About this Recording
8.570241 - ANTILL: Corroboree / Outback Overture

John Antill (1904-1986)
An Outback Overture • Corroboree


John Antill was born in Sydney of English parents. His early years at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral School exposed him to an ideal choral and instrumental environment in which to stimulate his instinct to compose. Words of advice from composer Arthur Benjamin, on seeing some of his early manuscripts “…Mr. Antill should have 12 months under Mr. Alfred Hill…” were prophetic. Australian born, Benjamin had established an accomplished career in Great Britain. From sixteen Antill worked as an apprentice mechanical draftsman for the New South Wales Railways Department but after five years he took up Benjamin’s earlier advice and won a scholarship to study composition with Hill at the New South Wales State Conservatorium. After graduating he embarked on a career as a singer, conductor and clarinet player. He toured Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand with J.C. Williamson’s Imperial Opera Company and in 1933, when he formed the Mastersingers Male Quartet and began broadcasting, he began what was to become his long association with the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

In 1934 he joined the Fuller Opera Company and in 1936 played bass clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1936 Antill joined the permanent staff of the ABC where, during his career, he held the posts of director of the Sydney Wireless Chorus, Presentation Officer, Assistant Federal Music Editor and Federal Music Editor for the Commission. During this era he played a major rôle in determining the fate of contemporary music. His responsibilities undeniably afforded him considerable influence over what was broadcast and some have commented that his conservatism played a significant rôle in isolating Australia from international trends in composition up until his retirement in 1969.

Antill wrote music for more than twenty documentary films and his biographer, Patricia Brown, noted that on one occasion he wrote a commissioned score, conducted it, and had it ready for the film screening in Paris three days later. After his retirement from the Australian Broadcasting Commission Antill continued to compose, remained active as a member of the Fellowship of Australian Composers and in 1970 was awarded the O.B.E. Much of his music remains unknown and unpublished, though with the recent increase in recordings of colonial Australasian music one hopes that more of his works may be published and brought into circulation through performances and recordings.

The legacy of Australian composition from the 1920s through to the 1950s is dominated by the later works of Alfred Hill (1869-1960) and Percy Grainger (1882-1961), along with those composers born at the turn of the century - Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984), Clive Douglas (1903-77) and John Antill (1904-86). Those born in the second decade, Robert Hughes, Raymond Hanson, Dorian Le Gallienne and James Penberthy, came into prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. It was in the 1940s that Jindyworobakism came to the fore in Australia as a nationalist movement aimed at identifying literary subjects with Aboriginal traditions and myths and reflecting the uniqueness of the Australian landscape. While Douglas, Antill and Penberthy were all identified as “Jindyworobakists” it is Douglas who is most identified with the movement. Of the early Australian composers, Antill is perhaps unique in being remembered primarily by the outstanding success of a single work, his ballet Corroboree. A survey of his compositions shows clearly his commitment to an Australian identity in his music with evocative titles such as Wakooka, Snowy, Black Opal, G’Day Digger, Music for a Pageant of Nationhood, Jubugalee, Australian Scene, Outback Overture, Nullarbor Dream Time and Australian Rhapsody. His works reflect a wide variety of genres and styles and include operas, ballets, concertos, choral works, songs and a large number of orchestral scores for both concert and film.

It is of interest that while Corroboree was written in 1946, when Antill was 42, there are few surviving works preceding it, but numerous works follow in the 1950s and 1960s. Patricia Brown’s biography suggests that Antill destroyed a great many of his earlier compositions, perhaps concerned that after the success of Corroboree, they might be compared unfavourably. Apparently this clean-out included twelve string quartets. It has been a matter of some debate whether Douglas or Antill was the first to use the Corroboree as the basis for a composition. While it is true that the fiveminute Corroboree of Douglas dates from 1940, it is clear that Antill had been developing his much more extended multi-movement Corroboree, as a ballet, since around 1936.

The Outback Overture was written in 1954 and was first performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Tivoli Theatre for the Royal Visit. A charming concert opener, it is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s rhythmic energy, British folk melodies, Copland’s harmonic influence and Grainger’s humour – all of this sandwiched between a distinctly Hill-like opening statement and a closing fanfare full of the patriotic fervour one would expect for the occasion.

Corroboree is the anglicized version of the Aboriginal word Caribberie which describes Aboriginal ceremonies that involved singing and dancing that passed on information about The Dreaming stories. These stories linked the past with the present to determine the future and tell of the journeys and the actions of the ancestral beings who created the natural world. Each story belongs to a long complex narrative and some discuss consequences and our future being. Some dances were reserved for women or men and some involved both, depending on the sacred nature of the dance. Members of the language group performing would paint particular designs on their bodies to show the type of ceremony being held.

The inspiration for Antill’s most famous work came originally from his attendance, in 1913, at a ritual Aboriginal Corroboree at La Perouse in Botany Bay. His ballet draws on material he notated at that time and his subsequent research on Aboriginal music. The enthusiasm shown for Antill’s Corroboree by conductor Eugene Goossens, who declared it to be the first score of “really authentic Australian character” that he had examined, had the effect, according to Clive Douglas, of belittling the previous efforts of Alfred and Mirrie Hill, James Penberthy (and himself) to use Aboriginal material to establish an Australian identity. There is no doubt that the impact of Antill’s Corroboree in 1946 has identified it as a landmark in Australian music history. Commentators have found parallels in both the work, and the public reception, to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring of 1913, of which Antill denied any previous knowledge.

One is immediately struck by the raw primitivism in the Welcome Ceremony, developed most effectively with its unusual orchestration and programmatic effects. The clicking percussion effect with the contrabassoon, followed by primitive bird-like screeches soon leads to a strongly rhythmic section, reminiscent of the Rite of Spring though the apparently complex rhythms are generally managed within conventional time signatures. Melodic sources are primarily folk and jazz-like in character. The following five short movements provide contrasts with folk-like oboe and solo violin melodies and effective use of the celeste in the leisurely Dance to the Evening Star, a recall of primitivism in A Rain Dance, swirling flute work and recalls of the screeches in a masterful seven-beat Spirit of the Wind, effective use of brass, featuring piano and trumpet in the middle, to create a macabre dance in compound time in The Rising Sun and some very evocative percussion, clarinet and bassoon writing that conjures up rattlesnakes and other low forms of life in the very short The Morning Star. The final extended movement Procession of Totems and Closing Ceremony recalls several ideas from previous movements, and introduces a minimalist ostinato section with increasing layers of texture added. After developing some previous ideas in the middle section, the texture is later pared down to the bare minimum from which momentum and layering builds, culminating in a glorious climax with chaotic brass motives and the innovative use of the bull-roarer in the closing minutes to convey a frenzied dance scene.

Donald Maurice

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