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Composer Focus: Margaret Sutherland

Our second March composer is Margaret Sutherland. We performed her Songs for Voice and Clarinet at Wimpole Hall on the 11th March, and look forward to playing more of her work soon. She's also featured on our March playlist, which is available to our patrons on Patreon.

Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984) was an Australian composer of more than 90 works. She was an active pianist and chamber musician, and over half of her output is chamber music. She also composed an opera and ballet, as well as theatre, vocal and orchestral music. Later a student of Edward Goll in Melbourne and Sir Arnold Bax in London, Sutherland began composing while still at school. Her music teacher at the time was the composer Mona McBurney, who Sutherland acknowledged as an important early mentor and role model. She then gained a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Marshall Hall Conservatorium before teaching piano and theory and working as an assistant for her former piano teacher Edward Goll. In 1923, Sutherland moved to Europe to continue her composition studies. She lived in London and Vienna and during this time composed her Sonata for Violin and Piano which Bax described as ‘the best work I know by a woman’. In 1925 she returned to Australia where she continued to compose as well as advocate for the arts and composers. During the Second World War she arranged chamber concerts for the Red Cross. Although she gained prominence as a composer, there were many barriers placed in Sutherland’s way. Her husband, the psychiatrist Norman Arthur Albiston (who she married in 1927 and divorced in 1948) believed that ‘composing music was a sign of mental illness in a woman’ and Boosey and Hawkes refused to publish one of her pieces when learning of her gender. In her book Composing Against the Tide Jeanell Carrigan writes that, despite having been active as a composer for forty five years, Sutherland received her first commission at the age of seventy. Until then, it is estimated that her royalties came to only $160 per year. Her career ended in 1968 following a severe stroke. Sutherland received a number of awards during her lifetime, inducing an OBE and AO in 1981 and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1977. Although she did not complete her final awards for music studies (and remained strongly against exams as a restriction on creativity throughout her life) she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne in 1969. Sutherland had an important impact on musical life in Australia through her composition and advocacy. The Australian Music Centre goes as far as to say as ‘[b]ut for her example, it is is unlikely that Australia would have produced such a proliferation of woman composers’. Scordatura has performed her Songs for Voice and Clarinet and Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Viola and Cello and looks forward to getting to know more of her work in the future.


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