Inner Song by Jillian Graham

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Inner Song is the life in print of a woman most Australians will never have heard of. This does not make her less worthy of the plaudits that are finally beginning to be attached to her name, but simply describes what happens to those whose head stretches above the pack, if you happen to be Australian. Margaret Sutherland was fortunate to number among her friends the loyal Jillian Graham, who so eloquently tells Margaret’s story. The ABC chose not to do it; leading lights in the community saw no future in acknowledging the work of this outstanding composer; only a friend and a generous publisher record her contribution to culture in our time.

Margaret Sutherland dwelt among us throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Jillian Graham begins her story with a moment of success, soured though that may have been. This was a major step forward for the arts in Victoria in the official opening of Melbourne’s new concert hall, a facility for which Margaret had lobbied for thirty-nine years. Present in the audience that night was Margaret herself, but unfortunately, not her music, and not the music of any Australian female composer. An unwavering spirit was not enough to gather public recognition.

Much more important is the failure of recognition of Margaret’s profound contribution to serious Australian music. This deficit has been rectified to some extent with the publication of Inner Song. The book is a comprehensive account of Margaret’s life: it reveals her family affairs, her deep interest as an innovator in musical composition, the hardheadedness that allowed her to forge her way against the cultural current. The demands of her unfortunate marriage buffeted her progress with head winds at every turn. Margaret lived for music, choral but also the intimacy of chamber music, “her defence of this preference pointing to the historically hierarchical and gendered nature of musical genres” (xv).

Margaret was not a light in the intellectual dark for all. She was a strong character with a sharp intellect, whose persistence at arguing a point was admired by some but hated by others. Her biographer describes her as “a natural leader who commanded respect, …[was] interested in people, compassionate, charming, nurturing, introspective and disarming. Not one to suffer fools, she could be abrasive, but usually in the service of music…Existing in a rarefied atmosphere she surrounded herself with influential men of music as well as high-achieving women, mostly members of Melbourne’s Lyceum Club” (xviii).

Not having met the subject of this biography it would be presumptuous (and dangerous) of me to comment on Margaret Sutherland as she appeared to others. Yet someone who does not suffer fools may not be charming and nurturing, let alone disarming. I do not know the Lyceum Club but, given that Margaret changes her child’s enrolment from one ‘posh’ school to another purely on disaffection with the relative enrolment of her child with another makes me wonder about this list of descriptors. I suspect she may have exhibited (as we all have done) something of these characteristics at some period in a long life. I wonder at their usefulness.

The remaining chapters in the book follow a chronological framework. Their story is well told.

Inner Song


by Jillian Graham

MUP (Miegunyah Press)

ISBN: 978 052287 823 3

$50.00; 306 pp

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