…it became clear that the work could not be based on any artifice. Its existence had to lie in its emotional truth.

RICHARD MEALE (1932–2009)

Richard Meale, together with his slightly older contemporary Peter Sculthorpe, was at the forefront of new music in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. Largely self-taught as a composer, Sydney-born Meale embraced modernist trends in his earliest compositions, making a name for himself with orchestral works such as Homage to García Lorca (1964) and Very High Kings (1968). Other significant compositions from this period include the glittering piano work Coruscations and the chamber piece Incredible Floridas (both 1971). Like Sculthorpe, Meale sometimes drew inspiration from various non-Western musical traditions, the music of Japan above all.

Working professionally as a programmer at the ABC in the 1960s, Meale brought the music of Janáček, Bartók, Schoenberg, Messiaen and Boulez to Australian audiences. Indeed, he conducted the first Australian performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1959.

Between 1969 and 1988 he taught composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Meale moved away from a modernist idiom and embraced a simpler, less confrontational style. Works of this period include Viridian (1979) and the Second String Quartet (1980) – the final movement of the latter is the original version of the work performed here, Cantilena Pacifica. A high point of Meale’s career was the premiere of the opera Voss at the 1986 Adelaide Festival. Adapted by David Malouf from Patrick White’s acclaimed novel, Voss was conducted by Stuart Challender and subsequently staged in Sydney and Melbourne and released on CD. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s CD Cantilena Pacifica provides an overview of Meale’s music from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The composer writes:

Although I had been an ardent supporter and promoter of new music in the 60s and 70s – the style of music that became known as ‘avant-garde’ – I began to experience some misgivings about it in the second half of the 70s. First of all, I was developing certain doubts about the rationality of its central theoretical basis, particularly in the concepts that lay behind serial music. Most of all, however, I felt at loggerheads with its limited expressive powers. I found myself unable to express certain sentiments in that highly chromatic and rhythmically complex style.

Feelings of the most simple, yet fundamental aspects of human nature – feelings of affection, of love and tenderness – did not seem to me to be accessible in such a complicated style of writing.

The problem that I was encountering was brought to a head in 1979 when I began my Second String Quartet. Sadly, my best friend, Stephen Wilson, died after a sudden onset of cancer. It now became a matter of personal necessity to write a piece that would be a memoriam to him. So it became clear that the work could not be based on any artifice. Its existence had to lie in its emotional truth.

The last movement was entitled Cantilena Pacifica – a peaceful song. Although originating in a string quartet, it was later adapted for string orchestra, the version performed in this concert. The lower strings maintain an undulating harmonic progress, whilst the first violin sings a long melody that falls into three stanzas. 

© Richard Meale, 2006
Introductory paragraphs © Robert Gibson, 2019

This program note, including remarks from the late Richard Meale, is provided courtesy of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

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