This account is intended to give a bird’s eye view of the classical music sector in Australia. More detail is provided for particular activities in other Knowledge Base entries – e.g. for orchestras, opera companies, early music.
Classical Music in Schools
While the school music curriculum traditionally taught classical music, increasingly it has moved to meet the musical interests of the school students – i.e. towards popular music. As a general rule, classical music is found in those schools where students are more likely to have been introduced to classical music already in the home – generally, the homes of the middle and upper classes. While it is good that school music programs should take advantage of students’ musical passion, it is regrettable that many will not have an opportunity to experience classical music in those years when an understanding of the world can be broadened beyond domestic and other circumstances.
There are classical ensembles that visit schools and offer performances and workshops. In some state systems, this activity is organised or at least vetted by the education departments. Individual groups offer services, but there are organisations such as Musica Viva Australia and The Song Room that offer state- or nation-wide services. The main orchestras and opera companies also offer what are often quite elaborate programs.
Instrumental and Vocal Instruction
The main opportunity for instrumental and vocal instruction is offered by the private studio music teachers. Some school systems and many independent schools offer such instruction, sometimes subsidised, but in the public schools, to only a minority of students. Studio music teachers make up the largest occupational group within the music sector (see employment statistics in the statistics section). They teach people of all ages, but predominantly, children of school age. There are also music schools that offer instruction: the regional conservatoria in NSW and a scattering of small private schools, some associated with music stores.
The core offering of university music schools and conservatoria is usually classical music, although there is increasing diversification and specialisation, and students with aspirations to be classical performers generally would seek to attend particular institutions based mainly in the capital cities. Tertiary music instruction is also available from TAFE colleges, although usually in musical genres other than classical music.
In 2014, these are the main tertiary institutions offering classical music.
- Academy of Music and Performing Arts
- Australian Institute of Music (Sydney)
- Australian National University
- Elder Conservatorium, University of Adelaide
- Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne,
- Monash University
- Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University
- Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney
- University of New England
- University of New South Wales
- University of Queensland
- University of Tasmania
- University of Western Australia
- West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University
There is a quite effective system of community-based youth orchestras in Australia, training young people for the conservatoria and the professional orchestras.
The camp with the longest history and highest prestige is the National Music Camp, organised by the Australian Youth Orchestra. This is based around symphonic performance but includes chamber music and other offshoots such as critical writing. Gondwana Voices , the national children’s choir, organises national camps and is expanding its reach. There are other camps.
Australia has had active classical music composers since the mid-19C. What might be called the modern era is a post-World War 2 phenomenon which gathered pace in the 1960s. With the advent of government funding of music, funded music organisations were pressured to perform Australian works and given the limitations on funding and the financial risks involved, there has been reasonably good support – support that might make the Americans envious and the Europeans sympathetic.
Since contemporary classical music is not a money-earner, both the composers and the performers are strongly dependent upon government subsidies. Most of the performances are offered by small ensembles; some are mainstream repertoire ensembles that include occasional contemporary works and others are specialist new music ensembles (see the relevant section under Performance, below). The symphony orchestras give very modest support. New operatic works are infrequent and there is no orderly program to give composers experience in writing for the stage although State Opera of South Australia appears ready to initiate one. The Song Company must have commissioned much of the world’s new music repertoire for a cappella ensemble. There have occasionally been small music theatre companies devoted to the presentation of new works. Chamber Made Opera in Melbourne and the Sydney Chamber Opera are the best known and most persistent at this time. IHOS Opera in Tasmania is also a survivor, presenting works by its director, Con Koukias.
The Australian Music Centre in Sydney was established as a resource centre for works by Australian composers. Good collections can also be found in some state and university libraries.
As in any country, Western classical music in Australia sits on a basic platform of orchestral activity. Orchestras are the main, reliable source of employment for classical performers, the attraction that sustains the audience base, and the main justification for the classical conservatorium system.
There are ten fully professional year-round orchestras in Australia and a number of excellent part time professional orchestras and a few pro-am orchestras with regular seasons. In addition, there are youth and community orchestras presenting concerts around the country. For details of the structure of the orchestral sector, go to the Orchestras section in the Knowledge Base.
There are national and state government funded opera companies in the five mainland state capital cities. Opera companies share in the role of the orchestras in sustaining classical music, and they are the main source of employment for classical singers. Because of the ratio of opera employees to audience numbers and the costs of opera productions, opera is very expensive to produce and needs high subsidies. This need for subsidy tends to cap the amount of opera activity. In addition to the main established state companies, there are some small companies that present one or a few productions per year in opera or music theatre and some small touring companies. For more details, go to the Opera section of the Knowledge Base.
Choral music in Australia is predominantly an amateur activity, which is to say that the singers are unpaid. This should not be taken to imply that the standards of performance are only at an amateur level; the main choirs in the large cities are of high standard. In the last decade, there has been some movement towards professionalisation. The small choir, Cantillation, in Sydney is professional and it would be fair to say that this shows in the quality of its performances. The main orchestras sometimes pay choral performers, presumably to guarantee a higher standard of performance.
There are children’s choirs in the large cities, some of very high standard. Gondwana Voices is the national children’s choir and is astonishing. Some of the children’s choirs have been very active in commissioning Australian repertoire.
The Australian National Choral Association can provide a directory of choirs.
Since chamber music, as compared to orchestras, is such a small scale activity, there is plenty of scope for spontaneous action. But at the most organised level, Musica Viva Australia is a national presenting and touring organisation with a national network of local branches. There is no comparable organisation on this scale. Performances are presented also at the classical conservatoria, by some performing arts centres or concert halls on a self-entrepreneured basis, by orchestras as an additional activity for their own members. A number of ensembles have a sufficiently assured existence that they offer their own self-presented concert series, among them the Australia Ensemble, Australian String Quartet, Goldner String Quartet, The Song Company, Haydn Ensemble, Selby and Friends and a number of new music ensembles.
The early music directory on this website gives a list of some practitioners. Also on the Knowledge Base is a short history of early music in Australia. Early music has its strong supporters in Australia although it could be said that the early music scene is not as strong as the classical mainstream. We probably are in a period where early music practices have been adopted into the mainstream; meanwhile, the early music ethos is extended to some extent well into the 19C. The need for separate early music advocacy associations weakens. Among significant self-presenting organisations are the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra , The Song Company, Pinchgut Opera, Adelaide Baroque, The Marais Project, Salut! Baroque and many more.
The phrase ‘new music’ is used in this context to mean music written in styles popular (if that is the word) among classical composers over the last century, and sometimes indicates music written by living classical composers even though the style may not really be new, even for a hundred years ago. The new music performing ensembles, of which there is quite a number, mainly concentrate on Australian works. There is a lack of new music entrepreneurs in Australia – it would be a very difficult call financially – and most groups most of the time are self-presenting. There is in Sydney the New Music Network, with a membership of about 25 (in 2014) new music ensembles whose appearances it publicises in an online calendar. The only substantial new music entrepreneur in the country is Tura New Music in Perth, which presents concerts, tours of outback WA and the biennial Totally Huge New Music Festival.
There is an entry on computer music in the Knowledge Base. Some computer music might be regarded as sharing in the classical music ethos or as fitting an art music category.
Almost all the major capital city festivals include classical music, often experimental music. There are small music festivals in which classical music is dominant, many of them in smaller regional centres such as Townsville, Bermagui, Mudgee, Barossa and Clare Valleys and so on. There is a fairly comprehensive festival directory on this site.
The two best known high level international competitions are the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and the Sydney International Piano Competition. Probably the most prestigious domestic competition is the ABC’s Young Performer Awards. There is a rather surprisingly small number of national competitions for instrumentalists but a larger number for opera singers. The competitions for young opera singers are all the more important because given the lack of opportunities to perform, the competitions offer some of the few chances to present to a large audience. Some also offer international opportunities. The Music Trust organises the annual Freedman Classical Fellowship competition.
There are many classical music awards in the eisteddfod competitions in the big cities and regional centres, most of them at a more modest level although the Sydney Eisteddfod, for instance, includes the McDonald’s Aria, probably the most prestigious award for singers in the country.
The large cities have large concert halls and some have purpose-built chamber music halls. The conservatoria all have purpose-designed performance halls. A large number of regional centres have performing arts centres although often the performing space is multi-purpose, often meaning that the acoustic is too dry for classical music. There is an association of these formal venues. Much small ensemble music is of course presented in buildings designed for other purposes – e.g. churches. You need local knowledge to find these places. Numerically, probably the largest category of venues is hotels, clubs and restaurants but classical music would rarely be heard.
The largest Australian producer of classical recordings is ABC Classics, a non-subsidised venture of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). ABC Classics concentrates its efforts on recordings of Australian performers and Australian musical works and some of its commercial successes subsidise the production of, for instance, recordings of contemporary classical repertoire. Since in each state capital there is a symphony orchestra that was until very recently owned by the ABC, there is a strong link between those orchestras and ABC Classics. Consequently, there are orchestral series such as the current series with the Tasmanian Symphony with performances of works by key Australian composers. However, some orchestras such as the Sydney and Melbourne Symphonies have set up independent labels.
Tall Poppies is a small company that has for years released CDs of important Australian performers, in many cases performing Australian works. Move Records, based in Melbourne, is another. A more recent arrival is Melba Recordings, which began its public releases with a set of recordings of the Wagner Ring Cycle in its State Opera of South Australia production.
There is a good number of self-released recordings by Australian musicians.
On this website can be found reviews of many Australian classical music recordings.
ABC Classic FM is a national classical music broadcast network for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the state broadcaster. It reaches the great majority of Australian homes. The ABC Charter requires support to Australian culture and ABC Classic FM about 20 years ago adopted voluntary targets for the percentages of music broadcast time given to Australian performers and to Australian works. It finds that its public has a strong preference for broadcasts of live events and some of these it presents in real time, e.g. the performances from the Sydney International Piano Competition, or orchestral concerts. The programming is light on talk, which again fits the preferences of its audience. It is designed to some extent to popularise classical music and so there is a lot of time given to the mainstream repertoire, in some cases to single movements. There are also programs of contemporary repertoire but they are largely segregated from the regular programming.
No note of classical music passes the lips of the commercial radio stations, unless possibly in a commercial. In the community broadcasting sector, the “MBS Network” is committed to classical music. There are independent community based MBS stations in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide which have formed a loose association with some cooperation in their activities. These stations do far more than broadcast. They variously run competitions for performers and composers, produce special programs for children, present a classical music festival, publish magazines and program guides. They depend upon subscriptions from listeners and this obviously is a sort of honour system since you don’t need to subscribe to hear the broadcast. The subscription system means that they are even more bound to their audience than are the commercial broadcasters. Offend a listener to a commercial station and they can flick the switch. Offend a listener to an MBS and they can fail to write the cheque.
Other community radio stations may offer classical music segments to their very local audiences. The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia may be able to offer information about this.
2MBS, 3MBS and ABC Classic FM stream their programs online. There may be others. Many ensembles and composers have their own websites.
On the Knowledge Base, there is a general introduction to music membership organisations in Australia.
The following list for classical music does not purport to be complete. If readers are aware of omissions, please comment in the box below.
- Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA)
- Fellowship of Australian Composers
- Australian Band and Orchestra Directors’ Association (ABODA)
- Australian Flute Society
- Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB)
- Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (ANATS)
- Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk
- Australian and New Zealand Association for Research in Music Education (AARME)
- Australian Society for Music Education (ASME)
- Australian Trombone Association
- The Kodaly Music Institute of Australia
- National Council of Tertiary Music Schools (NACTMUS)
- Suzuki Music Association
These are state associations including the Music Teachers’ Associations and their titles include the names of their respective states. There are also regional associations in New England and North Coast in NSW, and north Queensland.
- Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG). The members are the organisations funded by the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council, and include the professional orchestras and the national and state opera companies.
- Australian National Choral Association ANCA
- Australian Viola da Gamba Society
- Early Music Association of NSW
- Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).
- Musica Viva Australia (MVA)
- Musicians Union of Australia (MUA). Functions mainly in Victoria.
- North Queensland Recorder Society
- Recorder and Early Music Society of WA
- Sydney Recorder Society
- Symphony Orchestra Musicians Association (SOMA). Part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).
- Victorian Recorder Guild
- Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR). Record labels releasing discs of Australian performers and compositions are more likely to belong to this association than to…
- Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA), which includes the international major labels which release very little Australian classical music and which has only about 100 independent Australian labels as members, compared to 650 in AIR. (Numbers from 2008)
- Australian Music Centre (AMC)
- International Association of Music Libraries (Australia) (IAML)
- Music Australia (national organisation) Differentiate from…
- Music Australia (information service of the National Library of Australia)
- Musicological Society of Australia (MSA)
- The Music Trust
- Australian Performing Arts Centres Association (APACA)
Richard Letts. Original article from 2007, this update entered 29 September 2014.
Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.