Uncovering the musical treasures of Rouse Hill House & Farm

Nicole Forsyth, a professional viola player and casual lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, is currently researching the Rouse Hill House & Farm sheet music collection for her PhD. 

She is working with Dr Matthew Stephens, Sydney Living Museums’ research librarian and the instigator of an award-winning program exploring music at Sydney Living Museums sites, to create a more detailed sheet music catalogue for the use of heritage professionals and the public. Nicole and Matthew are also developing new ways to engage public audiences with the ‘intangible objects’ of sound and music on a heritage site.

Nicole is enjoying the opportunity to work with curator Dr Scott Hill and property staff at the evocative Rouse Hill House & Farm, where sheet music is squirrelled away in every drawer, storeroom and cupboard. Most recently, she has delighted in rediscovering the top ten hits of the late 80s and 90s – the 1880s and 90s, that is!

So far, most of the music Nicole has found at the house is for piano solo, piano four hands (duet), or piano and voice, and is of a popular nature. There are lots of social dances such as quadrilles, waltzes and polkas (including ‘Flick and flock: the firemen’s dances’), often published to mark a special occasion. The ‘Edinburgh quadrille’, published in Sydney by Woolcott & Clarke, is a rarity in the collection, where so much of the sheet music was published in England. Nicole’s research complements some of the groundbreaking discoveries made by Dr Graeme Skinner, who has worked on the earlier parts of the Rouse music collection.

As she uncovers and examines these musical treasures, Nicole is developing a stronger understanding of the musical lives of the house’s residents. Sisters Nina (1875–1968) and Kathleen Rouse (1878–1932) were evidently both keen pianists and highly musically educated. Their dated signatures appear on more advanced German piano repertoire, such as Plaidy and Czerny studies, and some Mozart and Schumann. Kathleen also annotated vocal music – whether she sang and accompanied herself on the piano, or whether she was accompanying others, we don’t yet know, but the markings are those of a trained musician with a knowledge of vocal technique. 

By contrast, the collected sheet music that appears to belong to the girls’ parents, Edwin Stephen Rouse (1849–1931) and Bessie Rouse (nee Buchanan) (1843–1924), consists mostly of comic songs, sentimental love songs, and sacred songs to be sung at home rather than in church. Most of these publications were cheap and readily available – the latest ‘top ten hits’ made popular on stage by local and international singing stars. Notably, the song themes are highly gendered: men sing about adventure on the high seas, travel, or working on the railways or in the fields, while most of the songs for women are sentimental – about home, loved ones or longing for heaven! 

Content provided by Nicole Forsyth & Dr Matthew Stephens

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