Graeme Skinner
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1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition Orchestral Series
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George Skinner
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A lost colonial opera archive
Beethoven in Australia 1827

George Clutsam, “Our only Australian composer“

Until Percy Grainger effectively overtook him half way through the first decade of the 20th century, George Clutsam was probably the most noted Australian composer internationally. As it was for Grainger, leaving the Antipodes was crucial to his international recognition, and for those left at home, his physical loss was more than made up for by the collateral musical acclaim accorded to Australia and New Zealand, both of which had claims to own him.

The bare facts are that Clutsam was born in Sydney in 1866 (on 26 September), spent almost all of his infancy and childhood in Dunedin, New Zealand, and moved to England in 1889 where he remained for over 60 years until his death in 1951. In 1901, when his orchestral Harlequin Suite won a £100 prize offered by the London publishers, Chappell's, The Argus also claimed him as being “formerly of Melbourne”, but this was probably a confusion with his brother, a choral director there.

Clutsam himself set the record straight, and gave us some sense of himself, in a press interview in London in 1906:

 Please don’t call me “Our only Australian composer.” Somebody did that once, and for about a week after I walked about feeling as if I were a sort of soothing syrup. By the way, I don't know why I am always alluded to, and described as, a New Zealander. I’m not. I was born at Botany Bay. To prevent misunderstanding you might add that I come of poor but honest parents. I have inherited one of the adjectives. I am, at least, poor. Thus I am a Sydneyite by the force of circumstances over which I had little or no control, but at the early age of one I migrated to Dunedin. I hadn’t much to do with that either, now I come to think of it. I fancy they took me there because someone said the milk was so wholesome. I have never had a lesson in my life-a lesson in Composition that is. (I spell fairly well, excepting when I write letters). Musically, I am a self-taught man. I have a number of opinions, which I am told are quite heterodox and revolutionary, and altogether alarming. One of them is that the way so-called “theory” is taught is wholly wrong. I would much rather talk about other people than about myself. This is my maiden interview, and I’m very bashful, and sure to say the wrong thing. I can't even follow in the approved path with the fervent manifesto that everything I do is for the honour and glory of my native land. As a candid fact I can honestly say that I should be very sorry if Australia were in any way proud of the stuff I turn out. My view of the situation is of the most sordid and commercial character. I write to sell. Ambitions? I haven't any; I only want to be let alone. Ideals? My dear sir, it isn’t a matter of ideals, it’s a matter of sheer commonsense. Art doesn’t pay, ragtime does. I’ve gone to publishers with pieces that have taken me the best part of a year to compose. I couldn’t get a fiver for any one of them. I've gone with something that took me half an hour, and the cheque has taken my breath away. I've been 17 years in London, and the best of my work during that time, the best that is in me to write-is upstairs, locked away, and there I intend it shall remain.

Source: “Composer’s Amusing Confessions: Mr. Clutsam on himself”, Wanganui Herald [NZ] (16 June 1906), 7. 

As he was already predicting then, Clutsam is usually remembered today, if at all, for his commercial successes in light music, like the operetta Lilac Time (1922), film music, and his ubiquitous “Plantation” or “Coon” song, Ma Curley-Headed Baby. But at least until the First World War, he appears to have led a compositional double life, and despite producing already a steady stream of operettas and orchestral pops, enough of his serious work was in circulation (at any event, not “upstairs, locked away”) for him to be thought of as one of the more stylistically advanced younger composers working in Britain. He was also author of several series of theoretical articles for The Musical Times on such advanced issues as “The Harmonies of Scriabine” (1913), “The Whole-Tone Scale and Its Practical Use” (1910), “Questions of Modern Harmony” (1915), and “Principles of Modern Composition” (1918). Echoes of these interests can be heard in at least one tiny published work, the Berceuse (1919), No. 11 in a “Repertoire series of Pianoforte Music by Modern British Composers” (including Stanford, Ireland, Bowen, Bax, Howells, and later adoptive Australian Edgar Bainton).

In England, he also kept up Australian attachments. He appeared regularly as accompanist for Melba and Ada Crossley, and married another Australian singer, Minna Fischer. And since I am currently collecting information on Australian composers and the First World War, I was interested that Clutsam’s Australian stepson, Herbert Flemming (eldest son of the actor Herbert Flemming), “died of wounds received at the front” in June 1915 (“Personal”, The Argus (26 June 1915), 16).

I have no idea whether Clutsam ever revisited Australia. Probably not. So far as I know, his only work with an identifiably and intentionally Australian subject matter is his set of Mary Gilmore settings, Six Songs from the South, composed for Melba, and published in 1906. And at least one of the songs, No 6, “The Bush’s Secret”, gives us a glimpse of a slightly more serious Clutsam.

See also my short entry on George Clutsam in the Dictionary of Sydney.


© Graeme Skinner 2009/2012


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