Dowling Song Book Project

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Nyssa Milligan (contralto), Neal Peres Da Costa and James Doig (piano)

During Semester 2, students of the Con’s Historical Performance Unit, led by Associate Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, have collaborated with historians from Sydney Living Museums on brand new research. The Dowling Song Book Project brought together sheet music provenanced to NSW families in the 1830s and 1840s with matching historic interiors and performers. The students and historians aimed to recreate the musical experience of Sydney couple Lilias and Willoughby James Dowling. Students learnt about historical music resources at the Caroline Simpson Library Research Collection, toured Elizabeth Bay House and attended rehearsal workshops at the Conservatorium and Elizabeth Bay House. SLM supplied sheet music from the Dowling Songbook (R84/869:1-2) and the Stewart Symonds Sheet Music Collection.

These lectures, workshops and rehearsals culminated in three performances at Elizabeth Bay House on 7, 8, and 9 October 2016 using the Conservatorium’s c.1840 Collard Square Piano, newly acquired through a research grant led by Peres Da Costa. The project plan was presented as part of the Australian contribution to the Sound Heritage network, which is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK).

The Dowling Project was a collaboration between Sydney Living Museums and the Historical Performance Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM), 29 July – 9 October 2016. The aim of the project was to recreate the musical experience of Sydney couple Lilias and Willoughby James Dowling in a complimentary historical setting. Students learnt about historical music resources at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, toured Elizabeth Bay House (EBH) and attended rehearsal workshops at the SCM and EBH. SLM supplied sheet music from the Dowling Songbook (R84/869:1-2) and the Stewart Symonds Sheet Music Collection. The SCM installed an 1840s Collard & Collard square piano in the drawing room at EBH for the three concerts, held 7-9 October, 2016.

James Doig (tenor) and Esther Kim (piano) from the Historical Performance Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, in the drawing room at Elizabeth Bay House. Photo (c) James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Ian Innes, Sydney Living Museums’ Director, Heritage and Collections, is thrilled with the collaboration. “The result of this collaboration between the Conservatorium and SLM was the very successful alignment of historical research, our library collections, the house and setting, and live performances.”

Flautist Theo Small, one of Peres Da Costa’s students, was equally proud to be part of this new research into historical performance. “I found this project to be the most meaningful piece of research based practice that I have done in my entire university career. It is the first time that I have explored the musical heritage of my home and I found it to be very meaningful in establishing a sense of musical self. The way in which you have taught us to apply historically informed proactive to our music making is completely invaluable, and as I prepare myself for leaving the Conservatorium I am constantly reminded of how full an education I have received under your guidance.”

The Dowling Song Book Project has attracted interest both nationally and internationally and will be a centrepiece of Sound Heritage Sydney, in March 2017; the fifth meeting of the international network to be held in collaboration with the University of Southampton.