, Georg Tintner and the pianist Igor Hmelnitsky for whom Hanson wrote his Piano Sonata Opus 12. Interestingly, the notable events that affected our Australian composers in the middle twentieth century were both World War 1 and 2 and the devastation that came with these wars.  It was these issues that influenced Hanson when writing his piano sonataIn an interview with Max Keogh in November 1975 for 2MBS-FM Hanson explained that the Sonata: “It developed into more of a personal testament, shall we say, to the difficulties of the individual in life.  I was growing up, and I didn’t know what it was about but it seemed a pretty nasty sort of world.  Particularly when one was reading of Hitler…Hitler’s air force bombing towns indiscriminately and this kind of thing. You know, one wondered, I suppose, as children do today, what is there in the future, when this kind of thing takes place…And I had this kind of feeling with regard to this work.” 

Other researchers on Hanson have included Graham Hardie whose invaluable text, The Music of Raymond Hanson: Catalogue Raisonné is an important resource for locating Hanson’s repertoire and Sandra Ridgewell’s thesis Music in the Service of the State and the Politics of Style has contextualised Hanson in terms of his place in Australian culture.

So the question the reader may ask is why we don’t hear the repertoire Hanson and/or his contemporaries regularly on the concert stage? I think for all composers creating performance opportunities for their work is often difficult. However, there are a few main reasons why we don’t hear and/or see this older music being performed. Firstly, after 1960 there was a reaction from the new generation of composers against the music composed prior to this date as it was considered old-fashioned and tonal. This author challenges these thoughts as Australian composers from the mid-20th century were creating their own musical approach and experimenting with the ideas that they had access to via recordings and visiting overseas artists. In the best Australian tradition they were ‘having a go’!

Hanson adjudicating

The primary reason for the neglect of this music is the access and condition of much of the manuscripts. Much of the music is handwritten as there were and still are very few publishers in Australia that will commit to publishing large scale works. There is no centralised location for the music of this older generation and the archives of various composers are held in different libraries around the country. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the music and the difficulties in accessing scores, have made it virtually impossible to explore the influences and aesthetics that shaped much of the orchestral repertoire written by Australian composers from the mid-twentieth century. If the music is not performed then there is no culture of appreciation established and the wider community misses out on the benefit of discovering this music. Music, like literature, art and architecture, is an integral facet of the Australian culture. When an historic piece of art is rediscovered, it generates interest and time is taken to restore the work. It is imperative that the same is done for Australian music. Australian audiences are not going to have an opinion about Australian ‘art’ music unless they have an opportunity to hear it, and orchestras – both professional and amateur – should endeavour to perform works from this repertory in order to promote a culture of appreciation. In the case of Raymond Hanson much of his music for chamber ensembles and solo piano have been typeset and published but it is not the case for his larger works. 

In this centenary year there have been a number of important events held to celebrate the music of Raymond Hanson and there have been notable performances of his music in Melbourne and Queensland curated by Michael Kieran Harvey and Vincent Plush respectively. In addition, Annabel Gleeson and her family have created a wonderful website which provides a much needed resource for accessing Raymond Hanson’s music and provides interesting biographical material.

On Saturday, November 23 on what would have been Hanson’s 100th birthday the Sydney Conservatorium of Music will host a special Symposium and Concert in honour of this important Australian musician. I hope that this article has sparked some interest in Hanson and the music from this era as it is not until we truly investigate and understand the Australian repertoire of the past that there is a chance of creating a strong musical foundation for the future. As Larry Sitsky stated in his book Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century: “The music of the true composers comes from the darkness of neglect into an ever more brilliant light.”