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Visions of Ceremony:

An Interview with Richard Connolly

by R.J. Stove

This article is reprinted from the magazine, Quadrant, with the kind permission of John O'Sullivan, Editor. It gives us a glimpse into the Catholic Church in Australia, as well as some personal and professional insight into CNP composer, Richard Connolly, whose Mass of Our Lady, Help of Christians is highly acclaimed in Australia and quite popular among the CNP Mass settings.

I. Background

Richard Connolly Many Australians, whether they are practicing Catholic or not, will have encountered the hymns that Richard Connolly — composer, organist, pianist and broadcaster — wrote in collaboration with one of Australia's outstanding poets: James McAuley, who died in 1976. Even if these readers cannot themselves carry the proverbial tune in a bucket, they will have heard congregations sing from the Connolly-McAuley corpus: "Help of Christians, Guard This Land," "O Jesus Crucified," "By Your Kingly Power, O Risen Lord," and "Jesus in Your Heart We Find," to name only four of the most celebrated. And once they have heard congregations perform these things, they will be forever unable to re-read McAuley's lyrics without hearing in their minds Mr. Connolly's virile melodies and pungent modal harmonies. There can scarcely be a greater compliment payable to any composer's word-setting, than that this word-setting should appear inseparable from the words themselves.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Hymns for the Year of Grace, the 1963 collection in which so much of this material appeared, it seemed a courteous and appropriate gesture to sound out the composer himself. Would Mr. Connolly — a native of Sydney, born in 1927 — consent to being interviewed? Yes, Mr. Connolly would. Thus it was that I arrived from rain-drenched Melbourne, dictaphone in hand, to be discussing his career path and compositional achievement (of which achievement Hymns for the Year of Grace constitutes but a portion) on a glorious autumn day in the composer's own living room at Balgowlah, near Manly. Inescapable in this living room was a magnificent harbor-side view, which included the former Saint Patrick Seminary where back in 1946 he spent six months before going to Rome.

II. Roman Days

RJS: I understand that you originally went to Rome with a view to becoming a priest. How did that aim come about?

RC: It came about because it was talked about. And in those days a Catholic boy couldn't aspire to anything better. That's the way we saw the priesthood then. Alas, a lot of inroads have been made on that notion.

I was in second form [middle school] at the Christian Brothers' High School in Lewisham, inner-western Sydney, and Fr. John Leonard came around, talking about vocations. Something called a minor seminary, taking boys from the age of twelve upwards, was going to be opened at Springwood the following year. I was one of the boys who went and said, "yes"; got an interview with Cardinal Gilroy as a result, and was told I could go to Springwood in February 1942. At Springwood I completed the minor seminary course, and first-year philosophy. In the course of that — without being immodest — I came first in New South Wales in Latin at the Leaving Certificate examination. Largely as a result of that, I think, it was decided that I would be one of the two Sydney students who would go to Rome the following year.

In 1946, I spent the first half of the year at Manly, which was just a normal progression; and then in July, with eighteen other Australians (two of them were priests; all the others were seminarians from Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia), our destination was the College De Propaganda Fide, which of course means "concerned with propagating the Faith," where I would spend the next four years.

People usually don't realize now what an extraordinary thing foreign travel was for Australians in 1946. It was almost entirely for wealthy people. And yet here I was, sharing a life in common with seminarians from Europe, from Asia, from Africa and America. Twenty-six different nationalities.

RJS: Did you eventually decide that the priesthood wasn't for you? Was it a gradual thing?

RC: Yes, it was gradual. A classmate, the historian John Molony, in his autobiography, says quite plainly: "Richard Connolly was more interested in music than in theology." He was right. But it wasn't only that. Though I might have seemed quite sophisticated, I was quite immature when I came out of the seminary. Because going into a minor seminary, in my view, and in the present view of the Church generally (as it was learned from experience, I think) — taking boys of twelve, just with the onset of puberty — wasn't a good way.

RJS: Was that when you started at the minor seminary?

RC: I was fourteen then. But I hasten to say that I came out of the seminary eight years later, not long before ordination. It got too much for me. I was approaching a crisis point, and I won't go into details, but there I was.

III. Back in Australia

RJS: So you went to Sydney University?

RC: I came back here, and got a music job. My father was supporting eight children, one of whom was going through [the study of] Medicine at Sydney University — with a bursary [scholarship] — and one of the others was also a seminarian. So I had to go out and get a job. I got a job at Boosey & Hawkes [Publishers], where I began to realize that I knew nothing about the world. Fortunately I got a job later as proof-reader at the Catholic Weekly, where that excellent man Brian Doyle pointed out to me, putting it quite brutally, "Look, you need to, as it were, laicize yourself in some sense, or you'll be a 'spoilt priest.'" He used that phrase in quotes. "Go to Sydney University." It hadn't occured to me to go there. If I'd been mature, it would have occurred to me immediately. But this is what growing up in a minor seminary can do.

I'm not complaining about it, because I had the best teachers I could have had. If I'd stayed at Lewisham, a fine school, I might or might not have topped the state in Latin, but I wouldn't have done a lot of the reading I did. The Marist Brothers who taught us at Springwood, because they had been singled out for this new operation, chose some of their best men. Brother Gerard O'Donoghue taught me Latin and English and French. He had been — and would be again, I think — the headmaster of Saint Joseph College. As somebody recently said to me, and I agree, Brother Gerard was, apart from the philosopher Father Con Keogh, probably the only true intellectual in the whole place. But anyway, I was a bad student in some ways, beacuse I was no good at math. I was alright at physics and geography, but no good at math.

IV. The McAuley Years

RJS: After you'd graduated from Sydney, you came, I gather, to know Fr. Ted Kennedy. How did he introduce you to James McAuley?

RC: Yes, I got married in 1954. We were in Ted's parish — Ted was curate at the Sydney suburb of Ryde — and he came to me in, I think, 1955. He had some verses with him, and he said: "James McAuley wrote this." James McAuley was also a parishioner there, but I'd never met him. The words were, "Help of Christians, Guard This Land." I had never composed anything except an Ave Maria, when I was fourteen, which is better forgotten. Fr. Muset [Joseph Muset (1889-1957) Catalan-born priest-composer active in Sydney and Melbourne after the Spanish Civil War], who taught me music at Springwood, changed about 472 notes in it! He was a refugee; the Catalans weren't popular with the Franquistas, of course. It was Fr. Muset who introduced musical modality into my mind.

RJS: I ask this as one who never met James McAuley, though my father knew him quite well: What was he like to deal with? In his prose and in his satirical poetry he always struck me as an absolutely terrifying person.

RC: He was one of the nicest people I have ever known. If you want to know any more, look up the March 1977 McAuley tribute issue of Quadrant. Peter Coleman asked me to write about James McAuley. James McAuley was terribly easy to deal with. If you take McAuley's book of criticism, The End of Modernity, you'll see that it can come across as doctrinaire. But he wasn't. And it's interesting if you're familiar with his sort of anti-Romanticism: three weeks before he died in Hobart, when he knew he was dying, he was on the phone to me, in a very weak voice, asking me to get for him, from a particular shop, a wonderful music shop in [the northern Sydney suburb of] Gordon —

RJS: Tarantella?

RC: Yes, that's right. Wonderful, wonderful people. But Jim, a fine, sensitive pianist, knew exactly what he wanted: particular editions of Chopin. He was trying desperately to do justice to Chopin, and to write a piece on Chopin, because Chopin he understood. One's idea of a writer's thinking can get frozen into what he has written at an earlier stage.

RJS: Perhaps poets more than most people, I don't know.

RC: Nobody had admired more than I his second book, A Vision of Ceremony. I have a copy of his first book, inscribed, and given to me by Ron Blair for my birthday. Ron went to see Jim McAuley, and Jim had written in it: "To Dick, with the most loving regards." I could go on about Jim forever. He could show his love; he wasn't frightened of love.

We buried him on a Tuesday, and on the following Sunday night — this is the ABC we're talking about, I used to run a program called Radio Helicon

RJS: Radio Helicon! Of course. I vividly remember it.

RC: Before Jim died I had made arrangements to go down to Hobart to stay with him and Norma in May 1976 (he died in October). I went down there, and in a studio we recorded a whole lot of poems, and we talked about things (obviously with a posthumous Helicon tribute in mind; though this was unspoken, we knew what we were about). We spoke of things like whether you can prove the existence of God, or whether it is any use trying to teach English to half-interested kids whom society has somehow pushed into university. All sorts of things. Including the Vietnam War. He said, "I always said we could be wrong."

RJS: That doesn't sound like the James McAuley familiar to people of my generation!

RC: But he had that quality. I talked to John Pringle (1912 - 1999), former Sydney Morning Herald editor, about this a lot. John Pringle was a great friend of Jim's, and wrote very movingly about him. I said to McAuley that I admired his ability to act out of a situation, to make up his mind. He was one of those who don't have to have complete proof that they're right; if something needs to be done urgently, and this seems to be the right thing to do, some people can just jump into action. Others, as Pringle said about himself, can't. People in McAuley's poem "Liberal, or, Innocent by Definition" — "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" — people of whom I'm far more one than Jim McAuley was — can't.

V. Politics and Media

RJS: I've seen — not least in Peter Coleman's biography — "Help of Christians, Guard This Land" repeatedly described as "the DLP [Democratic Labor Party] hymn." Was it intended as such? How did this association come into being?

RC: No, it wasn't. All I saw was a set of magnificent words. This is 1955. Goodness me, only a few years earlier there had been the appalling [Communist-organized 1949] coal strike in the Hunter Valley. "Should the powers of hell arise" and so on: you can read the text in all sorts of ways. But I simply thought they were wonderful words, like no hymn in English that I'd seen for a long time. Of course, Jim had already — in '55 — written about the Labor Party split and the Sydney heirarchy's "Pilatic washing of hands," in the Sydney Morning Herald, although when he wrote that I don't think he'd met Bob Santamaria [a political activist opposing Communism]. All of those things would have been in his mind when he wrote the hymn. Poems come out of all sorts of things.

RJS: You went, I gather, on a Churchill Fellowship to Britain and Europe in the early 1970s; what were the main experiences you learned from expsoure to the BBC, Radio France, RAI network, and the [German] Bayerische Rundfunk?

RC: It wasn't primarily a musical thing, although it was in part musical. Mainly it was to study the spoken word in radio. Almost everybody at the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] went to the BBC, and even now, still, Australia is a mostly monoglot country. I spoke two foreign languages fluently: Italian and French. With German, I thought I was better than I actually was. In any case, I just thought it would be interesting to go and see what they did in Italy and France and Germany. So I went, and I think my report was of value to ABC producers.

RJS: But you'd already been active composing incidental music and other types of music for the ABC, among other places, had you not? I've lately been listening to your music for Twelfth Night and Doctor Faustus.

I did that by accident, really. Colin Dean — who produced those early ABC television serials about the foundation of Australia and so forth — was producing a play called The Long Sunset, by R.C. Sheriff, about the Roman legions leaving Britain. I was simply advising Colin Dean, unoffically, about Roman things. We were having a beer somewhere or other, and he said, "Would you like to write the music for this?" I said, "I'll have a go," but I was a bit dubious. I'd never written any incidental music. But it worked. That was 1963.

VI. Musical Career

RJS: When you were starting out as a musician, who and what were your main musical influences? Any particular composers who had an overwhelming effect on you, creatively and otherwise?

RC: I think that Don Burrows and company used to have some sort of joke about me, because they said I wrote Turkish music! "Here he comes, we'll get some Turkish music" — as they used to call it in Mozart's time. That was because of my use of modality. There were a whole lot of composers whom I enjoyed. Particularly Schubert. But I don't think that any of them influenced me as much as, in a strange way, Gregorian chant and the modes, largely through the music of my teacher Father Muset.

RJS: Did you find yourself limited by expectations of what you should be composing? As in, "Oh, he writes hymns, he shouldn't be attempting secular works"? Or vice versa?

RC: No, no, no. You see, I have never, ever, written any piece of music that was just coming out of what you might call the heart or soul, as an expression of some feeling. Well, actually, I wrote one piece of music of that sort, for piano, but I won't give it to you because readers won't be able to hear it! Everything else I've written has been program music, responding either to words or to images of film. So I've had to be, as it were, reacting to something in my music. There's no music gushing out of me. Or rather, it gushes out of me all the time, and it's absolute rubbish!

RJS: Hmm. I'll take your word for it, although I find it hard to believe.

RC: Not the stuff I write down; but my way of daydreaming is — I whistle, improvising the most utter, boring rubbish! Sometimes the rubbish gets quite complicated.

RJS: Was Hindemith's output an influence on you, in terms of facility, of utilitarian approaches to writing music?

No, but I was introduced to Hindemith by a wonderful institution in Sydney, run by a lovely, lovely man named Karl Gotsch. You've probably not heard of him.

RJS: I'm afraid not.

Karl ran something called the Collegium Musicum, and he was alive to what was going on in Europe. He was of German extraction, but he spoke a gentle kind of Australian English. This would have been in the mid-1940s, before I went to Rome, and after my return. The first Hindemith I ever heard was through Karl Gotsch at the Collegium Musicum, down at Circular Quay. It was for two violins, and one of the players was the splendid Eva Kelly, who years later would work with me in an ABC studio. People used to go along to recitals and discussions. Karl had a terrible old gramophone, to play things on; but people went there because he was serious, and because you were partaking of things that were going on in Europe. These are the sorts of musical activities that don't get into history books.

RJS: More recently, how did your Missa Pax et Bonum come into being? Was it commissioned?

RC: The music director, Bernard Kirkpatrick, before he went to Parramatta, was conducting a choir at Saint Francis of Assisi in Paddington, and he's a pretty damn good musician. The choir was of a pretty high standard. Well, we started going to Mass there, because we knew some members of the choir, including Noel Debien — who succeeded Bernard as director, and who became a religion producer at the ABC — but in any case, it became, in a way, a haven. We were running away from the guitar-strummers. We found Saint Francis of Assisi's to be a haven from that point of view, a haven of parochial care as well, in terms of what it was doing for the youth around the place. There was a drop-in center there. We don't go there all the time now. But we keep in touch.

RJS: Paddington would be a long way from here in Balgowlah, I suppose.

RC: After we'd been going there for a couple of years, I thought, "It's about time I got musically active again. I'll write a Mass for this parish; you never know, they might like it." When Bernard saw it, I think he got a surprise. He said, "This will work." They'd done Mozart Masses at Christmas. Anyway, I wrote this Mass, and there are little bits of it which I would now change, but as Jim McAuley said about his poetry, "You stick with your readers."

RJS: And you've produced at least two congregational Mass settings in the last few years, I see — Mass: Common Things Divinely, and Mass of Our Lady, Help of Christians. Did they also arise from Saint Francis of Assisi in Paddington?

RC: No. The man who got me back into writing church music was Fr. Bill Aliprandi. When we came back from twelve years in England, we went to Masses in three different places in Sydney. In those days, even at Saint Mary Cathedral's six o'clock Mass, we couldn't get away from guitars! I rang a priest I knew, Fr. John De Luca, but he was away; and I asked if there was a Mass where there was no music. The priest whom I spoke to divined what I was on about, and he said, "Look, I think you should try the parish of Saint John the Apostle at Narraweena [north-east of Sydney]. It's not far from where you live. There is music there, but I think you'll find it good."

So we went to Mass there, and there was somebody in the congregation who knew me, and who told Fr. Aliprandi that I was around in Australia again, and that I was going to this church. That dear man was waiting on the church steps after Mass the following Sunday. Fr. Aliprandi published a parish hymnbook, which I was entrusted with preparing, with the stipulation that it contain the McAuley-Connolly hymns. It didn't work at all, although the little choir that I had at the parish loved it.

RJS: Was the bulk of the parish averse to singing at all, or averse to singing these particular things?

RC: They were generally averse to singing, I think. But one year when Australia Day [National Day – January 26] was coming up, Fr. Aliparandi said: "Let's all sing — not as part of the liturgy — 'Advance Australia Fair.'" And it could have brought the roof down, it was so loud!

RJS: So they were prepared to sing on occasion: good. One item in your work list particularly intrigues me as to it origins: the Play School theme. How in the world did Play School cross your path, or you cross Play School's path?

RC: I was in the ABC in 1965, and it was well known that I could write music. Whenever I produced my own programs, frequently I'd just write a little tune. But I was in the school broadcasts section of the ABC's education department — there's no such thing now — and it was a desk job really: Federal Education Programme Officer (Radio) or something like that. The Education Programme Officer (Television) was next door; a very nice woman named Moira Gambleton. Moira had been sent over to England — she was herself English — to observe how the BBC's original version of Play School worked. She came in to me one day, and said: "I've got this pilot program called Play School [an ABC children's program, currently celebrating 50 years of broadcasting]. And the bigwigs, the top brass, are all coming to observe my pilot program. I need a theme." I asked, "When do you need it by?" You know the Hollywood phrase, "We want it Thursday"? Well, she wanted it Wednesday.

I'd invented a pseudonym — in those days nobody checked that sort of thing — and so I became "Wilfrid Palmer." "Wilfrid" composed a few things for the ABC. Anyway, to answer your question: in those days, for a member of the ABC staff to earn any money outside normal duties, you had to get permission from higher up. There was not time to do this. I went home that night. Moira had the words ready for me. It wasn't hard to write that tune. I wrote it that night, and booked Studio 226 (a former Congregational church in Darlinghurst) and the Don Burrows Quartet for the recording of it. In those days Don Burrows, Johnny Sangster, George Golla and Ed Gaston constituted the quartet. Those chaps — this is 1965 — were far more available at short notice then than they were to become a few years later. The piece was in only four parts.

RJS: You did your own copying out of the parts!

RC:Oh yes. I did my own copying for much bigger scores than that. The night we recorded the Play School theme, it rained on the studio's tin roof for a couple of hours. We had just started, and then we had to stop, because of the noise of the rain on the roof. I would've only had a three-hour studio call. We managed to get the recording squeezed into the three-hour call. But it was touch and go. When people say to me now, "What did you do at the ABC?" — people such as our new neighbors, a South African and his Australian wife, in the house down there that interrupts the view — I say, "Well, I wrote the theme of Play School. The South African told me the next day that his wife had been telling all her friends on Facebook that she'd met the man who'd written the tune for "There's a Bear in There" [the theme song].

R.J. Stone is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Maryland 2012).

Copyright © 2013 by Quadrant Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.

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