1950 Ladies of Letters: The Madames of Musica Viva
While the advent of Musica Viva exemplifies the contribution of migrants to Australia’s cultural life, the organisation’s survival, maturation and growth also reflects the enormous effort and talents of another significant group – women.
History reveals that at every level, from management to volunteers, women have been instrumental in Musica Viva’s development. In roles ranging from managers, state secretaries, committee members and volunteers to providers of hospitality, they have contributed to the consolidation of one of the largest and perhaps most successful entrepreneurs of chamber music in the world. Kim Williams paid tribute to some of the stalwart, highly original women serving in honorary capacities during his former tenure as general manager of Musica Viva in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his book, The Rules of Engagement, he enthused: ‘In Hobart there was a very confident Loyal Burley, with Lesley Alcorso as President; in Perth was the highly idiosyncratic Norma Patterson…backed up by her loyal president Flora Bunning; in Newcastle the erudite and stylish Jill Stowell; in Brisbane the brave MS-afflicted Christine Gargett’. To these he may well have added the name of the talented Mary Vallentine, a former assistant manager.
It would be impossible here to provide a comprehensive account of all of the individual women who have contributed to the success of Musica Viva. This story will therefore focus on the pioneering work provided by two of the foremost and longest serving women in the history of Musica Viva, Regina Ridge and Edith Dubsky.
In their day they were regarded as synonymous with Musica Viva. Both were redoubtable figures, often at loggerheads with each other, and both equally determined about the correctness of their views. Although from very different backgrounds, both were driven by a commitment to deliver to Australian audiences the best in chamber music.
THE EARLY YEARS OF REGINA RIDGE
Regina Ridge was a forerunner in what was to become the area of arts administration. She served with Musica Viva for almost 25 years, firstly as Manager and later as Asian Activities Organiser. With executive members Charles Berg and Ken Tribe, she forged a powerful triumvirate from the mid-1950s to early 1970s. Sadly, Ridge kept no personal records.
Family recollections, written accounts and reminiscences of colleagues present a picture of a woman who could be acerbic yet diplomatic when required, resourceful, driven, perfectionistic, supremely efficient, professional, businesslike, a woman in whose way it was unwise to stand; a woman whose single-minded determination and dedication to the cause of Musica Viva frequently earned great admiration and respect, particularly from visiting and Australian musicians.
Ridge’s family hailed from Yorkshire. A staunch Christian, she was the product of a strict Methodist upbringing. Regina was named in honour of the coronation of George V as King of England in 1911. She grew up in Sydney with her two sisters and brother at the Annandale home constructed by their builder father, attending Annandale Primary School and later Fort Street High School.
Her brother Barry recalled that she had always had a great love of music. She played the organ, sang, and studied harmony and counterpoint. With her sister Jo, Ridge studied in London during 1936/37 for her associate diploma at Trinity College. In the early 1940s she deputised for the organist at her local Methodist church and, for twenty-two years after the war, continued to serve in this capacity as well as that of choirmaster.
RIDGE JOINS MUSICA VIVA
Ridge joined Musica Viva after working as assistant to Dorothy Helmrich, her singing teacher, a former lieder singer and the founder of the NSW Arts Council. There she had learnt valuable lessons in concert management and about the effectiveness of a loosely affiliated structure with branch committees composed of enthusiastic individuals, a model that was subsequently pursued by Musica Viva.
Appointed in October 1950 as the first full-time salaried manager of Musica Viva, Ridge must have been extremely disappointed at the decision of the Musica Viva committee to suspend the activities of the Society in 1951. This decision was made for many reasons, but mainly the difficulties of surviving on box office receipts alone and the gruelling performance schedule undertaken by the very first Musica Viva Ensemble. Keen to retain the services of Ridge, Charles Berg, the Secretary of Musica Viva, found her a position in his accountancy firm and paid her a wage until such time as the fortunes of Musica Viva might revive.
Such an opportunity arrived in 1954 when Fred Turnovsky, the president from the New Zealand Federation of Chamber Music Societies, proposed a cooperative venture with the then dormant Musica Viva in touring a couple of European chamber ensembles in Australia and New Zealand in the following year. This next phase of Musica Viva’s development entailed a change in its policy and philosophy. Originally the avowed primary goal of the Society was to support and administer its own chamber ensemble, but with the tenuous rebirth of the Society in 1955, this function gradually receded as the entrepreneurial side of the organisation expanded. It seems that, even in the arts, necessity can be the mother of survival.
EXPANSION AND CONSOLIDATION
This new pragmatism saw Ridge’s extraordinary organisational powers come into their own. Ken Tribe, Chairman of the Executive; Charles Berg, Secretary; and initially Richard Goldner, Musical Director, realised that central to ensuring the survival of Musica Viva was the need for a national audience. A national network to support the work of the society was imperative. To this end, branches in Victoria and South Australia were re-established, followed by the newly formed Queensland branch in 1956. Initially the ACT, Western Australia, Tasmania and Newcastle were junior partners in tours that incorporated major international and Australian performers, but eventually they became fully fledged branches.
In this period of national expansion and consolidation (late 1950s and 1960s), the voluntary work of the committees in these branches and other regional music clubs played a vital role in establishing the operations of the Society. Their efforts at the ‘coal face’ – the hospitality and care extended to visiting artists, and the administrative tasks of selling tickets, organising publicity, staffing venues and, above all, creating and maintaining a loyal subscriber base – ensured a wide national and regional network around the country.
With her finger on the pulse of Musica Viva, Ridge kept a vigilant watch from Head Office Sydney, eventually located in 1963 at the creatively styled ‘Attic’ in George Street. Richard Goldner recalled that it ‘had enormous charm and was a true expression of her artistic talent’. His approval extended to her skill as an amateur photographer, ‘especially the huge collection of photographs…mounted on the wall behind her imposing desk’. From here all business correspondence, letters, memoranda, notices, reports to the executive, council, and honorary secretaries sprang from her reliable manual Underwood typewriter. Justin Macdonnell remembers that her correspondence was ‘set out with her distinctive punctuation and, at times, ferocity, and despatched to those she saw as her suffragans with all the force of Papal Bulls’.
Sydney Morning Herald music critic Roger Covell’s most persistent memory was of Ridge presiding calmly and with enormous competence at Musica Viva’s Easter Chamber Music Festivals at Mittagong in the 1960s, ‘wearing her straw hat that was her principal concession to festival informality’. Children were always welcome at concerts and Ken Tribe recollected that they were given lessons in elementary concert behaviour by Ridge: ‘Sit near the entrance, and if you want to leave at any time you can, but wait for the end of a piece when people clap and then you can go outside to play’. Justin Macdonnell also recalled an interaction with her at the 1972 Adelaide Festival, the first tour of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: ‘Regina was jumpy about needing to be back in Sydney….I enquired mildly, whether she was enjoying the Festival. She gave me a look as though I had uttered a blasphemy…and shot back: ‘I’m not here to enjoy myself!’ However, while her office photographs point to a more complex, aesthetic soul, the choir that she conducted at the Annandale Methodist Church identified a more frivolous adornment to her apparent ‘no nonsense’ matter-of-factness. Choristers gloried in her ‘sanctified hilarity’ during rehearsals: ‘she taught us to laugh at ourselves’.
GOVERNMENT FUNDING LEADS TO A NEW LANDSCAPE
Musica Viva, incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation, had been primarily self-reliant through box office receipts from the very beginning, hence its emphasis on developing a strong subscriber base and tight financial planning. Changes in the cultural landscape, however, had great implications for all those involved in the performing arts. A transformation began in the late 1960s as the organisation received subsidies from the NSW and Victorian governments, specifically for the purpose of developing country concert activity. The scope of grant allocations widened further with the establishment of the Australian Council for the Arts (ACA) by the Gorton government in 1968.
Musica Viva was one of the first arts organisations to make contact with the Council. Ken Tribe reminisced that when appointed head of the organisation, Dr Jean Battersby said that one of the first visitors on her doorstep was Regina Ridge. Despite her forebodings about the organisational accountability necessitated by increased government intervention and control, Regina made many submissions to the ACA for financial assistance for everything from administrative expenses, ‘outback’ tours, and the importation of special groups from overseas, to tours by Australian ensembles to South East Asia.
The 1960s and 1970s in Australia were also preoccupied with government planning of new cultural amenities. The Melbourne Cultural Centre was built during this period, but by far the most controversial and longest to fruition was the construction of Sydney’s iconic Opera House. Over a period of thirteen years Regina, along with several members of the Executive of Musica Viva, were involved in various planning committees for the Opera House.
A DIFFICULT END FOR RIDGE
Clearly, the managerial role at Musica Viva was growing more complex and demanding. According to Ken Tribe there was no doubt about Regina’s competence and capability but in the latter part of her tenure Ridge was in her sixties and the Executive became increasingly worried about their organisational exposure should anything happen to her. An assistant manager was deemed necessary.
From 1968-1973, three assistant managers came and went. This rapid turnover may have had something to do with the assistants themselves surmised Ken Tribe, but it may also have been an indication that Ridge did not wish to relinquish the reins. It may also have had something to do with what Tribe felt was her difficulty in working collaboratively with others.
In a bid to find a successor, an approach was made by Charles Berg to Donald McDonald. McDonald was offered the assistant manager’s position at the beginning of 1972, on the understanding that with the retirement of Ridge he would be appointed her successor. Initially, the relationship between them was a cordial one, recalled McDonald, until the opening season of the Sydney Opera House approached and there was no talk of a retirement date from Ridge. McDonald, aspiring and not wishing to remain in a secondary position indefinitely, took his concerns to Ken Tribe and Charles Berg.
At an executive meeting it was decided that Ridge be asked to retire from the manager’s position and work for Musica Viva part time in the overseas development area. This unenviable task fell to Ken Tribe. Needless to say, Ridge was wounded and very bitter. She refused initially to speak to Ken Tribe and after a few weeks he called on Charles Berg to intervene. The situation was an unfortunate one. Since 1955 Regina Ridge’s whole life had revolved around Musica Viva. Ridge felt betrayed and undervalued by an organisation to which she had given over two decades of her life. However, it may have been that previously mentioned developments in the cultural landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s did demand a newer, more modern style of management and the necessity for greater cooperation between arts organisations. Possibly new forms of marketing and advertising called for new skills, skills that Ridge may not have possessed.
Finally, in November 1973, after the subscription series at the newly opened Opera House, Ridge’s resignation as Manager took effect. Despite her reluctance to step down, she accepted a proffered part-time role as ‘Asian Activities Organiser’. In this role she took care of overseas tours and exchanges of Australian musicians and artists, and worked in co-operation with the then Department of Foreign Affairs. Concurrently she worked part time as the Concert Manager at the Sydney Opera House.
In 1974, in recognition for her services to music Ridge received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. However the transition to her different role in Musica Viva was not an easy one and she ultimately resigned from the organisation in August 1975 to take up a full-time position at the Opera House.
The difficulties she experienced toward the end of her time with Musica Viva were soon succeeded by tragedy. During her tenure at Musica Viva, Ridge had developed a very close relationship with the members of the Smetana Quartet. Her visit in October 1975 to Prague in order to celebrate the quartet’s 30th anniversary ended suddenly when she sustained fatal head injuries in a motor accident.
Ridge’s death was mourned deeply by the musical community which held a special memorial concert in her honour at the Sydney Opera House in November of the same year. Poignantly, the leader of the Smetana Quartet, Antonin Kohout, wrote to her sister Jo saying: ‘You certainly must know how close she was to us and how much we valued her as a person and as a fellow worker. Regina was more like one of the members of our group, she belonged to the history of the Quartet and neither we nor our families will ever forget her’.
ANOTHER PIONEER: EDITH DUBSKY
Regina Ridge was not alone in being a woman playing a major role in this phase of Musica Viva’s history. Of a similar generation and of the same mettle, a second significant pioneering woman became the longest serving Honorary Secretary of the Adelaide branch of Musica Viva, from 1947–1983: Edith Dubsky.
Born in 1903 into an educated middle class family, Dubsky was encouraged in her love of music, theatre and the arts by her father. She learned the piano ‘but I gave it up when I realised that in order to play it to satisfy me, I’d have to practise, which I wasn’t prepared to do. I’ve regretted it ever since, and then it became too late’.
Dubsky was from a very different cultural and religious background to that of Regina Ridge. Like the founder of Musica Viva, Richard Goldner, she was a Jewish Viennese migrant who escaped to Australia from the encroaching menaces of Nazism and war in Europe in 1939. She wryly observed that ‘Mr Hitler and I did not hit it off’.
Dubsky, newly single after an unsuccessful marriage, brought few relics of her past life to Australia. She first worked at Myer’s department store in Melbourne then moved to Adelaide in 1941 to manage an imported knitwear shop called Mitzi of Vienna. Like Goldner and many other escapees from Nazi oppression, she was classified during the war as an ‘alien’ and subjected to restrictions on her freedom and dignity in her new land. Dubsky was permitted to speak only English in public and was required to report to the police station daily.
She recalled, perhaps diplomatically, that in those very early years in her new country everything was so ‘novel’. Adelaide, having the population of a large country town at the time, must have seemed a world away from the café society of Vienna. Possibly because there were fewer refugees in Adelaide, many of whom were academic and professional people rather than the business people who gravitated to Melbourne and Sydney, she mixed with both Europeans and Australians. She recalled enjoying life in her new city, with its lack of racial or class discrimination.
What she did realise, however, was that one of the things she missed most was music. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was made up of both amateur and professional players and in the early 1940s many were fighting in the Second World War. In discussions with friends, like Dr Rudi Ernst, a fellow émigré, it was felt that perhaps smaller chamber ensembles may be a more distinct performance proposition.
MUSICA VIVA IN ADELAIDE
In December of 1947 Dubsky received, along with many others, an invitation to the first Adelaide Musica Viva concert. Here Richard Goldner and the members of the first Musica Viva Ensemble endeavoured to expand the scale of the Society from that of mainly Sydney and Melbourne audiences. At a post-concert supper Goldner spoke very persuasively to a gathering that included members of the Adelaide establishment about founding a local subscription series, which would require an Adelaide branch. He asked Dubsky if she would undertake the role of Honorary Secretary. Dubsky replied that she didn’t know what that would involve but she would try. ‘Nobody knew anything about Musica Viva when it started here. It just happened. I didn’t do anything.’ Be that as it may, she was certainly motivated to make it as professional an organisation as any other in the concert management field when she heard someone from the ABC say that Musica Viva was an amateur organisation and would fold in the first year.
After Musica Viva’s recess and the resumption of its activities at the end of 1954, Dubsky was engaged to revive the Adelaide subscription list. People gradually came back, and over the years were treated to fine visiting international and Australian ensembles. As one committee member remembered, Dubsky’s mastery of detail and interpersonal skills were astonishing: ‘No wonder ensembles from interstate and overseas genuinely loved coming to Adelaide. She did so much for their comfort and convenience. Nothing was too much trouble and everything always went smoothly for them. In addition her phenomenal memory enabled her to recall the names and details of each musician making them feel welcome and important.’ Her past involvement in sales and service industries no doubt contributed to both her interpersonal orientation and skills.
While performers may come and go, the success of Musica Viva has always been due to the devoted and loyal subscribers. In this area Dubsky worked very hard and indeed took great pride in the increase in subscribers during her period as Honorary Secretary. These grew in number from the first year’s 300 to a figure of 1,082 in her last year of office in 1983.
Dubsky handled subscriptions, local publicity and promotion. She also managed all the ‘nuts and bolts’ administration, ranging from organising rehearsals to the care of the musicians and supervising front-of-house, always being a step ahead so that nothing was left undone. Especially important to note is that, apart from receiving an annual payment for expenses of around 100 pounds, her work was entirely voluntary. Hers was clearly a labour of love!
Edith Dubsky had both a high regard for, and lofty expectations of, the groups that travelled to her city. ‘People who play chamber music instead of being soloists or orchestra musicians must be really nice people.’
The Adelaide committee, led for the duration of her tenure by Professor Jim Cornell, got on very well together and the warm, friendly atmosphere was often praised by performers and subscribers alike. Dubsky was fond of saying that the ambience of the Adelaide Musica Viva concerts and audiences was like one large but intimate gathering. Many of the 300 groups of players who passed through her care loved her for it. Sir Neville Marriner, the conductor of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields cabled to her: ‘Edith, you are a living international legend. In England you are our colonial civilised outpost. We miss Australia and we miss you.’
TWO FORMIDABLE WOMEN
Devoted to the cause of Musica Viva, Dubsky matched Regina Ridge in strength of purpose. Dubsky recalled ‘I was a fighter and this led to battles. Regina thought that she was the only one capable of doing things well and no other woman was as capable’. Of particular fascination to the Musica Viva Executive were the written exchanges between the two. Ken Tribe recalled ‘both Charles Berg and I almost relished reading the correspondence that could pass between those two rather formidable women’.
Edith finally retired as Honorary Secretary in 1983 after 34 years. She was replaced by a full-time professional manager; an indirect tribute to her. More formally, she was awarded an OAM for her services to music in January 1981. At the 50th anniversary of Musica Viva in 1995 she was honoured with a concert by the Quartetto Beethoven di Roma and a special dinner at the Adelaide Hilton.
Dubsky lived independently and steadfastly attended Musica Viva concerts until the last year of her life. She sadly passed away in November 2001 a few days before her 98th birthday.
While the Anglo-Australian Methodist background of Regina Ridge and Viennese Jewish background of Edith Dubsky were worlds apart, in major respects they were alike. Both were from a generation shaped by two world wars and the Great Depression. Both believed in the creation of a civil society and wanted to bring the benefits of art and culture to urban and country communities. Their professional lives intersected and, despite occasional differences of opinion, both were characterised by their fierce loyalty and devotion to the cause of Musica Viva.
As women in the 1950s and 60s, their lives were unusual in that they took on roles and responsibilities very different from the vast majority of their female contemporaries: one emerged childless from an unsuccessful marriage; the other remained unattached. Both were single and singular women. Whether because of a lack of belief in their own creative abilities, societal expectations, or historical circumstances, neither pursued careers as performers. Yet they both relished their interactions with worldly artistic figures and committed themselves to fostering the opportunities for Australians to be exposed to the great art of chamber music.
Whilst Richard Goldner can be said to be responsible for the birth of Musica Viva, these two women can be given considerable credit for nurturing its development through its childhood and adolescence. In doing so, they should be given acknowledgement for paving the way for the women who were to follow. Indeed, successive women have led Musica Viva for the past 24 years, Jennifer Bott and Mary Jo Capps.
Women have often faced discrimination and disadvantage. Their achievements have often failed to be accorded rightful recognition. In contemporary Australia there is clearly much greater awareness of the ills of all forms of prejudice. The days of overt discrimination against any ‘minority’ group are officially over; instances of it are rightly viewed as offensive and regressive. Other interpretations are not so generous and suggest ongoing discrimination in more covert forms. Although this is not the place to examine such issues, an appreciation of such attitudes should be kept in mind in weighing up the achievements of individual women from Musica Viva’s past.
Ridge and Dubsky perhaps need to be recognised not only for their pioneering roles in arts administration and management, but also as contributors to artistic culture and to Australia’s broader path toward greater gender equality. It is in many ways a pity that we have such scant information about the personal sacrifices they must have made.
Penny Chapple is a music historian and education specialist. She worked with Musica Viva In Schools in the 1990s and wrote her Masters thesis on the organisation’s history.