Note: The Early Music Network is a developing website proposing to collect and distribute information about Australians working in early music; to develop an online refereed journal on performance research; and to arrange workshops/masterclasses with high-profile visiting directors and performers. Dr Rusak notes that no information is included on early music in Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. She welcomes additions for inclusion in later editions of her article.

Early Music Performance

Early music performances in Australia had a predictably English colonial style of revivalism with the establishment of Bach and Handel Societies and Festivals in the early 20th Century. Musical scholarship on historical performance practice developed alongside these performances with some of the pioneering work by Robert Dally-Scarlett appearing in Canon (a print journal particularly devoted to early music) and Australian Musical News, and a popular booklet titled Handel’s Messiah – how we can realise the composer’s intentions? (New York: C. Fischer 1955). Elizabethan Renaissance revivals also occurred in Melbourne in the 1920s with commemorations of the tercentenaries of William Byrd (1923), Thomas Weelkes (1923) and Orlando Gibbons (1925).

In 1947 the Foundation Professor of Music at the University of Sydney, Donald Peart, was an early music enthusiast who had played viol with leading English early music specialists including Robert Dennington. Peart was responsible for performances of early music on campus during his tenure. This continued in the work of Winsome Evans and The Renaissance Players, formed in 1967, who released some of the first recordings of early music in Australia.

The reproduction of early instruments was an integral part of enlivening early music performances. Dene Barnett, who founded the Elizabethan Players in 1949, built the first reproduction harpsichord in Adelaide. Dorothy White followed soon after in the 1950s.

Through the 1960s early music societies and ensembles and early music festivals (not to mention the representation of early musicians at Australiana Arts and Music Festivals) developed across Australia. Since the 1970s they featured musicians who had furthered their studies at the European conservatories, particularly with the strong influence of the revivalist movement occurring in England, Europe and in particular in the Netherlands.

Early music clubs and societies developed throughout the 1970s with informal performances and social gatherings. In 1973 Musica Antiqua was formed in Adelaide, which focussed upon music of the medieval and renaissance. Baroque Music Promotions and Musica da Camera (now Adelaide Baroque) emerged from a series of workshops organised in the late 1970s by Lynton Rivers (recorder), Lesley Lewis (recorder/harpsichord), Anne Whelan (harpsichord) and Miriam Morris (viola da gamba. In Melbourne Ars Nova was established in the early 1970s under the leadership of Bevan Leviston. John Griffiths founded La Romanesca in 1978 and in 1979 Carol Williams founded Accord, with a particular emphasis upon the revival of medieval music often in theatrical settings.

Another leading player in the revival of early music was John O’Donnell. He formed the Tudor Choristers in Melbourne in 1985 and has continued to hold a high profile in the revival of early keyboard and vocal music. O’Donnell later established the Ensemble Gombert, which has been successful in well-researched performance practice. In Sydney Nicholas Routley established the Sydney Chamber Choir devoted to stylistically appropriate presentations of baroque choral works.

Since the 1980s a number of significant early ensembles have achieved critical acclaim and strong community support for their performances. These include the Sydney Baroque, Sydney based Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney and Canberra based Salut! Baroque, Melbourne based Cappella Corelli, and Elysium Ensemble and Adelaide-based Musica da Camera, to name but a few.

In addition, attempts by mainstream Australian classical music organisations have devoted attention to developing stylistically appropriate performance of early music during their seasons such as The Song Company, Adelaide Chamber Singers, some symphony orchestras amongst others.

The use of reproduction instruments plays a significant role in the revival of baroque music and Australia has a distinguished list of makers of harpsichord, organs, string and woodwind instruments.

Tertiary institutions have made efforts to support the early music revival by the development of courses in early music research and performance and with specially established early music studios. Many outstanding Australian scholars have published, performed and recorded early music. Prominent names here include John Stinson, Nicholas Routley, John Griffiths, Rosalind Halton, John O’Donnell, David Tunley.

There are just over 40 individuals and 11 ensembles listed on the Music Council of Australia’s Early Music Network website – a voluntary register of early music practitioners. There is also a resources list for early music in Australia providing some instrument makers and web links to most companies currently presenting programs in Australia.


Scott-Maxwell, Aline & Williams, Carol, Early-Music Revival in Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia. Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, eds. J. Whiteoak and A. Scott-Maxwell (Sydney, Currency House: 2003), 240-242. (See Graham Strahle’s review in Music Forum, reproduced here .)


Dr Helen Rusak

Lecturer in Arts and Cultural Management, University of South Australia. Former editor, MCA Early Music Network.

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