A musical tour back in time

Soprano Nyssa Milligan describes the experience of performing at Elizabeth Bay House in the recent collaboration between Sydney Living Museums (now Museums of History NSW) and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Part of the joy of [historically informed performance] is that you push the audience … We’re trying to take you with us on an imagination tour.

Nyssa Milligan was in her final year of a Bachelor of Music Performance when she joined the Conservatorium’s Historical Performance Unit in the Dowling Project performances at Elizabeth Bay House in October 2016. Nyssa had discovered the world of historically informed performance (HIP) while singing with the Conservatorium’s Early Music Ensemble in her first year of undergraduate studies. It was an experience that set her imagination ‘on fire’:

'You can sit in a practice room with a modern piano and bash these notes out, but then as soon as I heard the sound world that [the Ensemble was] creating with historical instruments and the way they were approaching phrases and notes, it just blew my mind.'

Parlour songs

By exploring musical activity in Sydney in the 1830s and 1840s, including the way music was performed, the Dowling Project presents a radical shift from the traditional focus on the performance of earlier, celebrated composers in a European context:

'The first surprising thing for me was acknowledging that Australia has musical history – which sounds incredibly ignorant. You just assume that history is European. Actually, Australia, because of the nature of our history, is really fascinating when you’re thinking about music.'

Nyssa’s musical choices for the Dowling Project concerts ranged from a Mozart duet to romantic parlour songs and a Scottish folk song arrangement:

'When I got the music I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is lovely little drawing room entertainment, it’ll be a piece of cake’, but then [you begin] to strip back the layers and think, ‘What was Australian society like [at the time]? How did music fit into Australian drawing rooms? How did music play a part in that social sphere … posh environments as opposed to down the pub with the fiddle?’

A sumptuous setting

This sound world of Lilias Dowling, whose songbook and musical annotations provided the core material for the concerts, is given meaning and dimension when performed in a historically appropriate setting:

'When you step into the drawing room [at Elizabeth Bay House] and you see even just the nature of the ornaments on the cabinets and all the frames on the paintings and suddenly the [ornamentation] that Lilias has written into the music makes so much more sense.'

This ornamentation (consisting of handwritten annotations) has been challenging for Nyssa, who had to resist her own instincts in interpreting the songs:

'You have to throw that away – I don’t play a part in this. I’m trying to re-create how she saw this music, to stay true to the project and to stay true to what we’re doing. It’s extending me vocally, to find a way to put these notes in.'

In addition to three ‘genteel’ pieces from the songbook, Nyssa sang ‘Robin Adair’, a song from another contemporary collection, which has a very different flavour:

'It’s a pub song, raucous and fun … But we’re performing this in a drawing room and that raises interesting questions, as maybe it wasn’t that different, maybe it was the song that they got out after they’d been to the cellars and broken into however many barrels of alcohol!'

Nyssa enjoys taking the audience with her on a trip into Sydney’s musical past:

'Part of the joy of HIP is that you push the audience … You really have to use your imagination too, because we’re re-creating, as opposed to creating music that’s going to entertain you as a modern listener. We’re trying to bring you with us on an imagination tour, I suppose.'

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