Margaret Sutherland

Margaret Ada Sutherland (1897-1984), composer, was born on 20 November 1897 in Adelaide, the fifth child of Ada Alice (born Bowen) and George Sutherland. In 1901 when George was appointed leader-writer on The Age the family moved to Melbourne, where Margaret lived with her parents, her aunts Jane, Julia and Jessie, and her uncles William and James. Jane was a painter associated with the Heidelberg group, Julia a pianist and Jessie a lieder singer; in this milieu Margaret grew up with the expectation that a woman could pursue an artistic career, but was also aware that it would not be a path of financial ease.

The family's financial situation worsened when George died shortly after Margaret started school at 'Baldur', Kew. Scholarships enabled her to go to the Marshall Hall Conservatorium in Albert St, Melbourne, beginning in 1914. She studied piano with Edward Goll and composition with Fritz Hart. Because of the war and anti-German feeling, Goll (though a Czech) was dismissed but in 1915 he was appointed to the University Conservatorium, where Sutherland followed him.

From 1915-23 Margaret Sutherland studied, performed and taught, taking on Goll's student load as well as her own in 1923 when he went overseas. She left the Conservatorium with a Diploma and enough money to enable her to spend the next two years overseas, hearing concerts and meeting musicians in London, Vienna and Paris, and trying to absorb as much as she could of contemporary European art music. Her childhood desire to compose was still intact despite her disgust with the Conservatorium's archaic teaching methods. Feeling that a private composition teacher was what she needed, she took her music to Arnold Bax in London for comment. He gave her valuable help, although his appraisal of her Sonata for Violin and Piano (1925) seems double-edged: 'This is the best work I know by a woman'. The sonata and several other early works were published by Louise Hanson-Dyer's L'Oiseau Lyre Press in 1935. On her return to Melbourne, her friends organised a concert of her works but Sutherland felt her style was misunderstood. From 1926-48 she was married to Dr Norman Albiston, a psychiatrist. They had two children. During these years Margaret composed when she could, producing mainly chamber and piano works and pieces for her children. She was dogged by an awareness that she was not writing enough, and the knowledge that her husband doubted her sanity as a woman who considered herself a composer.

After 1948 Margaret Sutherland's output of larger-scale works increased, and important orchestral works such as The Haunted Hills, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, the Concerto Grosso and the Outdoor Overture appeared. Her opera, The Young Kabbarli based on the life of Daisy Bates (q.v.) dates from 1965. Her most challenging piano works, Extension, Chiaroscuro I and II, and Voices I and II, were composed in 1967-68, as well as the beautiful Six Australian Songs on poems by Judith Wright. Publication of most of these works did not occur until the 1970s, by J. Albert and Son, Sydney. Her own publishing venture, Kurrajong Press, was not a success and a trip to London in 1951-52 failed to secure publication of her Concerto for String Orchestra (1945). Boosey and Hawkes lost interest on discovering 'M. Sutherland' was a woman. Margaret held that women and men should have equal career opportunities, and maintained that women's creativity was different from but just as valuable as that of men. She was much involved in promoting the arts and as organiser and secretary of the Combined Arts Centre Movement (formed in 1943), she was largely responsible for securing the site of the present Victorian Arts Centre. During the 1939-45 war she organised chamber concerts to benefit the Red Cross, and as a member of the Women of the University Patriotic Fund was involved in the running of a day nursery.

Sutherland's life work was the promotion of art music in Australia, struggling to develop her own style to take account both of her nationality and her time and working tirelessly to bring to the public the music of contemporary Australian composers. Her friends attest both to the commitment and the precise intelligence she brought to her work, and she received public recognition in an honorary DMus (University of Melbourne, 1969) and the OBE (1970). She died in Melbourne on 12 August 1984.

Christina Green

Double Time edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly 1985 ch 43.