Paul Cooke surveys an early Australian symphonist

Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Hubert Clifford’s Symphony 1940 was something of an anomaly among his compositions. While his body of work contains fantasies and rhapsodies, suites and serenades, his symphony is far more ambitious in scope and structure, and more than twice as long as any other of his compositions apart from his String Quartet of 1935, which had a half-hour duration and was described as displaying ‘enviable fluency and assurance’. 

Clifford was born in 1904 into one of the pioneer families of Briagolong in Gippsland, an area later evoked in Dargo: a mountain rhapsody in music reminiscent of E.J. Moeran. In 1924 he graduated from the University of Melbourne with a science degree, but his interest in music was stronger: in 1923 he had taken part in a performance of Arthur Bliss’s Rhapsody conducted by Fritz Hart for the British Music Society. He then studied under Hart at the Melbourne Conservatorium, while taking on conducting duties with the Victorian Opera Company and amateur dramatic societies, composing a number of orchestral works. 

His early compositions were hesitant. In the opinion of the Melbourne Age, Clifford’s A pageant of youth, dedicated to Hart, relied on ‘melodious themes with pleasing orchestral effects, but tuneful music in sectional formation hardly constitutes a concert overture’. Voyage at dusk, similarly, needed continuity and development to give it cohesion. Dargo, however, completed in June 1929 and premiered the following year, was much more favourably received, with the Argus very generous in its praise: not only was the harmonic scheme ‘often original and beautiful’ but ‘…the whole composition bespeaks a love of natural beauty and a real sense of that kinship with nature which has been the mainspring of such of the finest artistic endeavour and achievement.’

It may be that had Clifford remained in Australia he would have built upon his growing reputation. However, on the advice of his teacher Fritz Hart, he travelled to Europe to continue his music studies, studying at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams, so once again he had to establish himself. Clifford spent much of the 1930s at a school in Kent where, under his direction, the school orchestra won first prize five years running in the Queen’s Hall competition. He himself won the Cobbett Prize for ‘an orchestral suite of moderate difficulty suitable for performance by school orchestras’ for a work which became known as A Kentish Suite. With this experience, he was well qualified to write The school orchestra: a comprehensive manual for conductors, which featured Adrian Boult posing for a series of ‘baton-track’ photographs designed to show a would-be conductor how to beat time. 

During this time, he also began work on what would become his magnum opus, a symphony. It was completed in the summer of 1940 in an air raid shelter, and discussed with Vaughan Williams in his air raid shelter as bombs exploded all around. It wasn’t until Australia Day in 1945 that the BBC was able to ‘for the first time broadcast a symphony by an Australian composer’. A year later Symphony 1940 was performed in the Sydney Town Hall, together with other Australian compositions. A review in the Daily Telegraph (admittedly the organisation behind the concert) suggested that “Clifford has absorbed and digested what he has learnt from Vaughan Williams and his other masters, and now concentrated on creating a personal utterance, an entirely original style”. But Clifford’s life was about to take an unexpected turn, into film soundtracks and ‘light music’… 

This article originally appeared in the 2MBS Fine Music Magazine, February Edition