Viridian is the work in which Meale decisively turned his back on modernism…

James Koehne

Program note
RICHARD MEALE (1932–2009)

Excerpt from liner notes for Richard Meale Orchestral Works (ABC Classic)

Richard Meale’s career was constant in one thing: unpredictability. Time after time, at the very moment when it seemed as if we knew him – knew what to expect from him –he shocked us with a startling reinvention of his compositional self.

Meale’s earliest serious work adopted the models of Martinu and Hindemith, whose styles were relatively widely known in Australia at the time. By his late twenties, however, Meale had become aware of a new mood in contemporary music internationally. Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage were at the forefront of a new wave, a new spirit of invigorating change.

It was a spirit which appealed to the radicalism inherent in Meale’s personality: his natural impulse to break forward into new zones of sensual excitement found a perfect match in the avant-gardism of the post-war International Modernists. It revealed to Meale the path of escape from Australia’s cultural parochialism, its anachronistic dependence on English musical culture.

Through his activities as broadcaster and programmer for the ABC, Meale became Australia’s leading advocate of Modernism. This influence continued when he was appointed Lecturer in Composition at the University of Adelaide, where he became the inspirational influence for generations of Australian composers.

But while the spirit of Boulez’s brave new avant-garde provided a strong sense of identity for Meale, its influence as a musical model was by no means exclusive. In retrospect, Meale seems to have striven to overcome the constrictions of the Boulezian model even more than he emulated it. Boulez’s importance was chiefly moral and intellectual: the avant-garde spirit was more important than the musical actuality of Boulez’s compositions. For Meale, the need to contradict the expectations of the cliched Australian-ness and to assert his individualism were intense motivations.

In the effort to inject greater musical expressiveness into his modernist music, Meale took an interest in the music of Messiaen, and Italian and Spanish contemporaries like de Pablo, Bussotti, Halffter and Castiglioni. But of perhaps greater importance was the rich variety of extra-musical, poetic interests: Rimbaud, Columbus, Lorca, Mallarmé and Bashō. These representatives of radical individualism inspired Meale’s passions, ranging from the outward-looking confidence of Columbus to the introspective aestheticism of Bashō.

A complex relationship exists throughout Meale’s career, between his engagement with the ‘external’ world and the examination of ‘interior’ worlds. It lends the tension which makes his music of the 60s and 70s still powerful and affective, and it is the source of the dramatic stylistic change which began to occur in Meale’s music after the mid-1970s.

This had been a period of creative crisis for Meale, a crisis signalled in the intensely withdrawn, ascetic world of the String Quartet (1975). After several years of compositional silence, Meale seemed to emerge re-created in the 1979 orchestral work, Viridian.

Here, the composer has recovered his optimistic exuberance – not, in this case, by identifying a kinship with any poetic figure, but with the natural world instead. All trace of Boulezian doctrine disappears: Viridian is the work in which Meale decisively turned his back on modernism. The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu provided a strong impetus for Meale’s rediscovery of the rapturous orchestral textures and sensuality of Claude Debussy, who has a strong presence in the background of Viridian, as both a musical and philosophical mentor.

In his exceptionally brief note for the work, Meale quotes Debussy’s maxim ‘There is no theory. Pleasure is the Law.’ It served as a declaration of his rejection of Modernism. The avant-garde which had nourished him in earlier years now seemed to be a New Establishment, its rules more likely to frustrate than to inspire the composer. With Viridian, Meale set out on a new path, one which would take him progressively further from the trends and fashions of European music, and deeper into his own musical personality.

Viridian evokes an imagined world of luxuriant greenness, and nearly every review of the work has described its ‘lushness’ of gesture and orchestration. Such qualities gave the work an association with the so-called ‘New Romanticism’ then fashionable in Europe. Despite efforts to identify Meale’s new work with this movement, neither Viridian nor any of the works which followed have had much in common with European models.

For Meale, the change was not a matter of switching an old allegiance to European modernism for a new allegiance to European post-modernism. It was an abandonment of any allegiance save to his own taste and desires. In the combat between the Interior World and the Exterior World, Meale had chosen decisively for the former.

© James Koehne, 1995
Courtesy of ABC Classic

Related Articles

Skip to content