Introduction (to Australian Musical Possibilities) [by Bernard O’Dowd, 1924]

[Editor: This article by Bernard O’Dowd was published as the introduction to Australian Musical Possibilities by Henry Tate (1924).]


Those of us whose faith it is that Australia is the matrix of a richer humanity and a kindlier as well as more enlightened civilisation than the present, here or elsewhere, will welcome Henry Tate’s little volume as a new witness to that faith.

Foundations of mighty polities are slowly and silently planned. Much that is experimental, tentative and exploratory precedes the noisy pile-driving — and oh! the bonfires for the rubbish and the muck-rakes for the ordure!

Among the planners of the City Beautiful none is more potent than he who has feelers, whose inner urge compels him to search, through a lifetime, if necessary, for truth, for good will, for beauty — that is, for those intangible realities out of which all good solidities are compounded.

Sound civilisations are based on sound ideas. A good tree bears not evil fruit. If the fruit is evil the tree is doubtful. Is it any wonder that men who live in the age of the Great War should not only raise the question whether the politics or religions which made that war possible are not impostor politics and religions, but should also suspect that the Art, the ethics and the poetry which allowed that war slowly to ripen are bogus Art, ethics and poetry? May not such suspicion be the real crucible of our new supernaturalisms, Bolshevisms, Fascisms, Cubisms, Pyrrhonisms and futuristicalities? So subtly blended with life is idea that there is more than mystic logic in questioning the soundness of Christianity, nationalism. Raphael, the Ten Commandments and metrical poetry when the world that believed in them, aye, made them its josses, burst itself asunder in 1914-1918.

However these things be, those to whom Australia is not a geographical expression but a spiritual banner know that it is only by thought, goodwill and beauty that the Commonwealth That Is To Be will be soundly and permanently planned and built. From whatever source these architectonic essentials come we welcome them. The very chance of their coming is a tonic. Every sign of their coming is a Star of Bethlehem.

Already there have been scouts and forerunners — a few newspapers, many poems, “Such is Life,” those who transfer Australian light and shadow to canvas, whether with the tender love of a Paterson or the Peter the Hermit zeal of a Meldrum, those who Manu-wise or Lycurgus-wise or Gracchus-wise frame the politic ground-plan itself, from Lang and Vern through Higinbotham, Lilley and Lane to Higgins and others of to-day, and so on in many branches, not forgetting the obscure devotion of bird-lover, flower-gatherer, moth-collector, and totem-interpreter. All have their parts in the team-work that shall at last, if we are worthy the destiny, drag the New Jerusalem from apocalyptic dreams to a shining fulfilment in Australia.

Shall not Music, too, contribute its enchantment to the ensemble? (After all, since magic is primarily song, may not the ultimate of all song be the creation out of chaos of the Enchanted Isle of our Australian dream?)

Here, too, signs have not been wanting. No adept in music myself, so little indeed that I theorise about it dogmatically and (so my friends, with ears, tell me) blasphemously, yet even I, as a far-off admirer of Marshall Hall, found democratic inspiration and an added love for and pride in Australia while in the strangely real atmosphere which his wizardry had power to fling around every subject he touched. I have responded, too, as if I were of the inner circle, to the dithyrambic enthusiasm of Tom Collins, and have wondered why his paean on music has not already taken its rightful place in general opinion among the great passages of English literature.

Moreover, I happen to know Henry Tate, the author, as a writer of verses of very fine lyrical quality, and as a man whom one can trust and for whose comradeship one feels rich. One cannot have known him for years without realising that he is of that select company of people, not numerous yet, who are very silent during the tumult and the shouting, but are, by the intensity of their faith, the clairvoyance of their hope and the flame of their love, the real nucleus of the Commonwealth that is not yet, but is assuredly to be in this land of ours. The sincerity of his belief in, hope for and love of Australia is an inspiration to all around him.

Whether you are musical or not, you cannot hear him discoursing on his favourite topic of the development of an Australian music, “racy of the soil,” and yet throbbing in unison with the great music of all the world, without feeling that Australia has a great part to play in the future of the world, that that part will be a beneficent and not a malevolent or parasitic one, and that towards the shaping of the soul that will become the real Australia a music of our own will not be the least potent of the creative wands.

This little book of his collects and gives some unity to his considerations at various times of the possibilities of Australian music. It so savours of Australia throughout that it must prove interesting and welcome, not only to every real Australian, but to anyone who wants to become acquainted at first hand with the spirit of Australia. To use his own words about other things, it is “distinctively Australian, and artistically eminent,” and to a singular degree emanates “the musical aura of the Bush.”

The thinker as well as the artist reveals himself frequently in the book, for example in such sentences as these:—

“Music that achieves nationality is on the way to rise above nationality”;


“Good work has a higher goal than recognition, due or undue, and that goal is its own accomplishment.”

The poet in Henry Tate frequently finds expression, particularly in his passages relating to the dreams of the old navigators and others about Australia — Nearchus, Columbus, da Gama, Bruno and Galileo — and during his remarkably arresting treatment of the artistic possibilities of aboriginal music when he refers to the “grotesque and pathetic shadows falling swiftly into the silence of the Never Never.”

The book is remarkably rich in the results of our author’s search for musical material, ranging from bird-calls to aboriginal songs and dances, and from the perfumes and climatic vicissitudes of the bush to the use made of its “woodnotes wi1d” by the most Australian of our poets and writers. The treatment of the last-mentioned subject will prove of peculiar interest to literary folk and is characterised by the author’s fairness, sanity and insight.

Mrs. Vida Lenox’s carefully compiled annotated catalogue of Henry Tate’s Australian music is a useful appendix to the book and will be greatly appreciated.

While I am not competent to assess technically the value of the theories set forth in this volume by our author, my Australian instinct tells me that they are sound and full of the promise of development into fact. His statements (inter alia) that our bird-calls “supply us with an unfailing reservoir of varied and charming rhythms,” and that “the various distinctive characteristics of bush sounds may give a peculiar tinge to the musical idiom in which an Australian composer may express himself,” have to me striking originality.

Apart from its musical theories and their soundness, however, the little volume is redolent of gum-leaves, is a welcome addition to Australian prose literature, and, it seems to me, meets the acid test of a real Australian book, that is to say, it could not have been written save by an Australian who knows, loves and has faith in his country.

Bernard O’Dowd.

January, 1924.

Australian Musical Possibilities, Edward A. Vidler, Melbourne, [1924], pages 7-10

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