Campion’s The Piano brims with haunting cinematographic images.
Take, for instance, the sight of Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin sitting
forlornly by the piano on the bare New Zealand beach as the surf swirls
around them. The instrument has just been landed with great difficulty,
and as I recall the scene now I wonder how much antipodean trouble a
certain other keyboard might have caused when it was brought ashore.
referring, I should add, not to a fictional instrument,
but a very real one — “the Worgan piano”, as it is
labelled, which is accepted as the first ever to arrive in
in this connection is the fact that, until the completion of Circular Quay
in 1850, landing facilities in Sydney Cove remained quite deficient.
Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, had confidently
asserted that “ships can anchor so close to the shore that at very small
expense quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload”.
the earliest years of the colony only two small and inadequate jetties
were available, the Government Wharf (mainly for the use of the Governor),
near the present-day corner of Loftus and Alfred Streets, and the Hospital
Wharf on Sydney Cove’s western side (The Rocks).
Worgan piano must therefore have required some awkward effort when
transferred from ship first to flat-bottomed barge then to shore — if not
because of its weight, which as we shall see was probably not excessive,
but more as a result of the rudimentary wharf facilities available.
what or where was Worgan?
Bouchier Worgan (1757-1838) came to New South Wales as surgeon on HMS
Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. He had joined the British
Navy in 1775, serving as surgeon's second mate from February 1778, then as
naval surgeon from March 1780. He remained in New South Wales only until
1791, when he returned to England to continue in the medical profession
(as a surgeon's mate and surgeon) till about 1800, retiring on half-pay to
take up farming, though with little success.
its publication in 1978 by the William Dixson Foundation at the State
Library of NSW, his diary (Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon) is now
more readily available as a primary source for historians. Although it
covers no more than the six-month period from 20 January to 11 July 1788,
interest in the journal persists chiefly because of its first-hand account
of the new colony and its description of the land and its indigenous
earliest brush with the hypothesis that the Worgan piano was in fact
Australia’s first occurred when I read W. Arundel Orchard‘s book Music
in Australia (1952):
In New South Wales . . . are found
the earliest records of cultural activity in Australia, one of which
mentions a piano that was landed at Circular Quay, Sydney, in 1790 from
H.M.S. Sirius whose surgeon, to whom the piano belonged, evidently had
some musical ability. The incident is referred to in a letter written from
Camden by Mrs. Macarthur in which she refers to "Mr. Worgan, who was
surgeon to the Sirius and happened to be left behind when that ship met
her fate at Norfolk Island. Our new house is ornamented with a new
pianoforte of Mr. Worgan's and he kindly means to leave it with me and
now, under his direction, I have begun a new study . . .”
is of course referring to Elizabeth, intrepid wife of pioneer woolgrower
and egotistical trouble-maker John Macarthur. Today Elizabeth Macarthur
(1766-1850) is recognised in her own right, having played a crucial part
both in John’s success as a farmer and in the social life of the fledgling
Macarthurs had arrived in New South Wales with Second Fleet in 1790, and
once they had set up house, Elizabeth quickly made contact with the rich
and powerful. In his The Fatal Shore (1986), Robert Hughes has
described the Macarthurs as “the founders and prototypes of the colonial
gentry”. They were in fact snobs, with little sympathy for the poor, the
self-righteous Elizabeth, for example, being highly affronted during the
voyage out at the way the convict women conducted themselves.
may have been, but Elizabeth Macarthur is generally regarded as the first
“educated” woman in Australia. Since childhood she had been extremely fond
of matters cultural, and now in New South Wales showed a keen interest in
colonial politics, local flora and fauna — even the Aborigines. Her
privileged position gave her an unrivalled perspective and her education
enabled her to write about such interests clearly and accurately.
Elizabeth was busy with her children, she paid serious attention to the
future of the farm, particularly during John’s absences overseas (1801-5
and 1809-17). She worked hard to secure their business against failure,
determined to keep the farm going so that her family could enjoy the good
life. She continued to expand Elizabeth Farm, their property at what is
today Rosehill, and began to breed Merino sheep with even better wool than
John had been able to achieve.
1820s the Macarthurs had become the biggest land owners in New South
Wales, and while her primary objective had always been to ensure that her
family was well provided for, along the way Elizabeth Macarthur helped
establish Australia's wool industry.
meantime, she had begun to learn the piano, thanks to the musical surgeon.
goes on to acknowledge his “first piano” source as a letter in the
Mitchell Library, written by Elizabeth Macarthur in 1791 to a friend in
England, a Miss Kingdon.
quoted her letter further, regarding her rapid progress not only in
learning to read music but also in performing God Save the King and
something called “Foot’s Minuet”, he concludes with these words:
“This event records what was most probably the landing of the first piano
years later, in his Australia’s Music (1967), Roger Covell would
again refer to the Worgan piano as “the colony’s very first piano”.
characteristic disdain for bland musical derivativeness, Covell suggests
that the piano,
. . . the
herald of innumerable musical evenings of the utmost respectability and
decorum during the following century and more, would have been one of
those light and shallow-toned instruments for which Mozart wrote his
sonatas and piano concertos. Mozart’s music would certainly have followed
Surgeon Worgan’s piano out not long after; but the truth is that Australia
missed most of what was best in late eighteenth and early nineteenth
century music. The dominant influence in colonial music-making of an
official or respectable sort was the sweet vapidity into which the idiom
of Mozart’s lesser contemporaries and successors declined in the early
years of the nineteenth century.
earliest free settlers would have been concerned at the time with keeping
up the niceties of polite music in London.
scorn regarding genteel musical soirées in early Australia is echoed by
the Penguin Australian Encyclopaedia (1990, ISBN 0 670 83148 4):
musical forms and preferences were transported to the founding colony, in
the fashion of the time, as trappings of the drawingroom. The need for
social establishment in a mainly convict population, reinforced by
recurring waves of British middle-class immigration, resulted in socially
useful music-making that was conservative in every sense of the word.
reference to Mozart, incidentally, is telling, I think.
First-Fleet-haunted Australians tend to forget that the illustrious German
composer did not die until 1791. Indeed, between 1788 and his death,
Mozart composed over 75 works, including three symphonies (among them the
Jupiter) and two piano concerti, not to mention The Magic Flute
and the Requiem.
the piano in question.
is right and it was indeed “light and shallow-toned”, then almost
certainly Worgan’s instrument was a square piano. Invented in Germany in
the 1740s, the square piano had its strings at right angles to the keys
and was more compact and far less expensive than a grand piano. It met
with great success in England especially, where it was built and sold in
great numbers, often by German immigrants. London manufacturers of the
period included Adam Beyer, John Broadwood & Son, Johannes Pohlmann and
Johannes Zumpe & Gabriel Buntebart.
I’m no historian, but I doubt strongly whether Orchard’s description of
the Worgan piano as “a piano that was landed at Circular Quay, Sydney, in
1790 from H.M.S. Sirius” could be correct. What we can say is that
1790 might have been the date or the Sirius might have been the
vessel — but we can’t claim both as true. The primary and obvious reason
is that in March 1790 the Sirius was completely wrecked at Norfolk
Island, three months before any landings from England that year (namely
the Second Fleet) could take place.
Hughes, on the other hand, describes Worgan as “the naval surgeon who
brought the first piano to Australia on the Sirius”, the “brought”
implying that his piano came with him.
your choice: the first piano in Oz arrived on the Sirius in 1788,
or on one of the ships in the Second Fleet two years later.
piano was not the first musical instrument brought to New South Wales,
however. As early as 7 February 1788 (twelve days after white settlement),
at the official reading of Governor Phillip’s Commission, there was music
— played by a naval band of drums and fifes.
drums were also used as the accompaniment to the punishment or public
disgrace of a serviceman. In fact the earliest piece of music known by
name to have been performed in Australia is The Rogues’ March,
played at the drumming out on 9 February 1788 of a soldier who had been
caught in the female convicts’ tents.
the colony would be home to larger military bands, augmented by strings,
playing for church services as well as secular ceremonial occasions. By
the 1820s Elizabeth Macarthur would have been able to enjoy “quadrilles
and waltzes, sentimentally homesick airs and martial songs of a
conventionally patriotic kind . . . [,] charms against the night and the
presumably, by those “Lady and Gentleman Amateurs” so often referred to in
newspapers of the day.
for me, however, has the romance of the Worgan piano.
that the fate of that piano — its adventures down the years under
successive owners and its eventual arrival at some museum (or, St. Cecilia
forbid, at some rubbish dump) — would make a fascinating tale to tell.
problem is, of course, that there are few, if any, unequivocal records of
what happened after Worgan and the Macarthurs to Australia’s first piano.
though three keyboard instruments survive at Camden Park, New South Wales
(the Macarthur country homestead), none of them is the Worgan piano. One
is a non-functional 19th century pump organ made by the Estry Company in
Illinois, another is a 4½ ft upright piano (I don’t know its vintage) and
the third is a 1940s grand piano.
one old piano at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill (the original Macarthur home),
but this is an 1835 upright.
novelist, on the other hand, such a narrative keyboard exercise might, on
the face of it, profitably warrant some wistful contemplation, don’t you
Annie Proulx hadn’t already used the idea first, with her Accordion