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Dulcie Holland Crescent (Album Liner Notes)

Being a digital release, it's a bit hard to get liner notes out there with the album. Nevertheless, here's some information on my first album: Dulcie Holland Crescent!

Dulcie Sybil Holland AM (1913-2000) is absolutely one of Australia's most underappreciated composers. Today, she is known as an educator and children's composer, and if you speak to anyone around my age who studied music at high school, chances are they remember the name Dulcie Holland - perhaps not fondly, too. That is because we remember her as the author of the Master Your Theory workbooks, not as a composer in her own right.

Dulcie was a talented student. Born in Sydney, she studied at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music (today the Sydney Conservatorium of Music) from 1929 before embarking on studies at the Royal College of Music in London in 1936 where she won many scholarships and awards. Her ambitions were cut short in 1939 by World War II, which forced her to sacrifice her spot at RCM and return to Sydney. Soon after, she married Alan Bellhouse in 1940 and would later have two children.

Though she would have the chance to visit the UK for a year and study composition in 1951, Dulcie basically remained in Sydney for the rest of her life. Working as a freelance performer and composer for close to seven decades, she had an impressive and fruitful career in the community. She received commissions ranging from schools such as Kambala to the Department of the Interior (today the Department for Home Affairs), wrote music for local symphony orchestras, and enjoyed success as Australia's most celebrated music author. But at the end of the day, the piano was where she best flourished.

Dulcie's solo piano works demonstrate both sophisticated craftsmanship and a truly unique voice. There is always great respect for good melody and a willingness to experiment with harmony that sometimes sits in a space between tonal and atonal, functional and non-functional. The writing is colourful and inventive yet maintains a general appeal - a hard balance to strike, in my opinion. Rita Crews OAM describes her style as "less conservative and more appealing than many of her contemporaries." Her arguably most major work, the Sonata for Piano, has been called "undoubtedly a landmark work in the Australian oeuvre" by Larry Sitsky AO.

So if her music is so good, why have we not heard more of it? That is a whole can of worms that I am not prepared to open. Whether it is due to a series of unfortunate events, institutional sexism, family commitments, or that her music simply missed out in the shift to digital media is up for discussion. But today, we can be grateful that her music is being rediscovered in a deserved resurgence that I hope will create a lasting legacy that Dulcie deserves.

Autumn Piece (1947) [world premiere recording]

Written in the earlier stages of her career, Autumn Piece is a gentle and pastoral piece with a lighthearted and spritzy middle. With modal melody and harmony, Autumn Piece is much more akin to the music of early 20th century British composers like Ralph Vaughan-Williams or Edward Elgar. This was quite typical for Australian composers at this time given the fact that Australia as a Western civilisation was still young and finding its identity. Despite being a more conservative work, this is still an effective and appealing piece.

Autumn Piece is one of the unpublished pieces in this project which I transcribed from Dulcie's manuscript. As far as I am aware, this piece was never published, recorded, or performed.

Sonata for Piano (1952)

The Sonata is one of Dulcie's most important and significant pieces in her entire output. This piece was probably written around the time of her studies with Mátyás Seiber in 1951, the following trip back to Sydney, and shortly afterwards. Described by her as "good triumphing over evil" and "a mirror to life, which is full of varying moods," there is a sense of narrative woven throughout the three movements of this work. Full of drama and life, it is complex, clever, and clearly Dulcie's.

The three movements are:

  1. Brooding and Rather Slow - a foreboding opening which establishes a gentle lilt. Afterwards, a more optimistic yet agitated theme emerges. The remainder of the movement is a tug-of-war between the two contrasting moods and culminates in a huge climax that recalls the opening.

  2. Andante - a more tranquil movement with beautiful melodies and harmony that recall Autumn Piece. This calmness is disrupted by a rather violent and agitated climax. The movement ends delicately with tolling bells that fade away.

  3. Vivo - a fast and exciting toccata-like movement featuring a short, folk-like melody. Tension builds through almost-obsessive development of this melody which is finally resolved by a glorious and satisfying finale.

Conversation for Piano (1954) [world premiere recording]

Conversation for Piano is similar in style to the Sonata, being written only a couple years later. Though it is far less elaborate than the Sonata, it is just as technically demanding and complicated. This piece was likely written for the H. Brewster-Jones Competition where it tied for first place.

The two movements are:

  1. Reflective - a flowing and organically-unfolding piece with a slightly livelier middle section that features a rather unexpected, rhythmic climax.

  2. Emphatic - a lively and extremely rhythmic piece that uses the piano more like a percussion instrument. Emphatic has a huge and somewhat-dissonant climax that features some of Dulcie's most difficult piano writing.

Conversation for Piano is one of the unpublished pieces in this project which I transcribed from Dulcie's manuscript. As far as I am aware, this piece was never published, recorded, or performed.

A Scattering of Leaves (1986) [some world premiere recordings]*

Although published in 1986, A Scattering of Leaves is a collection of six pieces which were actually written across more than four decades from 1940 to 1986. These are short and sweet pieces that each have a different mood or character. These pieces show a more lighthearted, humorous side to Dulcie's style as opposed to the serious nature of the works before.

The six pieces are:

  1. The Scattering of the Leaves (1940) - a delicate piece with a repetitive rhythm disturbed by 'gusts of wind,' suggesting images of falling autumn leaves.

  2. Toccatina (1986) [WP rec.]* - a rhythmically relentless and brash piece that is over in the blink of an eye!

  3. Unanswered Question (1980) - a very sombre and serious piece full of unresolved tension and anguish. Possibly influenced by Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question.

  4. Bagatelle for Selma (1981) [WP rec.]* - a whimsical and flamboyant piece written to capture American pianist Selma Epstein's personality, to whom it was dedicated.

  5. The Dry West (1950) [WP rec.]* - a rather bleak piece that features a pervasive bell the whole way through. Influenced by Sidney Nolan's landscape paintings of Central Australia.

  6. Valse Ironic (1942) [WP rec.]* - a sarcastic waltz which is deliberately clunky and incongruent at times. Inspired by Dulcie's time in London prior to the outbreak for World War II, where "everything was tense and life seemed a mockery."

*While I was under the impression that these were the first recordings of these pieces, it turns out Dulcie Holland recorded them herself on a CD released by Southern Cross Records [SCCD 1028] which I only found access to on 6/7/21. The catalogue I used for research mistakenly said only "The Scattering of the Leaves" was recorded (i.e. the first piece only) and not the entire "A Scattering of Leaves" set - easy mistake to make!

Photo by Rowan Davie.

Some thank-yous are in order: firstly to my teacher at the time, Wendy Lorenz. I really appreciate your musicianship and guidance in helping me understand and make my performances of Dulcie's music the best it can be. Secondly, to Craig Greening who recorded and edited these with me - your expertise and skill was so valuable in actually making this happen. Thirdly, to Rita Crews, whose incredibly positive energy helped me with all the nitty-gritty aspects of getting this album off the ground. Lastly, to Rowan Davie, who has done a fantastic job with photos and graphics and put up with my constant nagging and chaotic way of working.

Enjoy Dulcie Holland Crescent.

© Ronan Apcar 2021


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