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Clive Martin Douglas (1903–1977)

by G. W. Howard

This article was published:

Clive Martin Douglas (1903-1977), musician, conductor and composer, was born on 27 July 1903 at Rushworth, Victoria, only child of Rolland Edward Ellerman Douglas, police constable, and his wife Annie Amelia Ellen, née Martin, both Victorian born. Rolland died in the course of duty in 1906. Clive's early childhood was unsettled: he lived for some time with his grandparents at Ballarat and Geelong, and later with his mother and stepfather. Educated at Rushworth State and Coburg High schools, in 1918 he joined the State Savings Bank of Victoria with which he worked for the next eighteen years. He married a 19-year-old typist Isabel Knox on 11 September 1926 with Presbyterian forms at Scots Church, Melbourne; they were to be divorced on 11 September 1935.

Douglas's earliest musical education came from his mother, a pianist. He studied violin with Franz Schieblich, and later theory and orchestration with Alberto Zelman. As a young man he was active in theatre and community orchestras as violinist and conductor. His first compositional exercises (dating from 1927) led in 1929 to his entry on an Ormond exhibition to the University Conservatorium of Music (Mus.B., 1934) where he studied composition with A. E. H. Nickson. Works from this period, Symphony in D and a symphonic poem, The Hound of Heaven, won special prizes in a competition sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1933, and his opera, Ashmadai, won first prize in 1935. Through its performance, Douglas met the soprano Marjorie Eloise Ellis whom he married on 15 August 1936 at the Methodist Church, Malvern.

That year Douglas began his professional association with the A.B.C. as conductor of its new Tasmanian orchestra. He developed a deep and lasting interest in Aboriginal folklore and in the Australian landscape which informed his Bush Legend (1938, subsequently reworked as Kaditcha and submitted for a Mus.D., University of Melbourne, 1958), the ballet scene, Corroboree (1939), and the tone poem, Carwoola (1939). In 1941-47 he was conductor of the A.B.C.'s Brisbane orchestra, was active with the Army Education Service and completed the opera, Eleanor (inspired by the Battle of Britain), in various performances of which his wife sang the principal role. Other appointments included associate-conductorships of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1947-53) under (Sir) Eugene Goossens and of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1953-66). Douglas produced scores for documentary films in these years, as well as concert music, and taught at the university conservatorium, Melbourne, in 1959-68.

His extensive travel as staff conductor on country tours inspired works in which he sought to capture the quality of the landscape and to find a musical idiom 'so entirely Australian that no other influence can be felt'. Wongadilla, Namatjira and Sturt 1829, among other compositions, reflected this interest. Douglas's incorporation of melodic materials derived from Aboriginal song was another distinctive feature of his output. These two characteristic elements led some writers to associate his work with Jindyworobakism, but nowhere did Douglas suggest any such connexion, and the application of this term to music is problematical.

Douglas's style was colouristically tonal, although influenced by modalism, exoticism and a slightly dissonant harmonic palette. His music is structured by means of conventional thematic and contrapuntal devices, and occasionally possesses an episodic character. He was little interested in the more progressive musical developments of his time, although he experimented with a modified serialism in such works as the Divertimento No.2 for Orchestra and Three Frescoes. In the late 1960s, after retiring from the A.B.C., Douglas visited Europe where he promoted Australian music and absorbed current influences. In his later life his music received only moderate attention at home and abroad, and, with the emergence of new generations of progressive Australian composers, it has been substantially eclipsed, yet Douglas was one of the country's most consistent and committed composers in a period when a creative musical life was struggling to assert itself.

Throughout his career Douglas continued to win awards, including first prize in the Commonwealth Jubilee Competition (1951) and in the A.B.C.-Australasian Performing Right Association competition (1955). In 1963 he was elected a life fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters. He died on 29 April 1977 at East Brighton, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife, their daughter and the daughter of his first marriage survived him. Two portraits are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Covell, Australia's Music (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers (Melb, 1972)
  • G. Howard, 'Clive Douglas', in F. Callaway and D. Tunley (eds), Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (Melb, 1978)
  • Australian Musical News, Oct 1933
  • Sounds Australian, 30, 1991, p 32
  • N. Saintilan, The Myth of the Musical Jindyworobak: Some Aspects of the Appropriation of Aboriginal Culture in the Music of Clive Douglas and Other Arts in Australia (B. Creative Arts Hons thesis, University of Wollongong, 1990)
  • Composer Profile: Clive Douglas (interview by C. Southwood, ABC radio, tape held ABC Federal Music Library, Sydney)
  • Douglas papers (State Library of Victoria, and Hince collection in National Library of Australia, and Australian Music Centre, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. W. Howard, 'Douglas, Clive Martin (1903–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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