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Listening to the past at Mugga-Mugga

Listening to the Past: Music in ACT Historic House Museums concert for the ACT Heritage Festival. Mugga-Mugga Homestead, Sunday April 12, 12.30pm.

Pianos are magnetic: in museums, in other people's houses, in hotels, op shops and concert halls, I want to touch the keys to hear their individual sound and to imagine who played them and why.

In my doctoral research I investigated how Australian pioneer women in particular would sacrifice material comforts to buy   a piano for their homes – even those in remote settings such as Mary Braidwood Mowle's shepherd's hut in the Brindabellas, where the piano loaded onto a dray was dragged into the hills along execrable tracks to reach her home.

Pianos were a talisman connecting women and their families with a sense of cultural achievement and linking them through well-loved songs and tunes to the remembered music of their distant families and homelands.

Often historic sheet music is annotated and dated, and related letters and diaries can be linked to pieces of music to shed light on hidden secret meanings in lyrics and in melodies for the person who performed them. as I discovered in investigating the life and music of Georgiana McCrae, who lived in Victoria from 1840 to 1896. 

In 2014 I was awarded funding from the ACT Heritage Grants Program to recreate and record music that would have animated Canberra's historic house museums (Calthorpes' House, Lanyon and Mugga Mugga) using sheet music, oral history recordings and instruments belonging to each home.

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Examples (played on house instruments) will illustrate the cultural tastes of the different classes and personalities of people who inhabited each property.

In collaboration with ACT Museums and Historic Places, and Canberra piano technician Christopher Leslie, the piano at Mugga Mugga (an L P Renardi of Hamburg) and the piano at Lanyon (an English Broadwood) will be restored to a condition that renders the instruments playable while retaining the audible evidence of the age of these instruments. The violin at Mugga Mugga was restored for an earlier event in 2013 when I was able to play on it tunes that the original owner, Patrick Curley, had performed. 

Listening to the Past has provided the catalyst to prioritise the repair of musical instruments in these houses, safeguarding these fragile objects, in working order, for future generations. Motivation for the current project came from the personal experience of visiting historic house museums in Australia and Europe, which are usually devoid of musical sounds, even though many of these places preserve the musical instruments that were an integral part of family life. Musical choices tell us much about the people who bought sheet music and particular musical instruments. The songs and melodies enjoyed by family members were a fundamental part of communication through particular love songs, lullabies, counting and alphabet nursery songs; work songs to pass the time while doing repetitive outdoor laboring tasks or indoors washing the clothes or the dishes. Homes in history were seldom silent when the family was in residence. I have a mission to expose the rich domestic world of live music that flourished in Canberra's historic house museums.

The origins of music for the Curley family at Mugga Mugga began in Roscommon, Ireland, in 1817, where Patrick Curley was born. His wife Mary Fahey came from Ballinasloe, County Galway. With their 5-year-old son Thomas, they sailed from Liverpool on September 28, 1841, arriving   on January 18, 1842 and at Duntroon some time that year. One of the resident shepherds was Mr Sinclair, who would wander round the slopes of Mt Pleasant playing his bagpipes with a small boy – 6-year-old Patrick Curley  jnr – following him, "enjoying his strange music" and committing fragments to memory. 

In 1866, 13-year-old Patrick was employed as a junior shepherd at Mugga Mugga, the first outstation at Duntroon, and he lived in the stone cottage that remains today, built by Robert Campbell for his shepherd Ewan McPherson. It was about this time that he received his first violin, and when he was 17, so the story goes, acquired the violin that is in the house museum. His daughter Sylvia (a famous Canberra identity in her own right) recalled that "self taught, he would play for hours after work for private home dances and parties." Patrick would ride for miles to play for dances around the district where the waltz, the Quadrilles, the lancers, the Valse Cotillion, the Mazurka, the Polka the Schottische and the Varsoviana were popular. 

Patrick married in 1893, and his family lived at Mugga Mugga from 1913 to 1995. There were three daughters (Ada, Sylvia and Evelyn),  and musical life was recalibrated around the daughter's education on piano and violin. There is no doubt that the house was filled with music of all kinds – popular, traditional and classical – and it has been an extraordinary privilege to explore the complete sheet music collection and to assist in the meticulous process of dismantling and cleaning the piano before the return of the repaired action from Chris Leslie's workshop to bring the piano back to life. 

In an interview recorded during the 1990s, Sylvia Curley sat at the piano, talking of her father's musical genius as she coaxed a wild and watery sounding chord from the instrument, remarking, "I want to get it tuned and cleaned up you know." How thrilled I am that I have been able to work with the combined assistance of ACT Heritage, ACT Museums and Galleries, and technician Chris Leslie to realise Sylvia Curley's wish. 

On Sunday April 12, Canberra visitors to the National Trust/ACT Museums and Galleries Heritage Festival Open Day at Mugga Mugga homestead will have a chance to hear Patrick Curley's violin at a special presentation in the Education Centre at 12.30pm, with a chance to try your hand with a fiddle or whistle and the opportunity to sing along with one of the Curley favorites. There will also be a unique surprise afternoon performance for a very limited number of people who register their interest with the National Trust organisers there on the day.

Dr Jennifer Gall is an assistant curator at the NFSA and a visiting fellow at the ANU School of Music.