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Letters from Downunder

I want to tell you a story...

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

Australia is about as far away from other European settlement as you can get. 13,000 miles from England, 3-4 months by sailboat meant that in the beginning, new arrivals hankered after things that were almost unobtainable. Fashions and philosophies, music, art and theatre - all remained bound by the ideas brought in by the settlers, which were mostly simple and naVve. Trade and commerce prospered, but entertainments were largely of the 'folk' variety, and foreign musicians who happened to chance on these shores were guaranteed a sellout box office.

But many talented artists did arrive - some unwillingly - enriching the cultural life of the free settlers. Harpist Nicolas Bochsa wowed his Sydney audiences until his death by duel in 1856; Irish born Ms Lola Montez (Eliza Gilbert) shocked Victorian morality but wowed the miners. (She died age 39, and is buried at Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn). The list is long, but a strange belief emerged - that we had no talent among our own. If some emerged it was ridiculed to oblivion, or it went overseas, and finally it was named "The cultural cringe." The cringe was alive and well right to end of the Second World War, and to some extent it was the belief by Hollywood that Australia had vast untapped talent that finally closed that chapter.

Now I want to tell you a story. My father was the youngest of nine, the only one born in Australia. The rest came from a 'resort' (read grey and cold) in north Wales. My grandmother was a very fine pianist, and accompanied the famed Nellie Melba on one or more Australian tours. She was also the first pianist to perform in the Melbourne town hall, a high honour indeed. Her musical talent was handed down to her eldest son, Leonard, who was first flute in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for many years, being vanquished by pyorrhea, and you cannot play flute sans teeth. The rest were Welsh, so they sang.

Now I never knew my grandmother, but her eldest daughter, Gwendolyn, carried on the tradition. They lived in a seaside resort south of Melbourne, and when I was 12 we went there for a celebration of some kind. After an enormous lunch I was marched to the music room. "You are going to sing for me." Not a request. "I can't sing, Auntie Gwen. They even asked me not to sing in the Sunday school choir."

"Yes you can. The heritage, my boy. You can't escape it. Here, let's try this." And I was handed the music for 'Where ere you walk.' It took 10 minutes for me to approximate middle C and another 10 before I was reduced to tears and my aunt to fury. Flinging the door open, she bellowed "Wilfred?" (for that my father's given name). He duly appeared looking alarmed, and asked what the matter was.

"This child cannot sing! Are you sure he's yours?" No doubt there was recrimination all round, but I escaped to play with my cousins. Of course she already knew I was doing quite well with my piano studies, but an 80 year-old dragon can't easily change it's fire. And music has been much of my life. No, I was never good enough to go places, even though I changed to clarinet then to oboe, but I've had so much fun playing in orchestras of all kind, chamber groups, composing, and writing about music- and for the past 12 years broadcasting on community radio 3MBS. ( This has led me to appreciate just how far the cringe has been reversed, because Australian musicians, ballet dancers, conductors, actors, music theatre stars, song writers, jazz supremos, folkies, - even, god forgive us, rock stars - are so well known around the world that now we are really proud to be the home of such talent.

Our school choirs have recently won awards in Canada and Asia, a piano trio won an international competition last year, and the list of high achievers is too long to mention. Nowadays we don't force them to gain recognition overseas, overseas begs them to come.

And why not? Music is all about emotion, and our artists seem to have the uncanny ability to get to the emotional heart of nearly all great music. I have just finished listening to the Flinders quartet (local maestros) playing Beethoven's string quartet no 2. I'm still in tears. Music is like that. Music lovers everywhere know that. It's why it will never die. Good music is life, love and happiness.


Read Past DownUnder Columns by Lindsay Coker