Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (M MUSIC FILE/SPA)

Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (M MUSIC FILE/SPA)

November is AusMusic Month and so today I thought we should look back at some early Australian popular music and one of the early music composers in Sydney. Graeme Skinner at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has been researching the history of music in colonial Australia for many years and he has contributed a range of articles to the Dictionary of Sydney.

Listen to Lisa and Sean on 2SER here 

Music has always been an integral form of community entertainment. Dance music and songs are part of our popular culture today, and the same was true of Sydney in the 19th century and a flourishing music publishing industry brought sheet music into the homes of the upper and middle classes.

An interesting musical family in Sydney were the Spagnolettis. Signor Ernesto Spagnoletti (1804-1862) and his son, also Ernesto Spagnoletti (1837-1871) helped shaped musical life in colonial Sydney.

Originally from Cremona in Italy (home of Italian violin making), Ernesto senior’s father Paolo was a violinist, orchestral leader, and composer who taught violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ernesto senior entered the academy himself in 1825, studying under Henry Bishop and Nicholas Boscha. We’ve previously highlighted the musical career and scandal of Nicholas Boscha and Anna Bishop (wife of Henry).

The Spagnoletti family – Ernesto, his wife Charlotte (also from a musical family) and their six children – migrated to Sydney, arriving in August 1853. Ernesto senior set himself up as a language and musical tutor. He started taking pupils in Italian and English, singing and piano, and was associated with St Stephen’s Church at Newtown and later organist at St John’s, Bishopthorpe. He must have been delighted when his former teacher Nicholas Boscha and fellow-student Anna Bishop turned up in Australia for a tour in 1855-56. Ernesto performed with Anna Bishop in her Sydney concerts in December 1855. Sadly he also presided over the music at Bochsa’s funeral in January 1856.

Ernesto senior composed a number of waltzes and polkas that were published in the 1850s, including the New Bazaar Waltz (1854), The Simla Polka (1857),  The Woolloomooloo Octave Polka (1858), and The Cornstalk Galop (1859).The song Cooey! An Australian Song (1860) had lyrics written by ‘An Australian Lady’, a singer named Jane Messiter, and was performed by his daughter Nina Spagnoletti.  I think my favourite is the song Your Willie has returned dear (1859).

Ernesto junior followed in his father’s footsteps. He too was a professor of music, pianist, vocalist, organist, and composer. The son took a distinctly patriotic approach to his musical compositions, celebrating the developing Sydney suburbs and the lovely ladies therein. With the wonders of digitisation, we can now all learn to play and enjoy The Balmain Polka (1857) – which was “Respectfully dedicated to the ladies of Balmain” – along with the Woolloomooloo Schottische – “respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of Woolloomooloo” – (1858; second edition 1860), The Sydney Schottische – “dedicated to Miss Brown of Balmain” – (1860), The Sydney volunteers polka (1861), and the St.Leonards Schottische (1862), the latter features on the cover of the sheet music a lovely coloured view across the harbour.  Ernesto junior also composed An Australian Christmas Song (1863) which celebrates the sun, birds and flowers. I think all Australians should learn this song:

Courtesy National Library of Australia (MUS N JAF m 786.4052 A938, The Australian Musical Album for 1863, p10)

Courtesy National Library of Australia (MUS N JAF m 786.4052 A938, The Australian Musical Album for 1863, p10)

We welcome thee old Christmas, to this happy land of ours.
We welcome thee with sunshine, We’ll strew thy path with flowers.
Our beatous birds shall greet thee, glad welcome shall they sing.
And wild flow’rs’ fragrance meet thee, borne on the Zephyr’s wing.
We welcome thee old Christmas, To this happy land of ours.
We welcome thee with sunshine, We’ll strew thy path with flow’rs.

We have no wreath of holly, no branch of mistletoe,
but we’ve a bush for Christmas, And smiling lips below.
No fireside cheer we offer, no yule log blazing high
But the sunny smile of heaven beams in our summer sky.
We welcome thee old Christmas,  To this happy land of ours.
We welcome thee with sunshine, We’ll strew thy path with flow’rs.

Ernesto senior died in 1862 and was buried in Camperdown Cemetery, Newtown, beside his former teacher Nicholas Boscha and fellow musician Lewis Lavenu. Ernesto junior died just nine years later, in 1871.

Further reading:

To discover more about music in Sydney, check out our subject listing in the Dictionary of Sydney https://dictionaryofsydney.org/subject/music

You can also look at digitised versions of  Australian historical sheet music in some of our great collections like the State Library of NSW and the National Library of Australia via Trove https://trove.nla.gov.au/general/australian-music-in-trove, 

To find out more about music in Sydney, try Graeme Skinner’s Austral Harmony page at the University of Sydney: http://sydney.edu.au/paradisec/australharmony/ and Heather Clarke’s work on Colonial Australian Dance http://www.colonialdance.com.au/

Sydney Living Museums also have a fantastic long running research project into the soundscapes of colonial Sydney and Australian colonial music, and have even made some recordings of performances, which you can catch up on here: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/music

Happy AusMusic Month!

Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa!  You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio

Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Sean here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

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