Listening to the past: rediscovering our musical heritage

The stories and collections of Sydney Living Museums (SLM) properties contain compelling clues about the music played and enjoyed by earlier generations. Through exciting new initiatives and research we’re reviving these soundscapes for modern audiences.

Each of us is a curator of our personal musical world, and we use this expertise to establish a highly nuanced understanding of music history, particularly of popular music. There’s music we enjoyed as children, as teenagers, and that we now enjoy as adults; we may remember groaning at the affront to ‘good taste’ offered by the music of our parents and grandparents. Beyond our personal experience, however, our knowledge of the history of music is often less certain, and generalities take over – such as when we refer to the ‘Jazz Age’ or ‘classical music’, or we might think that Bach or Mozart was all that was played ‘back then’.

… past musical activity leaves its fingerprints if you know where to look.

Part of our role at SLM is to question such assumptions. Through research and artistic collaboration we can rediscover the lost soundscapes of our historic buildings, exploring the cultural and historical contexts of these spaces through the evidence of music making. Just like the construction techniques of Hyde Park Barracks, the particularities of hanging 19th-century curtains in the drawing room at Vaucluse House, or the world of cookery in a given place and time, past musical activity leaves its fingerprints if you know where to look.

Colour plate of four items of furniture.

'Furniture for a music room': plate from Rudolph Ackermann’s The repository of arts, literature, fashions &c, August 1815. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

A musical case study

On 23 April 1950, music was on the mind of Wallace Robinson of the homestead ‘Bengarralong’, near Gundagai, as he made notes on the back of a photograph taken in the early 1890s – now held by SLM in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC). Wallace was intrigued by this image of the highly decorated drawing room of a house in Stockton, near Newcastle, once the home of his uncle Dr Jeaffreson Hester and Hester’s sister Mildred, an accomplished pianist. To the modern eye – and indeed to Wallace, 60 years ago – the overstuffed room is shocking:

‘I have kept this photograph because it is so characteristic of the times. Just imagine the poor unfortunate creature who had to clean the place’.

Sepia toned photo of large cluttered room with piano to right.
Hester family drawing room, Stockton, NSW, early 1890s. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Most striking, however, among all the fabrics, feathers, fans, knick-knacks and family photographs is the large print of Ludwig van Beethoven hanging above the fireplace. As he glowers down at us we realise that he’s not alone: Wallace comments on the ‘predominance of famous musicians on walls and piano’. Indeed, with the aid of a magnifying glass we can identify portraits of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, along with the literary giants Schiller and Byron. Most of the portraits had been painted by Carl Jaeger and reproduced in a series of 1870s publications about celebrated writers and composers. Romanticism was undoubtedly the dominant aesthetic of the Hester household.

What does this photograph tell us about music making in regional NSW in the late 19th century? There’s no gramophone or radio, and the piano sits centre stage as the main source of musical entertainment. This homage to the European musical canon appears almost a cliché now, but at the time these composers were still relatively new to the Australian music scene. Evidence from SLM’s music collections suggests that, just like today, a variety of repertoires coexisted within many homes, and the Hesters also probably enjoyed a bit of ‘pop’.

Music making in SLM’s properties

Music weaves its way through many of SLM’s historic houses and sites. In some properties, such as Meroogal, in Nowra, and Rouse Hill House & Farm, the collections are laden with evidence of music making: sheet music, instruments, and music instruction scribbled in notebooks. These rich sources of information reveal the unexpected, particularly the forgotten composers and their music titles popular in the first half of the 19th century.

While less physical evidence survives at other properties, stories of music making remain. Elizabeth Macarthur, of Elizabeth Farm, is renowned for owning the first piano brought to Australia, by Dr Worgan in 1788, while the musical education given to the daughters of Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Bay House and Throsby Park to help ensure a ‘good’ marriage is also documented. The rare books, trade ephemera such as department store catalogues, and the sheet music collection held at the CSL&RC also provide valuable information for those researching the history of domestic music making.

Not so well known but equally captivating are the musical stories of Sydney’s less affluent. What tunes did servants and convicts working at many of our properties whistle or hum, and how much music was shared between the elite and the underclasses (many with similar backgrounds and traditions)? Archaeological evidence at Hyde Park Barracks provides some clues.

New audiences

With its historic properties, rich music collections and musical narratives, SLM is in a unique position to contextualise and reinterpret the soundscapes of the past. Through partnering with international bodies such as the Sound Heritage network and collaborating with educational institutions like the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, SLM has taken a leading role in developing a deeper understanding of not only what music was played in NSW but also how it was played. We’re now finding ways to share this knowledge with a new generation of audiences.

Tinted print of woman seated with musical instrument and music stand.
Plate from Rudolph Ackermann’s 'The repository of arts, literature, fashions &c', August 1815. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

With its historic properties, rich music collections and musical narratives, SLM is in a unique position to contextualise and reinterpret the soundscapes of the past.

About the author

Dr Matthew Stephens

Research Librarian

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.