Microtonal piano sounds: a 1930s audio recording and a unique score of Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra in Rare Music

Percy Grainger’s interest in microtones—notes closer together than the semi- (or half-) tone that is standard in western “classical” music—is well known. In order to realise microtones, right through to imperceptibly “sliding” tones, Grainger was very “hands-on”. He designed and fabricated new instruments or modified existing ones that are part of the Grainger Museum’s collection here at the University. Grainger’s Butterfly piano (1952) illustrates the latter. He re-tuned and otherwise modified a very small, white “student piano”, manufactured by Wurlitzer in the late 1930s, so the notes were a sixth of a tone apart, not a half tone. Instead of a span of around 3½ octaves, his microtonally modified piano covered only a little more than one octave. After Grainger’s experiments, incidentally, the “butterfly” aspect of the piano—a patented winged lid, hinged down the middle—in itself a Wurlitzer innovation—was no longer in evidence.

Russian émigré composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979) was also drawn to microtones and is represented by one work in the Rare Music collection. 1) This composition, Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra: symphonie en quarts de ton (Thus spoke Zarathustra: symphony in quarter tones), was inspired by a 4-paragraph sketch Nietzsche made in 1881 for his philosophical novel. 2)

In the version of Zarathoustra in Rare Music, the composer’s own arrangement for four pianos (1936), Wyschnegradsky employs an ingenious solution to creating microtones that doesn’t require anything of the composer more radical than engaging an obliging piano tuner. By tuning two of the pianos at concert pitch (originally diapason normal, A = 435 HZ) and the other two a quarter tone higher, microtonal sounds can be easily realised. Within the musical texture, each concert pitch-tuned piano is paired with a differently tuned piano, enabling the microtonality to be clearly audible both melodically and harmonically.

You can hear the full microtonal effect in this recording of the 3rd (slow) movement of the work. I am indebted to Peter Adamson (St Andrews, UK) for allowing me to make his digital transfer of 78 rpm Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre disc (OL 70; ca 1938) available here.


Rare Music, in the archive of Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre (a music press established by Australian, Louise Hanson-Dyer), holds the composer’s manuscript score and two sets of parts of this work plus six scores from the hire library, reproduced from a different manuscript (1938). 3) The two pages from the earlier manuscript score reproduced here correspond with the very start of the recording.

Wyschnegradsky took a circuitous route to arrive at this arrangement and these particular sounds. He relates that he began work on Zarathoustra in November 1918, sketching out the first bars of each of the four movements in quarter tones. With no means of ever making the large-scale microtonal work he had in mind audible, Wyschnegradsky spent much of the 1920s looking into how a piano (and other instruments) capable of playing microtonally could be designed and fabricated: an interesting intersection with Percy Grainger and the Butterfly piano. Wyschnegradsky met and worked with Czech composer, Alois Hába, who had similar pre-occupations. By 1929, Wyschnegradsky had his very own monumental quarter tone upright piano in Paris (see below) and he could return to composing Zarathoustra. 4)

Wyschnegradsky scored the work for what he later described as a “not very practical” ensemble of quarter-tone piano (6 hands); quarter-tone harmonium (4 hands); quarter-tone clarinet; a “traditional” string ensemble; and percussion, but he could see no prospect of securing a performance. It was not until 1936 that he re-wrote it for 4 pianos, recasting the 2nd and 4th movements, and Zarathoustra was premiered in this form at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel in Paris on 25 January 1937. The four pianists who played are the same as those on the recording: Monique Haas, Ina Marika, Edward Staempfli and Max Vredenburg, under the direction of the composer.

By making Zarathoustra available for hire through Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre, and commercially as a sound recording, Louise Hanson-Dyer demonstrated her unflinching support of 20th century music, particularly in the years before World War II. 5) Rare Music is proud to house the archive of a woman who, like Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Percy Grainger, made an exceptional contribution to the music of her time.

Jen Hill, Curator, Rare Music

1) There are many variant transliterations of Wyschnegradsky; this version is the one the composer used in his correspondence with Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre. Grove music online favours Vyschnegradsky or Vischnegradsky. For more information and a wealth of images (including the one of Wyschnegradsky with his quarter tone piano in 1935, above), see the comprehensive Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky website.

2) Much of the information here is taken from an undated typescript “Notice” by the composer (in French), housed with the scores in the Editions de l’Oiseau-Lyre archive.

3) The manuscript score (part of EOLA MU094) is heavily annotated; intriguingly the score includes a legible part for percussion struck through with red pencil.

4) Wyschnegradsky’s piano was made by August Förster, a piano manufacturer in the Czech Republic.

5) For more information on Hanson-Dyer and Wyschnegradsky see Jim Davidson, Lyrebird Rising (Carlton, 1994) p. 317. Correspondence in the archive indicates that the first formal meeting between the two was in May 1938; British composer and pianist Alan Bush had suggested to Wyschnegradsky in 1937 that he get in touch.

Beaming a parable to European Renaissance art classes

Of the many classes utilising the Print Collection during semester one, European Renaissance Art receive the gold star for the most visits and for some very engaging interactions with the collection.

With a fly on the wall vantage onto the classes, it is intriguing to view one of the prints selected for their seminar topic: The Print Revolution, which was Daniel Hopfer’s Interior of the Church with the Parable of the Mote and the Beam (c.1520). Students commenced their study of the print with some close visual examination and this produced some confused expressions as well as some muffled laughter. For central to the image is a figure with plank of wood protruding out of his eye.

This is a very literal rendering of the proverbial saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye’. This warning against judgment may not be in 21st century parlance but it is just one of the many insights offered by this etching.

Geographically this image is categorised as art of the Northern European Renaissance, rather than the more familiar Italian, and stylistically these works of art have different characteristics to Italian. Daniel Hopfer (1471 – 1536) as a trained armourer is perhaps best known for his contributions to adapt the metalworking process of etching on iron, to printmaking. The link to metalwork designing is most apparent in the intricate vault decoration in the print. Another innovation which can be seen developing through the image is perspective. The church, identified as St Catherine’s in Hopfer’s hometown of Augsburg, employs newly outlined mathematical principles in its execution of depth and scale.

Like many students of print culture, an essential method to appreciate prints such as Hopfer’s in context as they do, is to read them alongside Peter Parshall’s influential article: Imago contrafacta: Images and facts in the Northern Renaissance.

Frozen voices from the past: Captain Horatio Austin’s Log of the HMS Resolute and the first traces of the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin

Generously supported by donations to the University of Melbourne’s Annual Appeal, access to hidden treasures in the Rare Books Collection is being enhanced using digital technologies…

Situation of HMS Resolute, Baffins Bay, June 1858

Monstrous icebergs, eerily tolling ships’ bells, fogs so dense that sky and sea solidify into a single ghostly whiteness, and uninhabited boats snap-frozen in time.  Such are the haunting images described in accounts of the early exploration expeditions in the Arctic.

Imagine three Icebergs, as big as St Pauls tilting at each other, and we in our poor vessels!’ wrote ship’s master George McDougall in October 1850.[i]

One of these stories – that of the lost 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin to find the elusive Northwest Passage – has persisted in the public imagination for almost 170 years, casting its icy spectre over many books, poetry, songs, documentaries and feature films.   Infused with heightened elements – vast frigid oceans, a devoted wife who would not give up the search for her husband, and a solitary and remote landscape – the mystery gripped a Victorian reading public who avidly awaited newspaper articles and naval reports on the fate of the voyage.  The alien world of the Arctic provided a vivid background for successive instalments of the story, and depictions of the unfamiliar environment were brought to life using the new technologies of moving panoramas and magic lantern shows: Continue reading “Frozen voices from the past: Captain Horatio Austin’s Log of the HMS Resolute and the first traces of the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin”

Plotting a course for object-based learning with exhibitions

Object-based learning classes where students engage directly with cultural materials may take many varied formats either in a class room, a collection store or an exhibition space. When I prepare the works of art from the Print Collection for a class in the Leigh Scott Room in the Baillieu Library, I often experience the unexpected problem of chairs. This utilitarian item is usually the first physical object students encounter in the room before they engage with the rare prints. With such capable students at the university, I will indicate the stack of chairs with a ‘please help yourself.’ This immediately raises a problem for students who ask, ‘where do I put it; which orientation does it face; how is it to be arranged? These are also the kinds of questions I have also asked myself in relation to the preparation of the university’s cultural collections. To avoid this vexing class challenge I have also laid out the chairs prior, only to have the students stand up amongst the chairs reverentially, being careful not to touch them. If the same chair were to be placed in say, a café, the student’s relationship with it might be quite different to that of the chair-of-the-cultural-institution. There are many suppositions to be read into ‘the problem of chairs’ example, but powerful for me is the influence of the physical environment, our preconceptions and those  of our peers, on our interaction with cultural objects.


Fortunately in exhibitions, students are able to move around in the space and interact with objects; therefore they are less likely to sag to the ground and are able to forego the ubiquitous class chair. Object-based learning with exhibitions is a powerful experience, offering an environment of evocative objects which have been carefully arranged into a context, ready for diverse responses and interpretations.

Students from such disparate disciplines as Astronomy in World History, Australian Art, Global Literature and Postcolonialism have all engaged with the latest exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery, Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster. Asking an object a question, even a simple one, such as, ‘which orientation does it face?’ is a very effective means of revealing the secrets of its materials, purpose and history and hence how it speaks to our society.

After a tour of the exhibition to briefly hear key themes, the students from Global Literature and Postcolonialism broke into groups, looked at and discussed objects in relation to two very broad questions. One group looked at objects in terms of their authenticity, and this all depended on how they interpreted the term ‘authentic.’ The other group examined the objects to consider a narrative from another perspective; a narrative that was ‘missing’ from what was presented. They came up with very considered and thought-provoking observations.

An object which very obviously challenges ideas of authenticity is the book, My secret log boke. This volume claims to be the lost journal of Christopher Columbus found in a chest on the coast of Pembrokeshire 400 years after his death. The students immediately noted that the appearance of the book was odd, and looked deeper to see that the materials had been manipulated. The paper and writing on the cover did not ring true, nor did the sea shells that were glued on. The students then began to question whether the tone and expression of the language used were authentic to the era and stature of Columbus.

Yet the students grappled with other aspects of authenticity, almost shocked that an authoritative document like a map could contain information that was not absolutely accurate, such as a landmass that did not exist or a coastline that was incorrectly drawn. Or similarly, that a contemporary artist had changed the meaning of a historic portrait of Joseph Banks with the addition of villainous Big Bad Banksia Men. The accuracy of the information presented became a key approach to validity, but they came to recognise that authenticity is relevant to particular times in history and modes of thinking and there were no absolutes in its application.

The group investigating alternate narratives were drawn to the navigational instruments. To them these Western artefacts did not acknowledge the skilled reading of stars and navigation history of Indigenous peoples. The chronometer for example, represents a breakthrough in the development of Western navigation in the way it enables the calculation of longitude.  The students said that the development of Indigenous knowledge was not shown and that the objects, by their physicality, did not recognise the long oral and ephemeral expert traditions of non-Westerners.

Another object these students gravitated to was the scene depicting the massacre of members of the La Pérouse expedition. Jean-Francois de Galaup La Pérouse quite literally went missing in 1788 after his departure from Australia. Previously, in 1787, after stopping for water on Tutuila, Samoa, a party from the expedition were attacked and killed by the islanders.  The students thought this image implied the explanation of La Pérouse’s fate; that he had likewise been violently attacked in the Solomon Islands, the location of his ship’s wreck.  One student noticed the women in this etching, placed on the margins. The women’s role or even their nationality was not apparent; their presence had been rendered ambiguously in the narratives.


The skill of looking is fundamental to object-based learning. With my background in visual arts, I had to learn how to read a historic map; while they utilise precisely the same materials and technology as a more familiar print, the ideas they communicate are radically different. Object-based learning is also a lesson in looking and of not allowing what you see to fall within a frame of expectations and preconceptions.


Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)

“Something with a cow in it”: Dairying in Victoria’s Western District celebrated in a 1907 comic opera.

In 1914, when playwright Louis Esson exhorted his fellow playwrights to write “authentic” Australian plays, he used the throwaway line “something with a cow in it” to get his idea across.1) Theatrical historian Eric Irvin cleverly spotted that one man—a German émigré musician called Louis Bayer (1858–1907)—had already written a work for the stage with not one, but many cows in it: a comic opera called The Golden West: or A dairy farm in Arcadia that had been performed seven years earlier. In Irvin’s article on Bayer, he notes that, though published, no copy of the opera’s libretto has survived.2) Rare Music, however, has a copy: an unprepossessing pamphlet of 25 pages, missing the cover and with only some of the print advertising for Warrnambool businesses (example below).3) It makes very entertaining reading. No music from this opera has survived, while the music of three of Bayer’s four other operas survives only in a single item from each one.4)

Act I of The Golden West takes place in a milking shed – the stage set at curtain-up was said to have evoked an “audible gasp” of recognition from the opening night audience. Dairying at the time was a strong contributor to Victoria’s economy after the collapse of the land boom; the young men milking during the opening chorus express sentiments that contrast markedly with present-day discourse around dairying.

Backbone of the country we,
Thanks to cow-fat industree [sic].
Mighty, like a king just now
Is the man who milks the cow.

The libretto of the opera—sung lyrics and spoken dialogue—is broadly comic throughout. Some reviews suggest that the humour did not always hit its mark; the music, though, was uniformly praised.

Almost too absurd to précis, the plot revolves around a Lord Coddlebock (a young English gentleman) who outbids “Dad Morris” to purchase 900 acres in order to set up his own dairy farm. Morris, the father of seven sons and one daughter, wants the land to extend his own farm so that it could support his sons and their (prospective) wives as well as himself. Coddlebock has no idea about dairy farming—he has purchased a herd of steers instead of milkers—but aims to establish his own version of a “model dairy farm”, where cows live pampered lives (with “horns polished and silver tipped”) in palatial surroundings. Coddlebock hires Morris and his seven sons to work for him and (inevitably) falls in love with Morris’s daughter, Pattie. Coddlebock’s bizarrely opulent milking shed is the setting for the final act, during which he becomes engaged to Pattie and gives Morris the land he needs to see his sons settled. Coddlebock’s declaration, just before the final chorus, that he has invented a milking-machine that “will strip 100 cows in 40 minutes”, is an interesting contemporary reference. Milking machines were first introduced in the region around 1890 and by 1907 were in wide use; 100 cows in 40 minutes, though, seems far fetched.

Louis Bayer’s own life ended unexpectedly during the second run of The Golden West in October 1907.5) His death was said to have been brought about by the strain (and high financial pressure) of self-producing his comic opera twice in 6 months, employing a different cast of professional performers each time: well-known soprano Ray Jones (pictured) was Pattie in the April season. The opera toured the region, with just one night in each place and with box-office takings susceptible to bad weather.

While a happy ending is de rigueur in the world of comic opera, Louis Bayer and his family were denied one, at least partly as a consequence of his Dairy farm in Arcadia.

Jen Hill, Music Curator

Image of cow at top: Wood engraving from Illustrated Australian news (Melbourne), 1 September 1891, courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

  1. Eric Irvin, citing the Sydney Bulletin, 5 November 1914 in “Louis Bayer (1858-1907), composer to the man on the land” Southerly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Sept 1988: 284.
  2. Irvin, 294.
  3. The copy in Rare Music is signed by a third literary Louis: composer and writer Louis Lavater.
  4. Graeme Skinner’s wonderful Austral Harmony on-line resource records the works of Bayer that have survived. Rare Music has a Leura Waltz, named after Mt Leura in Camperdown.
  5. See Camperdown Chronicle, 31 October 1907: 3.

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