The Art of Playing Polka

Sometimes good music takes a while to be appreciated. For the first time, on 11 October 2015, a lively dance tune published in Sydney over 160 years ago was performed at Vaucluse House as part of its centenary celebrations.

In 1854, composer Charles Packer's new piece, ‘The City of Sydney Polka’, was dedicated to the owner of Vaucluse House, William Charles Wentworth. Unfortunately for Packer, Wentworth had just departed for England and by the time he and his family returned to Vaucluse, in 1861, this piece of polka ‘pop’ had faded into obscurity. While Packer’s polka was being played in drawing rooms across the colony throughout 1854, Vaucluse House had remained silent.

Wentworth’s permission for the dedication is emblazoned on the cover of the sheet music and this is surprising given the composer’s social status as a former convict who had been transported to Australia for forgery. It appears, however, that Wentworth’s connection was with the song’s publisher, Woolcott & Clarke, who had been granted the permission rather than the composer.

Packer’s polka had first appeared in a music compendium, ‘The Australian Presentation Album’, in early 1854. Alongside this publication, which was recommended to bachelors as an ‘excellent present to their lady friends’, 1 Woolcott and Clarke advertised subscriptions to a bronze medallion of Wentworth to be made by the sculptor Thomas Woolner. An endorsement by Wentworth appeared in all the advertisements and the polka's dedication to Wentworth appears to be in a similar marketing vein.  

Charles Packer had gained a good reputation as a pianist and vocalist while serving his sentence in Hobart Town and, following his release, headed off to Sydney in 1853 to pursue his career. With his compositions favourably reviewed by the critics, Packer flourished until his fall from grace when convicted of bigamy, in 1863, and his sentencing to five years’ hard labour.

‘The City of Sydney Polka’ appeared almost a decade after the polka craze had first struck Australia, in 1845, when newspapers were obsessed with the dance and its potential threat to social order. Some believed that the dance steps, with their energetic Cossack moves, were not appropriate for young women. In 1846, the Sydney Morning Herald published these concerns in an article entitled ‘Modern Dancing’:

‘The gallop and the polka step, in which gentlemen, with legs wide astride, push their fair partners along, is absolutely disgusting; and I will hold no lady-mother guiltless who after this public warning shall allow her daughter to join such a brutal display.’2

Music and dance were highly favoured by the young women of the colony, and the daughters of WC Wentworth were no exception. They sang, played the piano and guitar, and enjoyed their music lessons. These attributes were considered important in the business of courtship and the magnificent drawing room at Vaucluse House was built to attract potential suitors to entertainments in the Wentworth home. The Wentworth girls may not have had the chance to perform the piece dedicated to their father at Vaucluse, but there is little doubt that they had the opportunity to enjoy many polkas at the balls they attended while living in England.

There is one question that remains unanswered about Wentworth’s personal polka – ‘is the piece really any good?’ Given that ‘beauty is in the ear of the listener’, as they say, we’ll have to leave that judgment up to you.

  • 1. ‘The Australian Presentation Album’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 1854, p.3.
  • 2. ‘Modern Dancing’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1846, p.3.

Listen now

Sydney Living Museums presents James Doig playing a Collard & Collard grand piano (c.1863) at Vaucluse House, recorded 15 October 2015.

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Dr Matthew Stephens
Research Librarian
Collections and Access
Dr Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection with a strong interest in the history of books and libraries in New South Wales. His recently completed PhD explored the early history of the Australian Museum Library.

Stories from Vaucluse House