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Corroboree (1950)


This is an orchestral suite for a ballet by Australian composer John Antill, first recorded in 1950 by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Curator’s notes

‘Corroboree’ by John Antill is the first ballet work by an Australian composer on an Australian subject to become internationally performed, recorded and released. It was also one of the first Australian recorded orchestral works to draw on Indigenous references. 'Corroboree’ followed earlier works with Indigenous references including those by Henry Tate (in the 1920s) and Mirrie Hill (in the 1940s), and Esther Rofe’s score for the Borovansky Ballet’s 'Terra Australis’ (1946).

Meticulously planned by composer John Antill (1904–86) and loosely based on the Aboriginal song-dance ceremony, the first full version of the 'Corroboree’ score was completed in 1944. The music evolved from melodies and rhythms written by Antill after visiting the Aboriginal settlement at La Perouse in Sydney as a child. A 16-minute suite from the 45-minute ballet score was first performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens on 18 August 1946. Impressed by the originality and vitality of the score, Goossens performed it with many international orchestras, including the Cincinnati, London and Berlin Symphony Orchestras.

On 5 December 1950, in a recording ‘supervised’ by the composer, who would otherwise have been a member of the ABC’s recording team, the 77-member ABC Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens recorded a ballet suite from 'Corroboree’ in the Ashfield Town Hall for His Master’s Voice. Originally issued on two 12” HMV discs, ED 1193/4, the music was subsequently transferred to LP, HMV OALP 7503.

The ABC Weekly of 23 December 1950 described the scene in the Ashfield Town Hall, noting that 'triple recordings of “Corroboree” were made simultaneously: two by PMG landlines to the recording company’s studios in Homebush and the ABC’s city studios, and one at Ashfield upon an EMI Magnetic Tape Recorder’. This latter unit gave instantaneous playback and allowed the conductor and orchestra to hear their work through loudspeakers, re-recording unsatisfactory passages until all were satisfied. The recording process took five hours in total.

Subsequent recordings have been made by the composer himself (1967), by John Lanchberry (1977), and by James Judd with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (2008). In 1982, 'Corroboree’ received the APRA Award for 'Most performed classical composition’.

The 'Corroboree’ ballet had premiered at Sydney’s Empire Theatre on 3 July 1950. Rex Reid choreographed a company of 30 Anglo-Australian dancers and Antill himself conducted 52 members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After an overwhelmingly successful season of four performances, the work was sent on tour. Almost immediately, another production was mooted, this time for the visit of a young Queen Elizabeth II. The American dancer Beth Dean was brought in to choreograph this second production, first performed on 6 February 1954. Another gruelling tour ensued: 87 performances in 20 country towns, with an orchestra of 54 musicians, and an eventual total audience of more than 55,000 people.

The 'Corroboree’ ballet was not performed again until 1970, the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook’s 'discovery’ of the eastern seaboard of Australia. At an open-air amphitheatre, Antill conducted performances with choreography again by Beth Dean. Now, for the first time, the pivotal role of the Initiate was danced by an African-American, Ronne Arnold. He was the first black person to dance a role in this ballet, reflecting the scarcity at the time of Indigenous Australian dancers trained in contemporary dance techniques.