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Margaret Ada Sutherland (1896–1984)

by David Symons

This article was published:

Margaret Ada Sutherland (1896-1984), composer, pianist and teacher, was born on 20 November 1896 in Adelaide, youngest of five children of George Sutherland, journalist, and his wife Ada Alice, née Bowen.  George had moved from Melbourne to Adelaide in the early 1880s, and by 1902 he had returned with his family to Melbourne.  The Sutherlands were a close-knit and intellectually gifted family who had emigrated from Scotland to Australia and settled in Melbourne in 1870.  Margaret Sutherland’s uncles, including Alexander and William, were all teachers, academics or professionals.  One of her aunts, Jane, was an artist, while her other two aunts were musicians:  Jessie, a lieder singer and Julia, a teacher of piano from whom Margaret received her first music lessons.  Both her parents were amateur musicians.

Educated at Baldur Girls’ Grammar School, Kew, she was taught music by the composer Mona McBurney.  She acknowledged McBurney’s significance as an early musical mentor; and McBurney may have been the first to inspire in the young student the notion that musical composition might be a possible occupation for a woman, as an alternative to the conventional female roles of pianist and teacher.

In 1913, following success in an audition in which she performed her own piano sonata, Sutherland was offered two scholarships at the Melbourne (or Albert Street, later Melba) Conservatorium, for study with Edward Goll (piano) and Fritz Hart (composition).  Her earliest surviving compositions (the piano sonata is lost) date from this period and comprise songs for voice and piano in which she already showed a mature grasp of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century harmonic devices.

Incensed by the dismissal of Goll as an 'enemy alien', she followed him in 1915 to the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.  There she won a further scholarship to continue her studies with him.  She never completed any formal awards for music studies and came to despise such things as degrees and examinations, considering them straitjackets that inhibited genuinely spontaneous artistic development.  Under Goll’s mentorship, however, she developed into a fine pianist and also became a part-time piano teacher at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (1918-23), and then at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium (1923-38).  She was also active as a recitalist and chamber music pianist, especially in performances of her own music, for much of her life.

A desire to pursue musical composition as her main career led Sutherland to undertake the first of two study trips to England and Europe.  She left Australia at the end of 1923 and lived principally in London, Vienna and Paris during the next two years, when her main composition instructor was (Sir) Arnold Bax.  Again she declined to enrol formally at any institution, preferring to pursue private study and observe the music scene in these centres.  Her major compositional achievement while studying with Bax was her Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he (now famously) described as 'the best work I know by a woman'.  She returned to Melbourne at the end of 1925, and on 30 July 1927 at Camberwell, married a Melbourne physician and psychiatrist, Norman Arthur Albiston, with Presbyterian forms.  The couple had a son and a daughter.  Soon, however, the marriage became dysfunctional and they subsequently separated.

Critics regard Sutherland as one of the most significant composers of Australia’s post-colonial period.  Her output ranged in genres from opera, ballet and incidental music for the theatre, to vocal, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, and much music written for young performers (chiefly small choral and piano works).  Her preference was for music of small to moderate dimensions:  for example, her only opera, The Young Kabbarli (1964)—in which she collaborated with Maie Casey—is a one-act chamber opera.  She contended that female composers had a different sensibility and aesthetic priorities from male composers, but that their contribution was no less important.

Sutherland’s output fell into two large periods, pre- and post-World War II.  The earlier period was dominated by songs, short choral works, chamber music and brief (largely didactic) piano works, which show influences of post-Elgarian English music, including the so-called 'pastoral' style, but extending to the more harmonically adventurous styles of Bax, John Ireland and Alexander Scriabin.  A leaner, more neo-classical tendency is also apparent during this period, in some chamber and instrumental works and in her first major orchestral work, the Suite on a Theme by Purcell (1938).  This tendency became relatively dominant in the later, postwar period, where the influence of Bartok, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Shostakovich contributed to the shaping of her style, while the earlier influences nevertheless remained traceable.

The establishment of State symphony orchestras under the aegis of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the 1940s undoubtedly stimulated Sutherland to compose for this medium, and the later period was notable for the production of orchestral works—mostly short but also including major works of distinction such as the tone poem Haunted Hills (1950) and Violin Concerto (1960).  Her output of chamber and vocal music continued throughout her career.  She wrote many fine songs, including settings of poems by John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright, as well as major chamber works such as the Violin Sonata and the first (c.1937), second (1954, titled Discussion) and third (1967) string quartets—the last being the first work for which Sutherland received a professional commission.  She never aspired to a deliberately nationalist style as did some contemporaries, such as John Antill and Clive Douglas.  Yet she, like Judith Wright, maintained an essentially internalised perspective of 'Australian-ness' which, she asserted, should be an unconscious influence or permeation.

Apart from Sutherland’s activities as a composer, performer and teacher, she became, from the early 1940s, active and influential as a lobbyist on behalf of Australian composers and Australian music, music education and the arts.  Her most notable achievement in the public domain may have been the organisation of the movement in the 1940s to reserve the site for what was to become the Victorian Arts Centre.  She later helped to found the Victorian branch of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which became the Arts Council of Australia; and she was also a member of the Australian Music Advisory Committee for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Along with a fellow Australian composer, Don Banks, during her second trip to Europe in 1951-52 she helped to establish in Britain the Australian Musical Association—a body set up to assist Australian musicians studying abroad, to arrange concerts of works by Australian composers, and to build a library of Australian music scores at Australia House in London.

A near-fatal stroke and severely deteriorating eyesight ended Sutherland’s career in 1968.  It was during her enforced retirement that her work received belated official recognition.  The University of Melbourne conferred an honorary doctorate of music on her in 1969.  Appointed OBE the next year and AO in 1981, she was also awarded the Queen’s jubilee medal in 1977.  Her seventieth, seventy-fifth and eightieth birthdays were celebrated with concerts and broadcasts devoted to her music.  Sutherland died on 12 August 1984 at Armadale, Melbourne, and was cremated.  Her son survived her; her daughter had died in 1972.  A memorial concert of her songs and chamber music was given on 1 October 1984 in the foyer of the newly completed Melbourne Concert Hall, and tribute was paid to Sutherland’s role in the genesis of the Victorian Arts Centre, to which the Concert Hall was the latest addition.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Covell, Australia’s Music (1967)
  • A. McCredie, Musical Composition in Australia (1969)
  • J. Murdoch, Australia’s Contemporary Composers (1972)
  • F. Callaway and D. Tunley (eds), Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (1978)
  • M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time (1985)
  • J. W. LePage, Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century, vol 3 (1988)
  • D. Symons, The Music of Margaret Sutherland (1997)
  • Sutherland papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria and Australian Music Centre, Sydney).

Citation details

David Symons, 'Sutherland, Margaret Ada (1896–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Margaret Sutherland, 1960

Margaret Sutherland, 1960

National Archives of Australia, SP1011/​1:4382

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Albiston, Margaret Ada

20 November, 1896
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


12 August, 1984 (aged 87)
Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.