Radical Objects

Radical Object: Programme of the Evenings Musical Performances at Warrawang

At first glance, the beautiful, hand-written ‘Programme of the Evenings Musical Performances at Warrawang’ may not seem particularly radical. A unique item, it was clearly created by an enthusiastic amateur musician rather than a professional. It is undated, so it is unclear if multiple performances took place, or if it was a one-off event. There is also an eclectic mix of pieces that reference different European countries and musical styles including ‘A Spanish Air’, ‘The German Waltz’, ‘A French March, ‘The King of Prussia’s March’, and several Scots tunes including ‘The Birks of Invermay’.

There is no indication the creator of the programme intended it as a radical object, and yet it illustrates the harsh realities of emigration and colonisation in the nineteenth century. The settlers were not coming to Australia to assimilate into the existing culture, or even to learn from the Indigenous Australians who had lived on and maintained the land for generations. The programme exemplifies the mindset of these early nineteenth-century settlers, who assumed they needed to import their beliefs and culture including dance and music, and even ideas about farming and industry. As such, they contributed to colonisation that assumed the culture and knowledge of those who came before was irrelevant.

‘Programme of the evenings [sic] musical performances at Warrawang’, Murray family, after 1844, State Library of New South Wales. Photo taken by the author
The programme is part of ‘The Murray Family Collection’, an archive of diaries, letters, sheet music, and memorabilia housed at the State Library of New South Wales. The Murrays were a nineteenth-century immigrant, middling family who travelled 10,000 miles from their home in Scotland to New South Wales, Australia. Music was a hugely important part of the family’s day-to-day life, and within the collection, one can still find the sheet music that matches the titles listed in the programme. Indeed, it is possible the programme showcased the family’s favourite pieces. In 1843, James Murray (1798-1856), his wife Wilhelmina (1799-1879), and their ten children embarked on a treacherous journey across the sea to the newly established colonies in New South Wales, Australia. James, whose father was Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Murray of the East India Company, had emigrated once before, moving from his place of birth Kerala, India to Georgefield, Langholm in Scotland shortly after his mother, Contity, a Malayali woman, died in 1799.

It is unlikely James remembered much of India, since he was only a small child when he moved to Scotland, though the family became known as the ‘Black Murrays’ owing to their darker skin colour. Looking at the family archives there is little evidence that James acknowledged his mixed-race heritage. Instead, he raised his family to appreciate Scottish music and culture. It is likely that this is the reason why so many Scottish dances and tunes are included in their programme.

There is no indication the Murrays were forced to leave Scotland, and their move pre-dated The Emigration Act of 1851, which made emigration generally more accessible, particularly for those Highlanders who were evicted from their land. In fact, like many other Scottish families, the Murrays chose to emigrate to Australia, where there were new opportunities for prosperity. Scottish immigrants had been freely settling in New South Wales since the first fleet arrived in 1788 and by 1830 approximately 15% of the colonies’ total population were Scots.

The promise of new lands may have enticed Scottish families to travel to these newly established colonies, but the journey was long and not everyone survived it. For many, including the Murrays, this meant saying goodbye to their home and family in Scotland forever. Recently, immigrants across the globe have felt the pangs of separation, since the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many from travelling to see their families. At least many families can quickly connect by picking up the phone or making a video call. For the Murrays, letters were the only link they had with their family in Scotland, and even then, they had to wait for weeks or even months before receiving them.

The Murrays arrived safely in Australia and after porting in Sydney, they travelled through Parramatta, over the Blue Mountains arriving at their settlement, named Warrawang (likely named after the neighbouring mountain), near the village of Lithgow. They even brought their Broadwood piano with them from Scotland. Far from home and with few conveniences nearby, the Murrays needed to set up a new farm and build a new house. The Walker family, who had similarly emigrated from Scotland to New South Wales lived nearby, and several of the Murray children even lived with the Walkers while James built their new home. The two families spent some time together and shared their love of music. In his diary, James commented that he copied music for Alison, one of the Walker daughters. James also shared his love of music with William Maxwell, who spent a lot of time at the Warrawang homestead, and James frequently noted down when Maxwell was copying music:

A fine day[.] Mr. Maxwell was copying music[.] I was howing weeds among the Rasps[.] James and George were getting fire wood and wheeling dung into the garden fine night (19 December 1849).

A dull day with a little thunder and a little rain[.] Mr Maxwell was copying music[.] I was working on the map a dull night (20 December 1849).

His concise entries are a glimpse into life on the homestead. Working on the land was hard and dirty. James and his fellow workers quickly cleared the land to make room for sheep and cattle grazing. Georgefield was a sheep farm, and James likely assumed he could simply import what he knew from his life in Scotland, without realising those methods were not appropriate to the Australian climate, nor that there was a system of land management already in place. Vast areas of existing Australian vegetation and landscape were destroyed by settlers like James; an issue that remains contentious today. In stark contrast was the act of copying music, a genteel activity that provided refuge from the daily grind. Indeed, music helped the Murray family forge important connections with Maxwell, the Walkers, and their new home. Maxwell’s copy books, which are filled with neatly written out Scottish tunes, minuets and quadrilles for the violin is part of The Murray Collection. It is likely Maxwell penned the ‘Programme of the Evenings Musical Performances at Warrawang’ since the script matches his copy book.

The family enjoyed dancing and playing quadrilles, a fashionable nineteenth-century dance performed all over Europe, and even composed their own, titling it ‘The Warrawang Quadrilles’. Its composition isn’t particularly sophisticated, and its composer is unclear, but the existence of the Warrawang Quadrilles perfectly illustrates The Murrays’ position: they were immigrant Scots who used their interests and skills to forge a new identity as Australians. The fact that ‘The Warrawang Quadrilles’ are also listed in the ‘Programme…’ is further evidence that musically representing their new home was important in establishing a sense of belonging.

Front cover, ‘The Warrawang Quadrilles’, Murray family, after 1844, State Library of New South Wales. Photo taken by the author.

Yet, other than naming these quadrilles after the family homestead, both it and all the other music listed in the ‘Programme…’ are entirely European in style. The Murrays had travelled thousands of miles to a new and radically unfamiliar landscape and yet, they were determined to maintain what was familiar to them: their European heritage. The new piano, purchased in Scotland may have provided a comforting link to their Scottish home, but that they dragged it over difficult terrain to their new Australian homestead demonstrates a particular resistance to change and a naïve sense that they could reforge much of their old life in a new location.

Illustration by Tyiesha McMurray

The Murrays were not the only colonists to bring sheet music and instruments with them. Thousands of pages of nineteenth-century, European-styled printed sheet music is present in Australian libraries and archives, some of which was brought to Australia by the first colonisers. Even the first music printed in Australia was for voice and piano. Music that utilised this kind of instrumental arrangement was intended for privileged families who had enough money to learn how to read and play music in their home. Indeed, the Murrays directly contributed to the Euro-styled music industry established in nineteenth-century Australia since they were the type of family for whom these publications were designed.

Some people in Britain were aware that Indigenous Australians composed and performed music. In 1793, ‘A Song of the Natives of New South Wales’ was published in London, having been performed by two Indigenous Australian men, named Bennelong (c. 1764-1813) and Yemmerrawanne (c. 1774-1806), who had travelled to London from Wangal on the south bank of the Parramatta River in Sydney. During their performance the song was transcribed; however, the published version was forced to conform to the standards of Western classical music notation, which likely would have struggled to capture musical nuances heard in live performance. Undoubtedly, the score did not represent what was performed though it likely ingrained the idea that music of Indigenous Australians was ‘primitive.’ Regardless, the Murrays, if they knew about Indigenous Australian music at all, likely assumed it was unsophisticated and unsuitable. James Murray’s sons, George and John, would later become members of the paramilitary ‘Native Police Force’, responsible for ‘defending’ and extending the Australian frontier, including via revenge attacks on Aboriginal communities.

Illustration by Georgia Brown (instagram @chestnutgee)

In moving to New South Wales, the Murray family radically changed their environment and their identity. A familiar creative endeavour, the Murrays likely did not realise that the ‘Programme of the Evenings Musical Performances at Warrawang’ was, and is, a radical object. Music helped immigrants establish a sense of belonging in a land far from the one they grew up in, but music also radically shifted the culture and land of Australia into a place that was recognisably European. Such staunch thinking blindly assumed that European culture was superior to all others and pushed aside the existing culture that thrived long before the colonists arrived.

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