Valley of Rocks – Piano music composed and performed by Miriam Hyde

by Mark Isaacs

Label: Wirripang Wirr 085
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

First, I’ll declare some interests. I knew, and adored, Miriam Hyde. She came to my home once, and we often exchanged letters – the old-fashioned way – hers in beautiful handwriting and flowery language; I have treasured them. I was the winner of the first (and only) Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award, and one of my short piano pieces was published in a folio of piano works by various Australian composers intended as a tribute to her, following her death.

Miriam went into the studio and recorded this CD comprising selections from her solo piano works in 1993, which was her 80th year. It has just been re-released, and that is a very good thing indeed.

Miriam was a truly consummate musician.

The decades of High Modernism were not kind to composers of her style, but it is surely time to take off such blinkers. Now that composers once again set out to write boldly lyrical, playful, grand or tender music that has its roots, however extrapolated, in traditional tonal harmony, it would be instructive for them to compare their own craftsmanship and emotional range to that of Miriam Hyde’s.

As to her pianism, its shows absolutely no sign at all of any burred edges that might have been expected given her advanced age at the time of recording. It’s bold and brassy where needed (which is much of the time!) and warm and singing elsewhere (although qualities of lyrical warmth tend not be heightened in her touch albeit written indelibly into her music; pianistically she is more in her element as a pugilist). Her technique carries the assured confidence of the supreme virtuoso – for that she undoubtedly was – and many of her pieces are demanding virtuosic concert works, or otherwise contain passages of such a nature.

The disk proceeds roughly chronologically through her compositions, covering works composed between 1934 and 1987.

In early pieces like Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda, Rhapsody No. 1 in F sharp minor and Concert Study No. 3 in C# minor which were written around the age of 22, one is not surprised to find a highly derivative quality (especially of the composer-pianist Rachmaninov, who was still alive at the time of their writing, and whom Miriam told me she had heard perform in concert on several occasions). However, what is startling in someone so young is the unerring assurance of craft, the powerful compositional facility. Harmony, form, counterpoint, melodic shape and instrumental figuration were completely under her control in a spectacularly accomplished way that was truly precocious for someone who was still an undergraduate student at the time.

In Magpies at Sunrise (a typically bucolic title) written in 1946, one starts to hear a bolder and more experimental harmonic language, with elements of late Impressionism (like early Dutilleux), and of harmonic dissidents like Scriabin. There is even something of the musical ornithology of a Messiaen in its pianistic “bird calls” (Messiaen himself didn’t hear and transcribe the calls of Australian birds until his 1988 visit to Australia). The antic tonal shifts are now more sudden and the scales more unusual, including the Lydian mode with flattened 7th (known in jazz circles as the “Lydian Dominant” mode, a scale featured in the theme from TV’s The Simpsons).

In the virtuosic Brownhill Creek in Spring (1942) one senses perhaps an influence of another pastoral Australian composer, the great Percy Grainger who was 31 years her senior. The Ring of New Bells from this same period features some unusual tintinnabulations achieved by struck chord blocks that evoke the overtones of bells. It was composed to celebrate the acquisition of a set of bells for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, the inner-west Sydney suburb in which Miriam lived.

Unsurprisingly, the Sonata in G minor is the meatiest work on the disk, and we now hear elements of a Hindemithean austerity alongside the warmly lyrical forays, as well as some hints of a Prokoviev-like bitter steeliness. This is a wild and masterly sonata, an imposing and unusual structure and an exhausting but rewarding journey to the depths and heights of human emotion.

The disk concludes with tracks featuring virtuoso fireworks (Scherzo Fantastico and Concert Study No. 3 in G# minor), an Iberian foray (Evening in Cordoba), and some pastoral gems that still brim with mercurial virtuosity (Reflected Reeds, Valley of Rocks and Water Nymph).

This disk contains more than one hour of extremely – sometimes impossibly – difficult piano music performed, at the age of 80, impeccably, energetically and with unfettered élan by the woman who composed it. I am racking my brains to think of anyone on the planet who has done something similar, in any generation. There have of course been a few other 80-year-olds still able to record a disk of solo virtuoso repertoire to perfection, but one consisting entirely of their own compositions? No-one else comes to mind from my travels through the international record catalogues. Performer-composers are an extremely rare breed in classical music in any case, and few manage to maintain both disciplines at a high level even into middle, let alone old, age.

Australia is remarkable, given what we know of the gender strictures of the era, in having produced four highly-lauded female composers whose year of birth was around the time that the nineteenth century became the twentieth. They are Miriam Hyde (born 1913), Dulcie Holland (also 1913), Margaret Sutherland (1897) and Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912). To my mind Miriam Hyde is the very finest of them all, and moreover she easily equalled in her razor-sharp craft that of her male contemporaries like Raymond Hanson (1913) and John Antill (1904). Considering her additional brilliant pianistic accomplishments and her remarkable dedication to music education, Miriam Hyde was surely the most formidable and important Australian composer of her generation.

This article was first published here