The Lanyon Estate is one of the colonial jewels of Canberra. Dating back to 1836, it lies at the foothills of the Brindabella Ranges, on the upper banks of the Murrumbidgee River and barely a 30 minute drive south of Civic. In early autumn, it has to be a painter’s dream, reflected in the naming of a nearby suburb, in 1991, after the Australian Impressionist, Arthur Conder.

Jennifer Gall, Erin Helyard and Robyn Holmes. Photo © Vincent Plush

It is at Lanyon that Dr Jennifer Gall, scholar and curator, has assembled a three-part music series, Sounds Like Home, under the umbrella of the Cultural Facilities Corporation, an enterprise of the ACT government.

This particular program, the second in the current series, was drawn from the hand-written music manuscript brought to Australia from Scotland by the artist and diarist Georgiana McCrae (1804–1890). The natural daughter of the fifth Duke of Gordon, McCrae arrived in Port Phillip in March 1841 and remained there until her death in Hawthorn in 1890. McCrae also had a house on the Mornington Peninsula. There she entertained her friends with musicales; sometimes, people from the Bunerong population would sit on her verandah and listen to her music and sing their songs to her. (Her grandson, the historian Hugh McCrae (1876–1958), published extracts from her diaries in the magazine Southerly (1946–7).

McCrae’s songbooks were also an important source of inspiration for Patrick White, as he researched material for his novel Voss in the Mitchell Library. One evening, Mrs McCrae wrote in her diary, “Mr McLure played on his flute”. Thus, the novelist arrived at the character of Professor Topp, the philandering, flute-playing music-master.

McCrae dated many of the items in her ‘Songbook’ (1822–24), and these notations often correspond with diary entries. Jennifer Gall included a discussion about McCrae in her PhD thesis from ANU School of Music. The title of her 2008 dissertation was “Redefining the Tradition: The Role of Women in the Evolution and Transmission of Australian Folk Music”.

McCrae’s music-making, suggests Gall, “was an emotional outlet in an age when women’s private feelings could not be openly expressed”. The hour-long recital at Lanyon drew largely on McCrae’s hand-written copies of music of the day; the collections of the National Library of Australia – according to Robyn Holmes, until recently the NLA’s Senior Curator of Music – abound with many examples of this common form of household music-making. A fruitful field of research and performance indeed!

Enter Erin Helyard, perhaps best known as the Artistic Director of Pinchgut Opera, who has had teaching posts at ANU, the University of Melbourne and now in Sydney. Helyard is a stellar example of the younger generation of musicians who combine industrious research with authentic performance practice. On this occasion, in the homestead’s tiny drawing room (barely 20 people managed to squeeze into the museum-like space), he played one of Lanyon’s most prized possessions: an 1840s upright Broadwood piano. Most surprisingly, it appears to be in its natural condition, without restoration but maintained in near perfect working order by the local piano technician, Chris Leslie.

“The English like their pianos thick and sweet,” Helyard reminded the audience of Clementi’s dictum. “Whereas the Viennese like their pianos thin and silvery.”

And indeed, what was especially impressive about this short recital was the range of colours Helyard managed to coax from the instrument. Rich, thumping marches in one piece, gossamer-like reveries in another. Judicious use of the una corda pedal expanded the palette even further, producing a kind of ‘after-glow,’ as Helyard suggested, “like perfume lingering the air”. Here were sounds that matched the autumnal beauty of the landscape outside and some of Conder’s canvases hanging on the walls of the National Gallery.

Helyard’s program was bookended by selections from McCrae’s transcriptions of Beethoven. It opened with the seven Bagatelles, Op 33, its last Bagatelle designated as “Beethoven’s Fifth Waltz”. Composed in 1803, the same year as the mighty Eroica, there were indeed hints of the larger orchestral work in these poetic miniatures. Helyard ended the program with the Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, Op. 34, “dedicated to Princess Barbara Odescalchi.” In their disposition of related keys, the set could have been a sketch for an actual sonata movement.

Between Beethoven’s bookends there was a set of variations based on the traditional Irish tune, The Girl I Left Behind Me, convened by a “Mr H. of Aberdeen”. The origins of the tune, which it is said to date back to the 1660s, became the basis of a well-informed discussion after the concert. This listener recalled it as one of the numbers in Thomas Moore’s Book of Irish Melodies (1818), a first edition of which was owned by his great-grandmother.

Not only did Helyard manage to produce an extraordinary palette of light and shade from the Broadwood, he played with graceful charm and nimble precision. This was music-making utterly devoid of pretense or self-importance, totally in keeping with its modest and homely setting.

Despite the historical background to the program, the musicology was delivered with a very light touch. More important was the sense of intimacy and graceful delivery of the tiny but rapt audience back to the earlier years of the settlements along the Murrumbidgee.

The recent Federal budget included the allocation of $22 million over three years to the Bundanon Trust. The Trust’s Masterplan entails a new gallery and storage facility at the former home of painter Arthur Boyd on the Shoalhaven River. Is this is an indication of a renewed political interest in our heritage estates, or simply shoring up a fresh Liberal candidate, Joanna Gash, in the Federal seat of Gilmore? Perhaps, post-Election, political largesse could be extended to other heritage sites and estates as well?

On May 4, in the third and final program of her Sounds Like Home series, Jennifer Gall will take her audience outside the Main House to Lanyon’s outhouses. There she will present music associated with the different classes of people who lived and worked on the property.