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Phyllis Campbell - Australian Heritage Series

Phyllis Campbell (1891-1974).  Australians tend to have a poor image of their own culture.  Many still assume that we do not have a distinct Australian culture, of if we do, it is a fairly
recent phenomenon. This poor self-image has been fostered by a tradition of valorising artists and musicians such as Dame Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Eileen Joyce, who actually left Australia and had successful careers in Europe perpetuating the myth that there was no actual Australian culture of any significance.  This has meant that a range of Australian artists who were actively engaging with modern ideas in the Australian context, have virtually been ignored. The composer, theosophist, poet and early 2GB broadcaster, Phyllis Campbell is one such person.
Campbell lived and died in relative obscurity, but she composed over 300 works, including 128 for piano solo.  Campbell’s work has come to light because of recent scholarly interest in the Theosophical Society. Often seen as the fore-runner of the modern “new-age” movement, the Theosophical Society was something of a magnet for artists and composers in the early part of the twentieth century, encouraging an interest in eastern religions and a focus on the “invisible”, rather than realistic representations of the visible world.  It is now generally acknowledged that theosophical ideas greatly influenced the move towards abstract art by painters such as Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, Munch and Klee.  Alexander Scriabin is perhaps the most famous composer to have been directly involved in the Theosophical movement, but a range of other composers must have been very influenced by theosophical ideas. Schoenberg, for instance, is known to have corresponded with Kandinsky, Debussy was very influenced by the French Symbolists and Busoni had an enduring interest in mystical writings.
The Theosophical movement in Australia was particularly strong in Sydney in the 1920’s. So much so, that it was able to take on ambitious projects such as the construction of the Star Amphitheatre at Balmoral and the establishment of the radio station 2GB.
Phyllis Campbell arrived in Sydney in 1920 to marry Elliston Campbell, who she had met in England during the First World War.  She had been born in Torquay, England, but moved with her family to India at the age of eight months as her father was a member of the Indian Civil Service.  She was educated in England and Germany, but rejoined her family in India in 1908 where she was introduced to theosophy during a family holiday in Simla.  She subsequently returned to England to study at the Royal College of Music, graduating in 1913 with a piano teaching diploma.  She took composition lessons from the English theatre composer Norman O’Neill.  After graduation, she played the violin in music halls and London Clubs and also participated in concerts at soldiers’ camps which is how she met Elliston Campbell, an Electrical Engineer, who was undertaking war related work in England on behalf of the Australian Government.  After her arrival in Sydney she pursued further studies in composition with Alfred Hill at the Sydney Conservatorium and was active as a composer, performer, lecturer and organiser of concerts at Adyar Hall.
The pieces presented here are typical of the 25 Nature Studies she composed for piano during the 1920s and 30’s, as an expression of her theosophical beliefs.  In a later commentary on these pieces, her husband Elliston, describes her intentions as follows:
“In her Nature Studies tunes are not employed as in most works which derived their inspiration from Nature by composers who had in mind dominantly the entertainment of an audience. Her Nature Studies rather are meant to be each a psychological experience.  In performing them she hoped the artist would be able to experience, more or less as she herself had done, a sense of unity in consciousness with the natural object under study.”
They are highly impressionistic pieces, using many dense, chromatic harmonies and cluster chords with very minimal melodic material and ambiguous tonality or even bi-tonality. She uses a variety of modes including the whole-tone scale, the mystic chord and pentatonic scales. The main focus is on colourful harmonies which build tension, shifting gradually during the course of the music, much like a colour wheel used by a visual artist of the time. The most immediate association is the music of Debussy, but because she rarely resolves the harmonic tension, she rarely achieves the same moments of repose that are a feature of Debussy’s music.
Moonrise Over Sydney Heads, written in 1925, is a typical example of these pieces. This piece is largely based on the Whole-Tone-Scale. There is very little melodic movement except a two-note figure up and down a whole-tone. The focus is rather on the constantly shifting harmonies that build tension and evoke a mystical atmosphere. Interestingly, sunrises and moonrises over Sydney Heads were also a popular subject of visual artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with related works by Jane Price, Esme Farmer and James Howe Carse.
The idea of writing music that virtually has no melody must have seemed like a very radical notion at a television-free time when ‘sing-songs’ around the piano were a regular source of evening entertainment. Indeed, Elliston reports that Phyllis played Dreaming Rock, (in volume1) to a Russian pianist Paul Vinogradoff, who according to Elliston Campbell, commented “but madam, you cannot write a piece of music without a tune in it.”  Campbell did compose many pieces which did use the more traditional model of melody with harmonic accompaniment, but in her Nature Studies and other works, she chose to experiment with modern compositional techniques, responding to the intellectual environment within the Theosophical Society and the natural environment in which she lived. As such, Campbell was one of many artists of her time demonstrating a rich and diverse Australian cultural life in the early part of the twentieth century.
Although Campbell did not receive much recognition in her life time, after her death her husband, Elliston devoted himself to collecting together her manuscripts and ensuring they were placed somewhere for future study. They are currently housed in the archive section of the University of Technology, Sydney. This edition is drawn from handwritten manuscripts in this archive.
Campbell recorded the Nature Studies published here on cassette tape sometime before her death in 1974. She plays them with considerable rubato, but uses the sustain pedal very sparingly. Metronome markings used in this edition have been taken from Campbell’s recordings.

(Fiona Fraser, Australian National University, 3 November 2008)


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