Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Margaret Sutherland)

The image is in black and white and shows Margaret Sutherland, circa 1940s, seated at the piano. She is marking a score with a pencil.
Margaret Sutherland, Australian composer, 1954

‘I can’t tell you how enthusiastically he threw himself into my Violin Concerto,’ Sutherland wrote to Peter Sculthorpe in October 1961, ‘and how magnificently he played it. It just took my breath away.’

The stature of Margaret Sutherland is unique in Australian music.

Her work spans over fifty-five years, with more than ninety compositions, years of inspired teaching, recitals, and close personal involvement with Australian poets, young composers, with music education, and with the wider struggle for the recognition of the arts in Australia. She is honoured both as a distinguished composer and as one who continuously generated fresh interest and activity in the field of music.

Born in 1897, Sutherland was awarded a scholarship in 1914 to study piano with Edward Goll, and composition with Fritz Hart at the Marshall Hall Conservatorium, after which she taught piano and theory and worked as assistant to Edward Goll.

In 1923, Sutherland went to London and Vienna where she became involved in the musical life of these cities and absorbed the influences of European culture. In England, Sir Arnold Bax became a valued friend and musical mentor. She returned to Australia in 1925.

During World War II, Sutherland arranged chamber music concerts for the Red Cross and became a member of the Council for Education, Music and the Arts. For many years she was associated with the Australian Advisory Committee for UNESCO, and was a member of the Advisory Board for the Australian Music Fund.

In 1969 Sutherland was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from the University of Melbourne in recognition of her contribution to Australian music. In 1970 Commonwealth recognition followed with the awarding of an OBE.

Sutherland died in 1984.

This abridged biography is published with the kind permission of the Australian Music Centre (AMC). Further detail is available at



Orchestral composition was not always Margaret Sutherland’s preference, but in an intense period of writing between the end of her marriage in 1947 and her retirement from composing in the late 1960s, she tackled larger forms. The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1960), her only concerto, is a fine example, one that demonstrates the composer’s unique personal idiom.

Apart from the piano, the violin was Sutherland’s favourite instrument, and she wanted to write an expansive concerto highlighting its tonal qualities and capabilities. Indicating her intent, she commented that ‘immense contrasts, together with the peculiarly poignant loneliness of an individual voice in the midst of overwhelmingly larger forces, are significant features of most concertos.’ The work was more extrovert and passionate than her usual, she felt, which suggests it is a profound expression of her inner self.

Though romantic and lyrical in its intent and gestures, it was, and is, a contemporary work. Characterised by striking tensions, and bold rhythms, harmonies and orchestration, its florid passages and extended double-stopping figures demand a virtuosic soloist. English violinist and conductor Thomas Matthews, who premiered the concerto with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Tzipine on 11 October 1961, commented that the double-stopping ‘called for enormous concentration and control,’ while ‘the running passages lay more easily.’ ‘I can’t tell you how enthusiastically he threw himself into my Violin Concerto,’ Sutherland wrote to Peter Sculthorpe in October 1961, ‘and how magnificently he played it. It just took my breath away.’

The work has deservedly enjoyed a recent resurgence. Prior to this performance, it was performed in October 2016 by the Monash Academy Orchestra under Alexander Briger with Elizabeth Sellars as soloist. In March 2021, conductor Ben Northey led the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in a performance featuring Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell.

The harmonic and rhythmic qualities of the concerto are apparent from the beginning of the two-part first movement. While there is no defined development section, its themes are expanded and transformed. The first theme is heard by the orchestra and then by the violin in a dramatic opening. The second, a transformation of the first, is accompanied by a dissonant, martial ostinato. The more expansive third theme is followed by an intensely lyrical section, against which the soloist plays an increasingly fast figuration. A cadenza-like passage is heard over the orchestra’s accompanying first theme material above a throbbing timpani and double bass motive. The second part, a varied recapitulation of the exposition themes, culminates in another cadenza-like passage. The movement ends softly in the soloist’s and second violins’ upper range, over a low pedal for the horn, contrabassoon and timpani.

The second movement is a sombre lament based on a recurring theme introduced by the horn with an accompaniment that continually transforms melodically and harmonically. The solo violin leads a sad, inevitable cortège, reminiscent of Shostakovich’s wartime processionals. The movement ends with the dissonant combination of F and F# with which it began, and links to the third movement.

The final movement’s foundation is the slow movement’s theme transformed to give it a fanfare-like quality, also based on F. While seemingly lively, there are grim and melancholy martial undertones which sometimes appear mocking and almost grotesque. Towards the end the music returns to the elegy of the slow movement, followed by a frenetic dance with a tonal centre of E. While the work ends with this harmony, a dissonant F is added, recalling the movement’s beginning, and mirroring the F–F# combination of the slow movement transposed down a semitone.

© Jillian Graham, 2021

Dr Graham’s biography of Margaret Sutherland is to be published by Melbourne University Publishing.

Related Articles

Skip to content