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"The Australian" Tuesday, October 9th 1984
THE ARTS Edited by Maria Preauer



My First Wife may have won several Australian Film Institute awards but it has a lot to
learn about composers, says DEREK STRAHAN, who is one.

All rights reserved Derek Strahan Copyright (C) 1984

The composer of symphonic music does not have a high profile in Australia. The popular concept of the composer is still based on the 19th-century stereotype - emotionally unstable, prone to illness and premature death. Gifted but socially difficult.

So many have either died young, or become insane or eccentric in their latter years, that it has become customary to regard this type of human being as, nudge-nudge, wink- wink, a nutcase. Of use for the music he writes, but expendable as a human being.

The truth about being a composer is that it is an impossible profession. It is ridiculously labor intensive, especially writing for full orchestra. Many dots have to be painstakingly set down on paper to create a few seconds of sound.

It can take 15 minutes to write one second of music, when scoring for over 30 instruments. 'There are commonly reputed to be 3600 seconds in an hour. That's 900 hours to write down a one hour symphonic work, and that's not counting the time it takes up for such a minor detail as thinking up the music in the first place, and that's not counting copying of parts and checking them, which is a monumental undertaking.

Unlike a painting or a book, music only exists when it is performed. So the composer then has to arrange for his piece to be played. Somewhere along the line he has to try to derive some income from all this frenetic activity.

In most other professions except composing music to do work for inadequate or no payment is regarded as not only stupid, but uncomradely. But the composer of symphonic music, in order to write what he wants to write, to meet his own standards of excellence, has to put in many hours of work without counting the minutes, without thought of overtime. The resulting stress overtaxes the health. This is what ultimately happened to Mozart, Schumann(*) and Mendelssohn. They died of overwork.

It would be helpful if practitioners in other Australian art forms adopted a supportive attitude to the composer. This is not always the case. In the press handout for Paul Cox's latest film, My First Wife, the character played by John Hargreaves is described as "a symphonic composer and broadcaster". He is portrayed as so preoccupied with his life's work that he fails to notice that his wife has stopped loving him.

He has noticed she's turned off sex, but hasn't put one minus one together to make nothing. When his wife admits to having an affair with a younger man and tells him she wants to leave him, he takes it all very badly. Especially as she wants to take their daughter. Giving him unrestricted access but taking her just the same.

Thus far it could be anybody's marriage gone wrong. You can't fault the realism of the dialogue, the acting and the emotional storms portrayed. However, in one very important respect this is an entirely unrealistic film. It presents a portrait of an Australian composer which has no basis in reality. The John Hargreaves character is described in the press handout and presented in the film as a symphonic composer and radio broadcaster. We are not told how he earns his living other than by broadcasting and the composing of symphonic works.

You can take it from me that no composer of symphonic works in Australia could earn enough money from That activity to live in the mansion this character and his family occupied.

You can't even earn subsistence wages composing that kind of music in Australia. The ABC rarely commissions works and when it does the commission fee is in the order of $2000 for $20,000 worth of work. The royalty for performance of a symphonic work by a symphony orchestra in Australia is $50 and as for the music appreciation radio chat show we see this composer doing once a week, he'd he lucky to earn a hundred bucks a pop for that.

No, the Australian community does not support composers of symphonic music, not so that they can live in the style portrayed in My First Wife. The John Hargreaves character would have to be an academic, earning his keep by tutorlng and lecturing, and composing in his spare time for beer money.

But if there was a line to that effect in the dialogue, I missed it, or it was drowned out soundtrack music culled from the works of dead composers and played at a consistently high level throughout. The film's other weakness is that John Hargreaves plays a wimp. We see the composer at rehearsal, where he appears as self-obsessed, self-congratulatory, faintly ridiculous. We hear some of his choral music. We are given to understand that it represents the fulfilment of his highest aspirations. I wasn't surprised, therefore, when the composer resorted to the little bottle of white pills to end it all. It's his wife who drives him to it; it could easily have been his own music.

He is presented as a Russian and I know Russians are afflicted with terminal gloom. Well, that's fine if you're a Russian composer who writes with the epic grandeur of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky or Shostakovich. But not if trivial pieces for the local madrigal society are the pinnacle of your art.

Adding to the composer's trauma, his father is dying as his wife leaves him. The father finally expires, and, in doing so, has the last word on life and on this movie. He says: "The farce is over." My First Wife confronts certain realities about personal relationships, but it does not present the reality of being the composer of symphonic music in Australia. Being deficient in that respect, it does disservice to the cause of symphonic music in Australia.

(*) It might seem something of an oversimplification to have said that Robert Schumann died of overwork, when in fact he died of complications arising from syphilis! He did, however, live a double life as journalist and composer. And he would probably not have contracted syphilis if Clara Wieck's father had not had a freudian fixation his daughter which caused a five year delay in their getting married. I'm not sure whether that circumstance ties in with overwork, but i expect it does ...!

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