Theme Music

Written by Julja Szuster, University of Adelaide

Since Federation, Australian women have been prominent in many areas of music, including performance, composition, education, research (musicology), writing, criticism and music publishing. This entry aims to assess the extent to which they demonstrated leadership and how much effect they have had on the development of music in Australia overall.

Leadership in music can be demonstrated in at least two distinct ways: trailblazing and activism. The first is demonstrated by those who consciously, or unconsciously, act as exemplars and show others what is possible. The second is demonstrated by those who support the works of others (as well as their own) through activities that include: (i) the establishment of organisations that promote music; (ii) working within such organisations; (iii) presenting performances of their music; (iv) recording the music; and (v) arranging for its publication. The trailblazers and activists in music work to enhance the efforts of others, over and above their own, and as a consequence enable their followers to explore new ground. Leadership in music is, as it is with other creative endeavours, more than individual achievement.

It is hard to imagine a society in which the level of composition of classical music is not highly correlated with the level of general classical music activity. The number of notated classical Australian compositions written since Federation is well documented, and growth in this number over that time period will therefore be taken as an indicator of the level of general classical music activity in Australia during the past century Of particular interest here is the notable increase in the number and compass of compositions by women since the nation's birth. This growth is in large measure due to the efforts of the female leaders whose contribution is discussed here.

Women Composers

It has been estimated that, by the end of the nineteenth century, women accounted for 20 per cent of the total number of Australian composers (Selleck). They were mostly writers of popular songs and light salon music intended for domestic use and sold as sheet music. The composition of more complex music for larger and more varied ensembles was almost entirely undertaken by men.

The years 1900-1988 saw a growth in the number of women composers of classical music and their works from (virtually) nothing to 15 per cent of the total number of Australian composers (Appleby, 164). But, by 2012, that figure, according to the Australian Music Centre (the repository of original works by Australian composers), had grown to 25 per cent. The dramatic increase was the result of the activism of key women composers, musicologists and music educators, who actively engaged as leaders from the years following the first wave of feminism at the start of the twentieth century. These women exercised leadership by actively promoting Australian music in general, and women's music in particular, in an environment where music that was both Eurocentric and male-dominated prevailed.

After Federation

In Melbourne, in the early years of the twentieth century, composer George W. Marshall-Hall allowed female students into his composition classes and encouraged them to write serious music designed for larger and more varied ensembles than those for which they had previously written. Fritz Hart, his successor as director of the Albert Street Conservatorium, continued the practice and in his time taught a great many women. As a consequence, other music schools began admitting female students and the barriers to the training of women composers began to fall. The best known women fortunate enough to have been educated by these two far-sighted men include Mona McBurney (1862-1932), Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984), Linda Phillips (1899-2002), Esther Rofe (1904-2000), Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990) and Phyllis Batchelor (1915-1999). Sutherland and Glanville-Hicks are probably the most prominent pioneering women composers to graduate from that institution.

The Pioneers: Sutherland and Glanville-Hicks

Sutherland and Glanville-Hicks enjoyed long careers and produced substantial bodies of work that mark them as important Australian composers. Both were also active in organising concerts of new music, promoting the music of their fellow composers and acting as role models for male and female composers: Glanville-Hicks in the more competitive New York environment and Sutherland in the Melbourne community, which was largely uninterested in new music. They each produced a formidable body of work but on very different trajectories, and so it is instructive to consider their stories in parallel.

Both women grew up in Melbourne but they received their musical training some thirteen years apart: Sutherland as a pianist and composer, and Glanville-Hicks as a composer. They followed the normal practice of Australian musicians at the time and went to London and Europe for further study. From 1923 to 1925, Sutherland studied composition with Arnold Bax in London. Glanville-Hicks studied with Vaughan Williams in London, Egon Wellesz in Vienna and Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the years 1932-1937.

Sutherland returned to Melbourne in 1925, married and had two children, and remained mostly in Australia for the rest of her life. Her creative output was hampered, following her return to Australia, not only by child rearing but also by her long marriage to a husband who was hostile to her composing. Glanville-Hicks, on the other hand, remained overseas for her entire composing career: in New York from 1941 to 1959, then in Greece until 1975. She returned to live in Sydney after she lost the will to compose as a consequence of surgery for a brain tumour. She died in 1990.

Both women composed in a wide range of musical genres, even including the challenging form of opera. From 1935, and especially after her divorce in 1949, Sutherland wrote a total of 144 works. Glanville-Hicks wrote seventy-six works, three of which are major operas. Her forthright views on new music gained exposure through her writing. She was highly regarded as a critic for the New York Herald Tribune (from 1947 to 1955) and as a writer on contemporary American composers. Her own music was considered to be at the forefront of US avant-garde music of the 1950s.

Both women championed new music in their respective environments. Sutherland supported new music in Australia, and Australian new music in England, during a visit to London in 1951 and 1952. By contrast, Glanville-Hicks was a strong advocate for new American music, especially during her seventeen years in New York. Both women's advocacy is evident from what they did as members of key arts and music associations, their organisation of concerts and their promotion of the work of individual composers.

Sutherland was a key driver from within the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) for the initiation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's first Prom Concerts in Melbourne. She was also an important member of the Australian Music Advisory Committee for UNESCO. Sutherland was a founding member of the Council of the National Gallery Society, and used her status as a councillor to persuade the government of Victoria to dedicate a site in the city for what later became the Victorian Arts Centre (Symons,

In New York, Glanville-Hicks was an active member of the League of Composers and, among other things, wrote many articles for the American Composers Alliance's Bulletin while on its board. After World War II, she co-founded, with Carleton Sprague Smith, the International Music Fund of UNESCO, which assisted the post-war establishment of European artists in the US.

The organisation of concerts of new music was a priority for both women. Sutherland's first concert presentations were lunch-hour recitals in aid of the Red Cross during World War II. She later ran concerts for the National Gallery and CEMA and, in the 1950s, founded the Camerata Society, an organisation dedicated to the presentation of new music in Melbourne. Its concerts were to have a significant impact on the younger generation of musicians and composers. The Camerata Society was the precursor of the Melbourne branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), founded by James Murdoch in 1966.

Similarly, Glanville-Hicks invested considerable time and energy into presenting concerts of new music during her years in New York. From 1951 to 1961, while employed as manager of the New York Composers' Forum, she presented about seven concerts of music by contemporary American composers each year. But, as a volunteer, she also created many opportunities: concerts of new music in Central Park with the League of Composers in 1943-1944; concerts of new music, with its celebrated Junior Committee, in the auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art; a series of concerts of Indian music during 1955 arranged with her friend, Yehudi Menuhin.

In addition to these affiliations and initiatives, both women were notable for supporting individual musicians and fellow composers. While in London in the early 1950s, Sutherland assisted Don Banks in establishing the Australian Musical Association, an organisation dedicated to supporting Australian musicians wishing to work in England, and promoting original Australian music to English audiences. Back in Australia, Sutherland also helped composers by establishing the music publisher, Kurrajong Press.

Glanville-Hicks was closely associated with the foremost American so-called exotic composers of the 1950s: Paul Bowles (1910-1999), Lou Harrison (1917-2003), Colin McPhee (1900-1964), Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), John Cage (1912-1992) and Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). She made considerable efforts to support them by arranging concerts and recordings, and promoting their work through her writing. However, in her most generous act of support for composers, she bequeathed her house in Paddington, Sydney, as a place where Australian composers could undertake artistic residencies (Robinson,

Throughout her creative life, Sutherland found Australian society to be very conservative and resistant to new music (Symons, 1997, 15). There were never-ending obstacles to her efforts to support others, not to mention having her own works recognised and performed. The situation was no less demanding for Glanville-Hicks. She struggled financially and often remarked that she found it hard being a woman in a very male-dominated field, even though she was a major musical figure in what, in the 1950s, had become one of the artistic centres of the world (Rogers, 248). Nevertheless, she successfully supported the music of others, in addition to promoting her own work, through her writing and reviewing and the organising of concerts.

In spite of the poor health that Sutherland and Glanville-Hicks suffered through their most productive years, they were exemplars for their own and subsequent generations of composers. Interestingly, they had very different attitudes to what the needs of women in composition were: Sutherland was an active supporter of women composers, whereas Glanville-Hicks was not. Glanville-Hicks prided herself on having succeeded as an equal to her fellow male composers and felt that women composers needed no special pleading (Robinson, 1996, 460).

Another Pioneer: Miriam Hyde

Miriam Hyde (1913-2005) was born and educated in Adelaide. She studied composition in England from 1932 to 1935 with Gordon Jacobs and R.O. Morris. She is best known as a composer of graded solo examination pieces for the Australian Music Examinations Board, along with Dulcie Holland (1913-2000). Her efforts to have examination pieces written by Australian composers distinguish her as one of the pioneers of Australian music, but she also composed a number of much larger scale and more complex works. In addition, she was an early activist and advocate for Australian music. In 1940, she pressed for an Australian version of the Patron's Fund scheme run at the Royal College of Music, London, which paid for the works of emerging composers to be workshopped by professional orchestras. This led to the formation of the Fellowship of Australian Composers, originally known as the Australian Composers' Guild (Hyde, 100).

Second-wave Feminism

Second-wave feminism is usually considered to have begun in the early 1960s, though its organisational forms in Australia date from the early 1970s.

In the field of music, the 1960s in Australia saw a significant increase in the number of women being trained as composers, partly as a consequence of the newly emerging feminist values. The belief shown by George Marshall-Hall and Fritz Hart back in the early years of the twentieth century that women could be significant composers provided they received the same training as their male counterparts was now becoming more widely shared. One of the most notable women composers to emerge in the 1960s was Melbourne-based Helen Gifford (b. 1935). She was a close friend of Margaret Sutherland, and followed her mentor by her involvement with ISCM concerts in Melbourne. Gifford continued supporting Australian composers by serving as chair of the Composers Guild of Australia in 1976-1978, after ill-health prevented Sutherland's continued involvement.

Other beneficiaries of second-wave feminism who received their Australian tertiary training in composition during that period include Alison Bauld (b. 1944), Ann Carr-Boyd (b. 1938) and Anne Boyd (b. 1946), and the New Zealanders, Gillian Whitehead (b. 1941) and Sarah De Jong (b. 1952).

Just as the tertiary institutions had opened up early in the century to women as students, now the academies, in their turn, began to admit women to their staff. Both Anne Boyd and Alison Bauld secured tertiary teaching positions in the United Kingdom after graduating with higher degrees from the University of York: Anne Boyd was appointed to a lectureship in music at the University of Sussex in 1972; and Alison Bauld was appointed the musical director of the Laban Centre for dance in London in 1975. She served there until 1978, when she was appointed composer in residence at the NSW Conservatorium. In 1980, Anne Boyd was appointed head of music at Hong Kong University and, ten years later she, became the first Australian and the first women to be appointed professor of music at the University of Sydney. Gillian Whitehead taught composition at the Sydney Conservatorium from 1981 until her retirement in 1996.

Throughout the 1980s, Ann Carr-Boyd was a key figure in the support and promotion of the work of women composers in Australia, through her research and writing, broadcasts and recording work.

Composers Mary Mageau (b. 1934 in the US, but emigrated to Australia in 1974), Moya Henderson (b. 1941) and Sarah Hopkins (b. 1958) came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, but their impact was to be felt much more strongly during the more recent period of feminism, sometimes referred to as the third wave and explicitly embracing diversity.

Betty Beath (b. 1932), sometime head of music at St Margaret's Girls' School, Brisbane, and teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium, became known internationally for her activism in the promotion of the work of women composers. In 1984, she represented Australia in Mexico at the third International Congress of Women in Music and, in the late 1980s, she was elected to the executive board of the International League of Woman Composers.

Third-wave Feminism

The third wave of feminism is usually considered to have begun in the 1990s. The imbalance between the number of female and male composers in Australia became a topic of concern at this time, and a conscious effort was begun to redress that disproportion. Despite the increased visibility of women composers, especially in the training institutions, the number of works by women composers performed and recorded in Australia, let alone internationally, was still small when compared to the works of their male counterparts.

There were two important affirmative action initiatives spearheaded by individual women composers and academics that aimed to improve the situation. The first was the establishment of a network of women composers focused on pressing the case for women's music, and the second was the organisation of regular festivals of women's compositions. Their methods drew on the strategies of third-wave feminism.

In 1990, Mary Mageau established the Composing Women's Network, which, at first, limited its energies to challenging the lack of ABC commissioning of compositions by women but, later, as it drew strength from its successes, broadened its scope. It was mainly an advocacy group for and of women composers and sought to draw attention to them and their works and to eliminate the many barriers preventing the performance, recording, publishing and commissioning of work by women. By the end of the decade, most of those barriers were no longer felt to be so daunting.

The Composing Women's Festivals provided opportunities to focus solely on the music written by women, past and present. They drew attention to works that, under normal circumstances, failed to get a hearing. Conferences were incorporated into the festivals and many of the conference talks and discussions were broadcast and published.

The first Composing Women's Festival, initiated by the American-born composer, Becky Llewellyn (b. 1950), was held in Adelaide in 1991. The concept was so productive that a second was held in Melbourne in 1994, a third in Sydney in 1997 and a fourth in Canberra in 2001. At these gatherings, the works of the older generations of Australian women composers were performed and celebrated. This encouraged some of these older women to resume composing. After the fourth and last Composing Women's Festival, the Composing Women's Network ceased operation.

2000 and Beyond

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the works of composers have been considered, and commissions and grants awarded, much more on merit than according to the gender of the composer. A growing number of composers, such as Elena Kats-Chernin (b. 1959), Mary Finsterer (b. 1962), and sound artists Ros Bandt (b. 1951) and Sarah Hopkins, have been able to earn an independent living from composing. A small number of women have been employed teaching composition full time in the tertiary sector: Liza Lim (b. 1966) at the University of Huddersfield, Maria Grenfell (b. 1969) at the University of Tasmania and Cat Hope (b. 1959) at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. These women have become role models for the next generation of female composers.

There is yet another cohort of freelance composing women working in community music. These women have been among the most vocal advocates for the greater representation and acknowledgement of women composers.


There is a group of female musicologists who, through their research, writing and public advocacy, actively supported the cause of composing women. Melbourne academics Thérèse Radic and Kay Dreyfus have, since the 1970s, been at the forefront of this group in supporting the affirmative action strategies for women composers. They have also drawn attention to the importance of the women composers of previous generations by thoroughly researching their work.

The feminist musicologist, Sally Macarthur, has been instrumental not only in supporting the work of contemporary Australian women composers but also in writing and interpreting the work from a feminist perspective. Her prolific publishing activity has generated wider appreciation for the work of women such as Anne Boyd and Moya Henderson. Feminist musicologists Ruth Martin and Linda Kouvaras have also been active in promoting music by Australian women.


It is safe to conclude that the leadership exercised by a significant number of women composers and researchers since Federation has been one of the main factors responsible for the marked increase in the number of women composers and their works in Australia and for drawing attention to the existence of composing women.

Since the 1980s, Australia has compared well with the rest of the world in its growing number of women composers (Appleby, 163). The diversity of the genres in which they write is a reflection of the growing freedom that they enjoy. But the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, numerical parity with the number of male composers, which was the aim of the affirmative action initiatives of the 1990s, was yet to be reached. And there remain too few performances of new Australian music by composers of either sex. The challenge for the new generations of women leading in music is to ensure that work generated by Australian composers, both male and female, is much more widely heard.

Published Resources


  • Appleby, Rosalind, Women of Note: The Rise of Australian Women Composers, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2012. Details
  • Hayes, Deborah, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, United States of America, 1990. Details
  • Hyde, Miriam, Complete Accord, Currency Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1991. Details
  • Murdoch, James, Australia's Contemporary Composers, Sun Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1972. Details
  • Murdoch, James, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A Transposed Life, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, New York, United States of America, 2002. Details
  • Rogers, Victoria, The Music of Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Ashgate, Farnham, United Kingdom, 2009. Details
  • Symons, David, The Music of Margaret Sutherland, Currency Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. Details

Book Sections

  • Robinson, Suzanne, 'Peggy Glanville-Hicks and the Female Affiliation Complex', in Brenton Broadstock (ed.), Aflame with Music: 100 Years of Music at the University of Melbourne, The University of Melbourne: Centre for the Studies of Australian Music, Melbourne, Victoria, 1996. Details


  • Selleck, Joanna, 'Notions of Identity: A Socio-Cultural Interpretation of Music in Melbourne 1880-1902', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2007. Details

Online Resources