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January 01st 2013 print

R.J. Stove

Pedagogue and Proselyte

Marshall-Hall’s Melbourne: Music, Art and Controversy 1891–1915
edited by Thérèse Radic and Suzanne Robinson
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012, 265 pages, $44

The life of George William Louis Marshall-Hall can be soon described. A lawyer’s son, born in London (1862), he became a professional violinist and organist against his father’s wishes. After briefly studying in Germany and Switzerland, to no very obvious purpose, he took lessons at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included such distinguished men as Sir George Grove (of Dictionary fame) and Sir Hubert Parry. Quickly leaving the RCM, he then survived by conducting, as well as by freelance contributions to Magazine of Music, Musical World and other English periodicals. No one ever grew rich through these methods, but in 1890 things looked up for him: despite his lack of formal qualifications, he succeeded in being chosen as Melbourne University’s inaugural Ormond Professor of Music. This role he combined with the founding and prolonged directing of his own orchestra.

Unfortunately for his prospects, he had caught the Nietzsche virus, under which germ’s influence he preached—both in prose and in verse—paganism, blasphemy, and what was once called “free love”. If alive today, he could casually expound his social panaceas in a Sunday Age column, and few would take any notice. His contemporaries held a less indulgent view. Melbourne’s Argus newspaper denounced him; and when in 1900 his teaching contract fell due for renewal, the university administration decided against renewing it. He established his own rival institution (not yet called the Melba Conservatorium), and bided his time—spending much of it back in England—till 1914, when his Ormond successor, Franklin Peterson, died in office. The university which had let Marshall-Hall go now decided that it wanted him back, but fate gave him little leisure to enjoy his restoration: in less than a year, peritonitis had finished him.

A pedagogue who regains his old post might well be considered, in most countries, an improbable candidate for the martyr’s diadem. It is as if the judges of Athens, not content with agreeing to give Socrates a full pardon, had considerately supplied a stomach-pump to expel the hemlock from his innards. But in Australia—where until recently the jobs-for-life mindset ensured that almost any career obstruction, however evanescent and indeed desirable, could be noisily reinterpreted as a fiendish attack on somebody’s “freedom” and “rights”—all sorts of odd-bods can be pressed into service as authentic victims of persecution, particularly if they have potential as poster-children for the New Atheism. Today Marshall-Hall has become a middle-sized academic industry (which includes books and an Australian Dictionary of Biography entry by Monash’s Thérèse Radic, not to mention a thesis by Melbourne University PhD candidate Joe Rich). One would like to think that this industry has had some lasting connection with his deeds as composer and performer; but then one remembers how closely the Grainger cultus is bound up—to coin a phrase—with that figure’s predilection for kinky sex (“Australia’s composers take a lot of beating, and Percy Grainger was no exception”, Sir Les Patterson sagely observed). Accordingly one may be permitted to wonder if Marshall-Hall has benefited from a less dramatic manifestation of the same outlook. 

At any rate, Marshall-Hall Studies remain, for the most part, as geographically specific as the title of this new collection suggests. Those of us raised in New South Wales had only the vaguest youthful notions of Marshall-Hall’s existence. The late arts administrator James Murdoch summarised composer-journalist Dorian Le Gallienne in terms almost equally applicable to Marshall-Hall: “Since his death, his music has been mostly ignored and there has grown around his name in … Melbourne a considerable mystique, which is not shared by the rest of Australia.” Still, Marshall-Hall clearly left behind him a record of enough solid, if unfocused, aptitude to warrant a scholarly overview. This one comes with an imprimatur from Barry Jones; and to ignore it while professing an interest in Australian musical history (or, if it comes to that, wider Australian cultural history) would be singularly foolish. Space limits, alas, proscribe detailed analysis here of all sixteen chapters; but six struck this reviewer as deserving special attention.

Organist and choral conductor Kieran Crichton draws on his Melbourne University doctoral thesis to consider Franklin Peterson: how Peterson’s teaching approach resembled, and how it differed from, Marshall-Hall’s. Dr Crichton stresses the intellectual debt which both men—Peterson perhaps more than his rival—owed to Herbert Spencer’s philosophy: in particular a mega-Darwinian belief in artistic progress (it was after all Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”). Not all of this Spencerian doctrine came straight from Spencer. It pervades Parry’s own historiography, which wielded exceptional influence in the pre-Great-War British Empire. To this influence, both professors added (though Dr Crichton does not specifically mention this) ideas derived, directly or indirectly, from Matthew Arnold: the whole religion-of-culture, artist-as-priest ethos, an ethos simple to reconcile with Marshall-Hall’s own resolute anti-puritanism, and likewise free from cognitive dissonance with Nietzsche (in whom Peterson, unlike Marshall-Hall, appears to have had no interest). “One gets the feeling,” Dr Crichton correctly notes, “that Marshall-Hall and Peterson viewed the same object by looking through opposite ends of the telescope. Both saw music as an art which could transform lives, and considered such transformation desirable.”

At the same time, Marshall-Hall was if anything even less tempted than Peterson to that all-too-common latter-day result of transformative fervour: the whole “everyone’s an artist” shibboleth. This shibboleth, inescapable among baby-Marxists of yore, is also to be found among certain personally squalid anti-Marxists like Eric Gill. Since 1945 its most prominent musical defender has probably been the apolitical Glenn Gould, with his raging against specialisation. (“In the best of all possible worlds,” runs one of those dopey Panglossian nostrums by which Gould ensured his posthumous eminence as King of the Kids, “… the audience would be the artist and their life would be the art.”) Mercifully, Nietzsche saved Marshall-Hall from that tripe.

Matthew Lorenzon, currently an ANU graduate student, discusses in remarkable and convincing detail Marshall-Hall’s intellectual development. Marshall-Hall appreciated Schopenhauer’s importance to Wagner’s thinking—an importance seldom otherwise adequately acknowledged in English until Bryan Magee’s magisterial 2001 tome Wagner and Philosophy—and made himself conversant (while often disagreeing) with Cesare Lombroso, then at the height of his criminological fame. He quickly found, as many (Nietzsche above all, of course) have found before and after him, that though he sought to expel Wagner’s aesthetic from his consciousness with the proverbial pitchfork, this aesthetic kept returning. “In proclaiming his distance from Europe,” Mr Lorenzon asks, “did Marshall-Hall really escape Wagnerism?” The question is nothing if not rhetorical.

Whatever Marshall-Hall’s eventual regrets over Wagner the theoretician, he never wavered in his advocacy of Wagner’s best music. To read Kenneth Morgan (biographer of leading American conductor Fritz Reiner) on “Sir James Barrett, Musical Patron in Melbourne”, is to be newly impressed by Sir James’s own philanthropic feats, and the willingness with which he backed Marshall-Hall’s judgment as orchestral director. Here we have micro-history with a vengeance, and a good job too. It takes far more mental effort to do serious archival research on such topics as musicians’ pay-rates in metropolitan Victoria than to cobble together many an exercise in purported metaphysics. How, one muses, did Marshall-Hall find the time (amid his other commitments) to master—and then to expound through the flawed conduit of his own frequently under-staffed ensemble—the then-novel repertoire which he served up to concert audiences in such generous profusion? It was to him that most members of such audiences owed their earliest acquaintanceship with pieces by Debussy, Dvořák, Franck, and Richard Strauss, not to mention Wagner himself, in their original orchestral guise (as opposed to piano reductions meant for domestic use). Had Marshall-Hall carried out nothing except this musical proselytism, he would have earned an honourable place in his adopted land’s annals.

As a composer, Marshall-Hall might fairly be said to have been asking for trouble, since he had a strange fetish for writing operas on subjects already treated to excellent effect by others. Thus, the examples of Berlioz, Gounod and Bellini failed to prevent him from essaying his own opera called Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, Berlioz and Purcell proved unable to deter him from writing his own Dido and Aeneas. Romeo and Juliet was his last major composition; none of it achieved performance in his lifetime except its balcony scene, which the Marshall-Hall Conservatorium gave in 1912. Short of a modern recording—which would be a difficult and expensive but, given the manuscript material now stored in the Grainger Museum, not an insuperable challenge—or even a complete printing, we must rely on Professor Radic and other commentators for accounts of it. Certainly Marshall-Hall, at a time when his English-based contemporaries (notably Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Dame Ethel Smyth) had their own operas routinely accepted by German theatres before 1914, does seem to have suffered from confounded ill luck in his failure to be similarly rewarded. His friendly dealings with Melba, as colleague in both the opera theatre and the concert hall, could not help him. “What he lacked,” Professor Radic concludes, “was the ability to use his contacts effectively. Lack of proper planning, a stubborn naivety and a hot temper deprived him of the immediate success he anticipated.”

One of Marshall-Hall’s contacts, the young Grainger, would have been better avoided. Jennifer Hill (Grainger Museum research officer) recounts, in her contribution “G.W.L. Marshall-Hall and Percy Grainger”, the rather sad tale of the older man’s labours to supply Grainger—twenty years his junior—with practical help. Grainger’s approach to prospective benefactors anticipated Bob Geldof’s rock-concert shenanigans in its alternation between general sentiments of “Give us yer f***in’ money” and those of “Give us yer f***in’ money now.” In a 1939 diatribe Grainger dismissed Marshall-Hall (along with Sir Malcolm Sargent, at whom he had likewise taken irrational offence) as “un-internationalisable, always political, always tuft-hunting, half-musician[s] … They remain sly, cunning, hard, self-seeking to the end, & spoiling other men’s lives (including their wives’ lives).” This, be it noted, from someone who, not content with notoriously bringing to his own marital boudoir the Fifty Shades of Grey ethical code, cheerfully extracted a five-figure salary for undemanding didactic employment in Depression-era Chicago. Intricate though Grainger’s psyche was, he eschewed further complicating it by vulgar emotions of gratitude.

On the nature of Marshall-Hall’s own lasting significance, a final assessment is hard to make. A symphony by him has been issued—on a CD from the Move label—and answers to the description of it given here by Rhoderick McNeill (Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland), who compares it favourably with Parry and Stanford, though Elgar’s two symphonies remain in a different class again. Possibly Marshall-Hall deserves to be regarded as the antipodean counterpart to Leopold Stokowski: greatly increasing the concert-going public through his efforts on the rostrum, albeit without Stokowski’s genius at orchestral transcription. Possibly, on the other hand, he came closer to Diaghilev: a brilliant animateur rather than a brilliant creator. Poring over this sumptuously illustrated anthology prompts the strange realisation that, although Marshall-Hall’s Melbourne does credit to its discipline, a musician today who had dropped out from as many courses as the young Marshall-Hall did would be debarred from any professorship. Or, truth to tell, from even the humblest lectureship.

R.J. Stove, organist at Melbourne churches and an Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).