This article analyzes the main themes in the critical reception of John Antill’s orchestral ballet Corroboree (1944), a musical representation of Indigenous culture by a non-Indigenous composer widely regarded as the most prominent piece of Australian classical music composed before the 1960s. In the historiography of Australian music that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, Antill’s work occupied a foundational position as the moment when Australian composition purportedly caught up with developments in international musical modernism. The reception history demonstrates, however, that Corroboree was rarely described in reviews as “modern,” “contemporary,” or “new,” especially in the two decades after its 1946 premiere. I argue that Corroboree’s positioning as Australia’s attainment of musical modernity was a retrospective interpretation by modernist writers associated with the compositional “new wave” of the 1960s and reflected their rethinking of Australian music history as a modernist teleology.
In both international and Australian reviews, responses most frequently reference tropes and concepts associated with primitivism and exoticism. Primitivist language occurs throughout the whole course of the work’s reception, whereas exoticizing terms such as “weird” and “bizarre” are more frequent in the early years, before its modernist reinterpretation. Importantly, this early reception corresponds with recent analyses of Antill’s compositional aims and Nicholas Thomas’s notion of settler primitivism. Thomas described a type of primitivism broadly distinct from modernist primitivism’s aesthetics of formal innovation, cultural renewal, and emulation of the “primitive.” Settler primitivism is instead a type of representation and identity-work in settler societies based on the nationalist desire of settler artists to create a sense of belonging through identification with local Indigenous cultures. In the case of Corroboree, as understandings of the work in exoticist terms waned, the reception shifted and its primitivism tended to be framed in relation to modernism’s concern with stylistic innovation and formalism.