Education and Interpretation – Dowling Songbook
The recent discovery of an early locally-formed collection of domestic sheet music has inspired a new collaboration between Sydney Living Museums and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Over a three-month period, historical performance students examined this music collection and recreated a previously unknown musical soundscape at Elizabeth Bay House.
In 2011, musicologist Dr Graeme Skinner was commissioned by Sydney Living Museums (SLM) to evaluate the sheet music collections held at SLM’s historic properties of Rouse Hill House & Farm, Meroogal, in Nowra, and Throsby Park (the latter collection having been relocated to SLM’s Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC)).
In addition to identifying material of national significance, Skinner created a list of priority items for digitisation and cataloguing. In a project led by staff at the CSL&RC, over 150 pre-1860 music publications have been digitised and catalogued with a focus on the provenance of these rare items. These pieces of music are accessible through the CSL&RC’s online catalogue and ‘Internet Archive’ (for eg. https://archive.org/details/DowlingSongbook41008).
SLM’s musical activity received international recognition when the organisation was invited, in 2014, to represent Australia as a member of the British-based Sound Heritage network. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), the network’s primary focus is the study of music making in 18th and 19th century historic houses. Dr Matthew Stephens, CSL&RC research librarian, represented SLM at three study days in the UK over a period of 18 months. In November 2016, he presented to the network on the Dowling Songbook Project and a report has been uploaded on the Sound Heritage website.
The Dowling Songbook Project has been integral in Sydney living Museum’s recent promotion of the history of musical activity in and around its historic properties.
The Dowling Songbook
In 2011, while examining the sheet music collection at Rouse Hill House & Farm, Sydney Living Museums’ musicology consultant, Dr Graeme Skinner, made an important discovery. Graeme found a previously unidentified volume of British sheet music arranged for voice and piano which had been bound together in c.1840 by Sydney music-seller Francis Ellard. Half of the volume contained music for a female singer, while the remainder had been written for a male – clearly a ‘his and hers’ collection. A discovery of national significance, the volume, now known as the Dowling Songbook, is the earliest known collection of music locally purchased and bound in Australia.
In addition to print and manuscript sheet music, the volume contains ‘Grosse’s Instruction in Singing’, a treatise published in London in the late 1820s. Pencil markings on some of the songs in the Dowling Songbook suggest this publication had been used for singing training by its Sydney owner in the 1830s.
The Dowling Project is part of an ongoing program led by the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection which provides greater knowledge of, and access to, SLM’s historic book and sheet music collections. In 2014, Matthew Stephens identified the original owners of the songbook as the young and well-connected Sydney couple, Lilias and Willougby James Dowling, and uncovered their little-known story.
The Music of an Extraordinary Colonial Couple
The home of young Lilias Dickson (1818-1869), near what is now Darling Harbour, was located next door to her father’s flour mill. It was here – the place where the industrial revolution in Sydney began – that Lilias (or Lilly) commenced the drawing, music and dance lessons typical of a wealthy girl in the colony. Governor Lachlan Macquarie had been enthusiastic about John Dickson’s arrival in Sydney in 1813, armed as he was with £10,000 and Australia’s first steam engine. Twenty years later Dickson was described as ‘a person of questionable reputation’ having absconded from the colony in response to a charge of forgery.
The abandonment of Lilly and her six young siblings by their father in 1833 was one of a litany of disasters faced by Lilly that year, which had included the death of her mother and the loss of Lilly’s reputation following a scandal involving a visiting conman. While accounts vary as to the exact detail, it appears that 15-year-old Lilly had taken a fancy to an ex-convict, John Dow, better known as Viscount Lascelles. Following a fight with her father, Lilly ran off to Parramatta where she stayed for a day or two with Lascelles before returning home. Upon hearing the news that Lilly’s father had absconded, Lascelles set his eye on the girl’s fortune and took her to court claiming that the couple had married while at Parramatta. The case was dismissed but Judge James Dowling observed that Lilias Dickson was a girl of a ‘light reputation’. He was later horrified when his young nephew, Willoughby James Dowling (1812-1849), married the 16-year-old Lilly less than three months later.
The couple lived at ‘Flinton’, a 14-room house in Paddington, where their three children were born and where much of their sheet music was probably played. Employed as a solicitor by John Norton, Willoughby moved his family to Bathurst in 1841 following charges of financial irregularities. Continuing as a solicitor, he battled with alcoholism and, in 1849, Willoughby shot himself at home after days of heavy drinking. Lilly immediately sold her possessions and travelled to England to stay with her parents-in-law. She returned to Australia in 1851, later remarried and moved to the Southern Highlands where she died, in 1869, at the age of 51.
Recreating a lost musical world – Project Timetable
In November 2015, Matthew Stephens approached Professor Neal Peres Da Costa of the Historical Performance Division, Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM), with a challenge. Neal was asked if he could bring to life the musical world of the Dowlings in one of SLM’s house museums.
SLM was able to provide the sheet music as well as the perfect interior – the drawing room at Elizabeth Bay House – where both performers and audiences would be immersed in a visual and aural setting similar to one that would have been familiar to the Dowlings.
Excited by the challenge, Neal and his students investigated how the singing treatise bound with the collection could be used to inform interpretative aspects of the Dowlings’ sheet music. The marks pencilled into a number of the songs also offered clues as to how the songs had been performed. It was often hard to interpret what had been meant, particularly given the ‘foreignness’ of even some of the clearest annotations made by the early users of the scores. Neal constantly encouraged the students to look at Grosses’ ‘Instruction in Singing’ bound with the sheet music to help suggest strategies to interpret the pencil ornaments and the songs more generally.
The project commenced on 29 July 2016 with a two-hour tour of music sources available at SLM’s Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. Twenty-five students from the Historical Performance Division (HPD) viewed rare book domestic manuals, books illustrating and contextualising houses, interiors, furniture and musical instruments of the 19th century, sheet music provenanced to 19th-century Australian settlers, and the Dowling Songbook itself.
A week later, the cohort met at Elizabeth Bay House for an extended tour of the house and its collections. This was followed by electronic distribution of the digitised score, rehearsals at the SCM and then weekly workshops in the drawing room at Elizabeth Bay House. In the week leading up to the performances, the students engaged in an intensive rehearsal period in the house.
The drawing room was specially configured for the rehearsals and performances but with the intention of removing as little of the furniture as possible. Thirty reproduction regency chairs were placed in the room for the audience in a domestic arrangement that avoided rows, while an 1840s Collard & Collard square piano specially acquired by the SCM for the project was also installed in the drawing room for the onsite workshops and performances.
Performances and Interpretation for the public
Between 7-9 October 2016, three performances of the program were given: the first to family and friends of the performers, the second to invited guests of Sydney Living Museums and it Trustees, and the third was a public concert. In all, 80 people attended these performances. A further 91 museum visitors experienced music in the house while the students were rehearsing during opening hours. These visitors often engaged with SLM staff about the project and a small leaflet explaining the activity in the house was available for visitors during the rehearsal period.
Prior to each of the concerts, the audience was led into the dining room to view the original scores being used by the students for the performances. To broaden the repertoire further, the CSL&RC had offered Neal two additional bound volumes of sheet music (containing over 60 publications) from the recently acquired Stewart Symonds sheet music collection and which are contemporaneous with the Dowling Songbook. The first was a volume of 40 publications belonging to Maria Lee who had been born in New South Wales, and contains music published 1825 to 1845. Unlike the Dowling Songbook’s British scores, this volume includes examples of some of the earliest music editions published in Sydney. The second volume belonged to a Scottish woman, Lucy Havens, who had immigrated to Sydney in 1839 and contains 24 pieces she brought with her from Britain.
Matthew Stephens shared the Dowling story with the audience while they looked at the original scores and were given the opportunity to leaf through a facsimile of the Dowling Songbook. This was followed by Neal Peres Da Costa’s discussion of the research approach and the opportunities the project offered students interested in historically informed performance. The audience was then led into the drawing room and asked to leave at the door their 21st century preconceptions as to how an audience should behave in a 19th century drawing room concert.
Pedagogical Approach and Outcomes
The discovery of the Dowling Songbook offered a perfect collaborative opportunity for Sydney Living Museums and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The songbook, containing music brought over from Europe that had been collated and annotated in Sydney, provides a uniquely local perspective on the types of early-19th-century compositions studied by SCM’s Historical Performance Division (HPD). The Songbook’s many handwritten annotations on some of the songs also provided a rare interpretative opportunity for the students. Could these be evidence of Lilias’s singing lessons in the 1830s? Just as interesting was Grosse’s singing treatise bound into the back of the book. Published in London in the late 1820s, this is the only known surviving copy of the publication in the world and offers guidance on how to maintain a healthy voice as well as the intricacies of how the music should be performed.
SLM provided access to this rare sheet music and additional interpretative research material through the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection and a contemporaneous house in a meticulously curated heritage setting in which to perform, enabling the students to engage even more deeply with the music and its contexts. The final challenge was to find a good instrument of the era to accompany the songs: with research funds from the SCM, an 1840s Collard & Collard square piano was acquired for the project.
During August and September 2016, the musicians worked on over 20 pieces from the songbook and other contemporary pieces at SLM. Singers, keyboardists, recorder players, a flautist, guitarist, oboist and cellist experimented with the annotations on the scores and how these could work within the intimate acoustics of the drawing room.
This project has been rich in the sorts of artefacts and information that the HPD likes to use for its research, including the biggest of all artefacts – Elizabeth Bay House. The project successfully captured the atmosphere of a private musical performance in a wealthy Sydney drawing room of the 1830s and 40s. The group’s flautist, Theo Small, observed: ‘For me the biggest surprise has been that Australia has its own musical history … it’s been interesting addressing my own musical heritage which I had never identified with or knew existed’.
As well as providing learning benefits for students, the Dowling Project has greatly assisted research in historical performance. It is an opportunity to access locally annotated scores, use a keyboard from the era and then allow the performers to use their instincts and imagination to fill in the many gaps in their knowledge.
The Dowling Project provided an ideal experiential learning opportunity for students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and their responses to the project were closely monitored by performer perception researcher, Dr Helen Mitchell. Musicians’ concepts of listening are grounded in their performance experiences, and presenting at Elizabeth Bay House enabled students to reflect not only on their own performance skills, but a uniquely Australian setting for enacting their performances:
‘I thought it was a really interesting way of approaching historical performance in particular, because it’s … our culture, if that makes sense. We spend so much time examining the music of Europe, which isn’t our own history. To be able to have any opportunity to look back and deal with our own culture I found really interesting and quite invaluable.’ (4th year recorder)
Challenging students to reflect on their expectations of early music by engaging with them through their own experiences of performing historic music in a historic house enabled them to absorb indescribable experience into their own music practice:
‘I think doing it at Elizabeth Bay House you have the beauty of a pretty fantastic acoustic, a small intimate space and an audience that’s right in front of you that isn’t that big and to me that made the music come alive.’ (3rd year singer)
Experiential learning provides opportunities for music students to engage with the tasks they currently face, and contributes to students’ appreciation of their future professional activity:
‘It kind of really made me re-think Australian music because you have this idea of – bush music and so on. But you don’t ever think of there being sophisticated – for lack of a better word – Australian music. So it was really good to put that all together and say ‘oh, look, there’s this whole thing that we never knew about’.’ (Graduate cellist)
The aim of this project was to explore music students’ engagement with a novel music teaching strategy in early music and identify its applications in future research training for music performer researchers.
The benefits of this project for both institutions have been numerous but it was also a project not without its challenges. These included finding an appropriate instrument for the project, the logistics of protecting the collections in the drawing room while providing access for rehearsals and performances and continually supporting the students in what seemed to them at times a radical approach.
While SLM could offer unique collections of sheet music and a historic house contemporaneous with the music, there was no usable piano available in Elizabeth Bay House. Neither of the two pianos at the house are suitable for high level public performance. Neal Peres Da Costa located an 1840s Collard & Collard square piano in a remarkably original state in Western Australia, and it was acquired with research funds by the SCM and conservatively restored in readiness for the project. The success of the project using such a fine instrument has encouraged SLM to evaluate its own pianos in terms of their history, significance and playability for the longer term.
Elizabeth Bay House contains finely interpreted historic interiors with collections of varying rarity and fragility. The project required a full assessment of the possible impact on the drawing room and its collections. If the desired immersive experience for both performers and audience was to be achieved, as much of the character of the room needed to be retained. It was agreed to remove a few of the larger pieces of furniture and more vulnerable small pieces of ornament during the period of the project. A member of SLM staff was present in the room to keep an eye on the collection and gently remind the visitors to take care. This approach proved very successful and both performers and audiences commented on how they had been transported by the music in what felt such an original setting.
At times, some of the students found the project challenging and wondered how this approach was relevant to their future careers. This scepticism had been predicted and the project was carefully structured to support the students as they were immersed deeper into 19th century music practise in an historic home. By introducing them to some of the research tools in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection and giving an in-depth tour of the house before they had even started working on the music, the students had some familiarity with an historic house environment and 19th century life by the time they commenced their extended rehearsal periods in the house.
Project outcomes and future collaboration
The project has been enthusiastically received by performers, audiences and SLM and SCM staff alike. The project outcomes include:
- An opportunity for pre-professional musicians interested in historical performance to be immersed in an early nineteenth century Australian context. Working with repertoire once owned and played by members of Sydney society in the 1830s and 40s and within an original historic house, the students articulated surprise and fascination in discovering an aspect of Australia’s cultural history completely unknown to them.
- A little-known musical world and its social setting were revealed to the general public with a degree of interpretative detail that is rarely experienced. The audience response to hearing early Australian repertoire performed using historically informed performance practise in the intimate setting of a contemporary drawing room was very favourable.
- The collaboration enabled Sydney Living Museums to use sound to bring to life Elizabeth Bay House for its visitors with a degree of research-based authenticity that matched the level of interpretation of the house and its interiors.
- The development of a model that has significant pedagogical and interpretative outcomes for both students and the general public and has the potential for ongoing programs.
- Film of the preparation of the house, the rehearsal process, performances and interviews with those involved in the project will be used to develop a small web documentary which is planned for release in 2017.
- Both Sydney Living Museums and the Sydney Conservatorium have found this collaboration beneficial and have continued the relationship. On 28 March 2017, two singers from the Dowling Project will return to Elizabeth Bay House to perform with an early keyboardist from Britain in a concert called ‘Here and There: Music at Home in Sydney and London, 1830-1845’. Once again, sheet music from SLM’s collection with early NSW provenance forms the core of the concert’s program and the collaboration continues to provide opportunity to those musicians interested in specialising in the interpretation of Sydney’s history and cultural heritage.
- The Dowling Project enabled SLM to experiment with and enact some of the observations of the Sound Heritage study days in the UK. The project also provided a demonstrable outcome that was used by SLM to feed back into Sound Heritage in Britain and for the promotion of the Sound Heritage Sydney symposium which was co-partnered with the SCM in March 2017.
Worked on the project:
Sydney Living Museums and The Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney
What the Judges said:
“A forgotten aspect of heritage these performances of the music collection at Elizabeth Bay House recreated a previously unknown musical soundscape which fascinated the judges.”