William James and the Beginnings of Modern Music in Australia PDF Print E-mail

David Tunley

Sydney: Australian Music Centre 2007

ISBN 9780909168629 129pp

Reviewed by Elizabeth Silsbury

And you thought that all William Garnet James did was write a set (actually three) Australian Christmas Carols to words by John Wheeler and a rousing ballad, The Stock-Rider’s Song and was the ABC’s Director of Music for quite a long time. As David Tunley illustrates, in a typically thorough and eminently readable monograph, there’s much, much more.

The claim of his subtitle is no exaggeration – W G James was one of the most influential figures in Australia’s musical development during the seminal twenties. This little (129 pages) book is big on facts and exudes an air of determination to set the record straight about a basically modest man who (though Tunley is much too discreet to say so) was somewhat overshadowed by the rather more flamboyant figure of Bernard Heinze, born, as was James, in Ballarat.

It may well be that the latter was actually the superior musician. His piano playing, both as soloist in concertos by Arensky, Saint-Saens, Liszt and Montagu Phillips in the Proms under Sir Henry Wood and as accompanist for some of the most distinguished singers of the day, was much admired. His compositions may not have reached the heights he aspired to, but those same carols were sung by hundreds, maybe thousands of choristers around the country, were recorded by the SSO and a handpicked choir under the World Record Club label and attracted an approving notice from the music critic of The Times, London. (The Adelaide Choral Society sang and recorded them. Peter Narroway conducted, yours truly accompanied.)

The story of his early years as a gifted child in Ballarat and Melbourne, his move to London in 1913 aged 21 and rapid acceptance into the musical elite of the city is well told. The litany of famous names he was hobnobbing with before he turned 30 is supplemented by the comprehensive index, reading like a musical Who’s Who of not just Australian ex-pats, not just English, but the world’s cream of singers and violinists.

Ten years later he returned home for the first time to introduce his beautiful, cultured, sophisticated, multi-lingual Russian-born soprano wife Saffo Arnav and their baby to his country. Tunley is most restrained. “Melbourne was ready to greet these celebrities with open arms.” I bet.

Tunley resists the temptation to dwell on Saffa’s story – and so must I. Read the lines about her and between them for yourself, and share her anguish – to follow her own career or stand by her man and their children? There’s a play in there.

Eventually the James family settled in Melbourne.

W.G. appears as a team player, sufficiently secure in his own self-esteem to work in tandem with more precious egos as long as the aims were compatible. With hindsight, establishing what became the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the state orchestras attached to it until quite recently appears almost as something pre-ordained. But the right people had to be in the right places at the the right times for it to happen.

W.G.James was in the forefront of those people. Tunley’s big-little book proves it.