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The dream of finding a lost manuscript

17 August 2017
A Sydney Conservatorium of Music student made an incredible discovery

Exploring a collection of items provided by the Conservatorium library, student Simon Polson came across a previously unknown manuscript by a world renowned composer.

Neil McEwen

Associate Professor Neil McEwan conducted the world premier of the orchestration.

It happened for Conservatorium of Music student, Simon Polson (BMus(Musicol) ’14, MMus(Research) ’16), in 2011. A collection of rare and uncatalogued items had been assembled for students to examine, by the Conservatorium’s Musicology Liaison Librarian, Ludwig Sugiri (BMusStud ’04). Polson noticed a large, yellowed envelope containing a music manuscript.

Thinking it unusual, he took it to senior musicology lecturer, Dr Alan Maddox (BA(Hons) ’84) PhD ’07), who supervised the first stages of Polson’s research on the manuscript.

“At first none of us realised the significance of the find,” Dr Maddox says. “But Simon took the initiative and positively identified it as the only known manuscript of a piece by a major composer.”

Simon had found an unknown orchestration of an English folk tune called The Spanish Ladies, by renowned English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Written in his own hand, the pages were marked with scribbles and corrections, giving a real sense of the composer’s creative process.

Vaughn Williams manuscript

The original manuscript as written and corrected by Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams, who died in 1958 at the age of 85, was a socialist and agnostic who nevertheless composed several of the world’s best loved Christian hymns. His work was known for defining a certain contemplative Englishness that can be heard in his most loved piece, The Lark Ascending.

He was also on a mission to preserve the English folk tunes such as The Spanish Ladies that were being lost as traditional methods of passing them on disappeared. Vaughan Williams experts were astounded this unknown orchestration had turned up in Australia.

So how did it find its way to the Conservatorium library? Perhaps a friend of Vaughan Williams, Henry Cope Colles, left it when he visited Australia in 1939. Vaughan Williams might also have sent it to one of the Con’s directors, who often had strong musical connections to London. Did Vaughan Williams post out the manuscript to ask an opinion? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know.

The orchestration had its world premiere at the Con in 2014, after the manuscript had been photographed, digitalised and copied into orchestral parts for the players. It was conducted by Associate Professor of Conducting, Music Education, Musicology and Choirs, Neil McEwan (PhD ’03).

You can find it on YouTube by searching: SCM Vaughan Williams

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