Music Research

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Choirs in the Valley

Choral Societies were founded in the Hunter Valley from the 1860s. Prior to these formal bodies, there is evidence of choirs in Maitland and Newcastle associated with churches, chapels and temperance groups. In 1861 a Temperance choir opened proceedings at a Temperance soiree in Borehole and in the same year the Welsh choir at the Junction chapel was praised in the Newcastle Chronicle (10/4/1861).

The newspapers reported on the founding of choral societies (also referred to as choral unions) from 1865 when the Lambton Choral Society was formed under director John Williams. The original meeting to form the Lambton Choral Society was held in the Welsh Chapel, Lambton and it would seem likely that the society drew on the chapel choir for much of its membership. This was followed by the Newcastle Choral Society, founded in 1866 and the Wallsend Choral Society which was founded in 1867.

Despite their stated aims of raising the taste of the region through regular concerts of sacred and secular music,  the choirs were principally employed in performing in various township fundraising concerts and other events in the region. Since the outer townships such as Wallsend, Lambton, New Lambton and Waratah were only founded in the early 1860s, such fundraising was important for new buildings such as Waratah public school for which a number of benefit concerts were held (see programme below)

Chronicle 4.2.1871 Sacred Music Concert

During the 1870s the Lambton Choral Union gained a reputation as an outstanding choir in the region. It had a strong connection with the Welsh community and in 1875 welcomed Mrs Parker to its ranks, a singer who had formerly been a member of the famous South Wales Choral Union, that won the cup and 1000 guineas at Crystal Palace under ‘Caradog’, Griffth Jones in 1872 and 1873. The first time she performed as a soloist, the audience greeted her with an ovation and her rendition of the Welsh air “Now strike the harp gladly” was met with a demand for an encore (Miners’ Advocate, 11/9/1875). In 1876 members of the choir, including Mrs Parker were invited to perform in Sydney for St David’s Day . This was something of a triumph for a mining township’s choir.

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Recent recordings of music for the ‘forgotten composers’ of the 1860s are available on SoundCloud

Listen to the Myrtle Villa Polka by Franz Becker, 1840-1897

The work was advertised in the Newcastle Chronicle in 1876:
“We have received a very charming polka, bearing the above euphonious title, dedicated to our esteemed townsman W. K. Lochhead, Esq., and composed by the popular Maestro, Herr Franz Becker. Our fair readers will find the composition remarkably pleasing, being in an easy key, and without any of those sudden transitions which at times render polka music rather difficult of rendition. We heartily commend Myrtle Villa polka to the notice of our music-loving friends. Mater and Co. of Pitt-street, Sydney, are the publishers.”
(Newcastle Chronicle, 22 Jan 1876, 4)

Myrtle Villa Polka by Franz Becker

Myrtle Villa Polka by Franz Becker

Forgotten Composers of the Hunter Valley

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Forgotten Composers and their music


In the 1870s Newcastle was rapidly expanding and mining townships such as Lambton and Wallsend, founded in the early 1860s, were developing lively cultural scenes. Through the lens of the local newspapers we learn of music and drama societies, brass bands, choral unions, benefit concerts, Caledonian games and eisteddfods, to name just some cultural activities. Outdoor events such as picnics, demonstrations, parades and horse races were not complete without the sound and repertoire of the brass bands. Dancing was very popular and it was not unusual for community dances to run right through the night, finishing at 5am. Generally, brass bands (sometimes string bands) supplied the music for these dances, usually referred to as balls or quadrille parties. Dancing also took place at holiday events, such as excursions, picnics and at the races. In fact, the brass band’s contribution to the enjoyment of these events was so central that, when a band was absent from the Newcastle Races, the Newcastle Chronicle commented,

One great attraction was missing, that of a band of musicians and this no doubt prevented many from attending (Newcastle Chronicle, 10 November, 1870).


Brass bands also performed regularly at the Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles (as it was known in the 1870s), Watt Street. Their programmes were often included in the newspaper advertisements. These programmes were fairly typical of the period, being made up of marches, dances and medleys from the operas of the time. It often fell to the bandmaster to arrange music for the bands, as well as compose new music. The following programme is taken from the Newcastle Chronicle, 7 November 1874

NC 7.11.1874


This programme provides a fascinating snapshot of the kind of music that was popular at the time and the value placed on new original music that was often tied to place, at least in the title. During this period, township benefit concerts (which were an important means of raising money for injured miners or miners’ widows and families) were also publicised through the newspapers. The advertisements often included details of the music and this is another source for repertoire of this period. In these programmes there are other musical works by local composers such as Marmaduke Wilson (c. 1834-1871), Edward Faning (c. 1819-1870), Henry Meulman (1832-1879), Henry Prince (1827-1872), Marmaduke Wilson (c. 1834 -1871), Colin Christie (1836-1916), Robert Bishop Theobald {fl.1858-74; died 1876}, Franz Louis Leopold Becker (1840-1897) and Roland Randolph Arndell (1857- 1920). An example of a locally produced work is Franz Becker’s Myrtle Villa Polka, dedicated to Mr W. K. Lockhead, who lived at Myrtle Villa, Cook’s Hill (see below).


Myrtle Villa Polka by Franz Becker

Myrtle Villa Polka by Franz Becker


This piece has happily been preserved and is available to anyone through Trove on the National Library of Australia website.



However, there are many pieces, like the Franz Becker’s Variations on ‘Last Rose of Summer’ for Left Hand and the Newcastle Election Gallop or J.M. Gates’ Pride of the North Waltzes (see the Burwood band programme above) that I have been unable to find. Some of this music may still be somewhere in the community – perhaps in a piano stool or attic or brass band library.

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Brass Bands and Minstrelsy

Newcastle Amateurs’ Musical Association

On Wednesday 7 August 1861 the Newcastle Amateurs’ Musical Association held its first concert at the Courthouse in Newcastle, New South Wales. The concert was to raise funds for a Volunteer band associated with the Newcastle Artillery corps. The concert was sold out in advance so two performances were planned for Wednesday and Thursday nights. The musical association appears to have been initiated by Edward Faning (1819-1870). Faning was something of an all-round musician, playing several instruments, forming and leading various ensembles, including string bands and minstrel troupes. He was a member and supporter of the Temperance movement and formed a Temperance band that first performed in 1844 at the Temple of Concord, Maitland. It is likely that he trained most of the sixteen musicians who made up the band that performed at these two concerts. The review in the Newcastle Chronicle is unusually detailed for the time and hesitantly critical of some of the performances whilst praising others:

“The Caliph of Bagdad” … was excellently given by the full band, numbering sixteen members …

“The Witch’s Glee” is an exceedingly grand but intricate composition, and requires experience and study of no mean order to render its execution perfect. We trust that these remarks may be taken in the friendly spirit in which they are given …

Newcastle Chronicle 10 August 1861

The band left the stage at interval to reappear, surprisingly, fifteen minutes later to perform the  second half of the programme as a minstrel troupe. For this entertainment, the band members had blacked up, and were described, as was common in this period, as ‘Ethiopian serenaders’ and a ‘sable troupe’. The programme now revolved around popular songs, jokes and witticisms and ‘eccentricities’.

Such a programme must have met with success because Faning went on to repeat the performance formula, with two appearances in December at the Courthouse (see extract of programme below) and later at Watt Street Assembly Rooms in April, 1864.

No doubt it was Faning who was behind such a doubling up since he was known for his sense of humour and had previously mounted numerous ‘Ethiopian’ entertainments. The newspaper reviewer (not named) concludes by congratulating Edward Faning on the association’s proficiency and the success of the evening.

Fanings concert NC 21.12.1861


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Newcastle’s first theatre

The first theatre known of in Newcastle was opened by James Croft, owner of the Commercial Hotel. The Commercial hotel stood on the corner of Watt and Hunter streets and Croft there converted a vacant wooden building into a small theatre. In Historical Records of Newcastle, 1797-1897, J. Windross, a journalist with the Newcastle Morning Herald, quotes the recollections of first impressions from an unnamed resident who arrived in Newcastle in 1857:

I stopped at Mr Croft’s hotel, which stood on a site now occupied by the A.J.S. Bank at the corner of Watt and Hunter-streets. At the back of the hotel there was a theatre (the first one, I believe, opened in Newcastle), where I was present at an entertainment in which Mr Clarence Hannell took the part of Hamlet, and other local men also appeared.”[1]

Described as ‘the spirited proprietor’ by the Northern Times in 1857, Croft hosted two comedies in April of that year – “Helping Hands” and “Laughing Hymns”. The company included Edward Faning, musician, bandleader and comedian ‘certainly fitted to excel’ in low comedy. This theatre was known first as the Newcastle Theatre, later taking the name “Victoria”.

[1] Cited in J Windross Historical Records of Newcastle, 1797-1897 (Newcastle: Federal Printing, 1897).

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Music Making in Newcastle, NSW, and its townships from early settlement

Musical activities were evident in Newcastle and the Hunter from early days, although sources are very limited until the first local newspaper, the Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser was established in 1843. With the publishing of this newspaper, we find evidence for musical activity reflected in advertisements for the “Philharmonic Society, Newcastle”. It appears that the society was active from 1845. Since there were as yet no purpose-built venues, their concerts were held in the Courthouse. This was most likely the building on the corner of Bolton and Hunter streets, listed as erected in 1839 by John Bingle, alongside which was later built an Exchange and Post Office. Reviews from this period are very brief, limited to a short comment on the gentility of the audience or the success of the concerts. One review in 1846 refers to “the progress of the gentlemen”, suggesting that the committee and performers were limited to gentlemen only. Another review comments on “frequent cheering, plaudits and encores,” and that “all the beauty and fashion of Newcastle” was present. The last mention of the society in the newspapers in this decade was in 1846.