Accident or Inevitability?

Look at the picture of a forerunner of today's Sydney Symphony, and contrast it with what you see on the stage in front of you. 

Then use your aural imagination: could that small group of players really have sounded anything like what we think of as an 'orchestra'? Probably not. But an anniversary stimulates the historical imagination.

Celebrating 75 years of 'the Sydney Symphony Orchestra' stresses continuity. It's arbitrary, in a way. The name goes back much further, to the group that rehearsed over a fish shop in George St, between 1908 and 1914. One of its organisers was George Plummer, and it was not until 1937 that the name 'Sydney Symphony Orchestra' was bought from him, by Charles Moses, the General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The 'real' history of  the Sydney Symphony might be said to begin when the ABC committed itself to providing Sydney with a permanent orchestra of a size adequate for the symphonic repertoire.

That was later in the 1930s. So our historical photo really belongs to the pre-history of Sydney's symphony orchestra. Nevertheless, the establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, in 1932, is a milestone. As Phillip Sametz, writes in his 1992 history of the orchestra,Play On!, 'There is no story of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra that is not a story of the ABC'.

When that photo was taken, the new medium of radio had a voracious appetite for 'live' music. Symphonic music? Some, but not much. In 1932 the brand new ABC enlarged the studio ensembles it had taken over in Sydney and Melbourne from 15 to 24 players. Was this the beginning of a commitment to an ABC Sydney Symphony Orchestra? Only hindsight gives a sense of inevitability to the story.

Some saw in broadcasting a possibility of raising public taste and awareness of the 'best', including music. And they longed for Sydney to have a permanent orchestra that could represent that 'best'. It was an accident, in many ways, that these aspirations combined to make public concerts, as well as broadcast music, a dominant activity of the ABC. So the story of the Sydney Symphony begins…

David Garrett ©2007