Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Clutsam, George

CC BY-SA 2.0
Cite this

Clutsam, George

Of all Sydney's expatriate musical figures, George Clutsam is today probably among the last to be remembered. Yet for much of his successful international career as a composer and songwriter, Sydneysiders were proud to claim him as one of their own.

Clutsam was born in Sydney in 1866, but spent most of his teens in New Zealand (from 1880), leading New Zealand also to lay claim to his talents. In 1909, a New Zealand journalist was decidedly miffed to read that Sydney's Bulletin had recently reclaimed 'that brilliant Sydney composer, Geo H Clutsam'.

Expats in London

For most of his adult career, from 1889, Clutsam was based in London. There, nevertheless, he was part of a small but active and proudly Australian expatriate circle, originally formed around the soprano Amy Sherwin. Clutsam accompanied fellow Australian Nellie Melba at the piano on her 1893 United Kingdom tour, and in April 1905, arranged the music for the London wedding of another famous expat singer, Ada Crossley. [1]

In London in 1908 he married a fellow expatriate, singer Minnie Fischer. He continued to acknowledge his Sydney roots, and in 1916, published his Six Songs from the South to words by Sydney-based poet Mary Gilmore, including a setting of Gilmore's 'The Bush's Secret'.

At the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25, held at Wembley in London, his music featured prominently in an 'Australian pageant'. Sydneysider Alfred Hill was represented by his song 'Waiata Poi' in the New Zealand segment, and Sydney composers were prominent in the music for the Australian segment, which included Peter Dodds McCormick's 'Advance Australia Fair', William G James's 'Stockrider's Song' and Clutsam's Plantation Songs. [2]

At least until 1920, Clutsam was often listed among the most advanced and interesting of the younger generation of serious composers working in England. He had a keen interest in Scriabin and Debussy, [3] as evidenced by such characteristically modernist piano works as the Berceuse (1919). He was also a music reviewer for The Musical Times and The Observer, and author of a popular short biography of Schubert, published in 1912.

Clutsam's operas

In 1910, Thomas Beecham conducted the premiere of Clutsam's comic opera, A Summer Night , later remounted at Covent Garden with a cast including Maggie Teyte. In November 1912, The Etude music magazine announced that 'An opera by GH Clutsam, the Anglo-Australian composer, is to be produced in Berlin. He is author of both words and music'. [4] This was King Harlequin, which a report in The New York Times on opera in Berlin (taken up largely with Strauss's new Ariadne auf Naxos) described as

the romantic opera by the Australian composer, GH Clutsam ... produced for the first time on any stage at the Kürfurstan Opera in Berlin this week. [5]

After the war

After World War I, Clutsam increasingly turned to lighter music, much of it in imitation of the Negro songs of America's south. This includes his most popular tune, the chanson nègre 'Ma Curly Headed Babby' (famously recorded by Paul Robeson) and his 'Creole Cradle Song'.

His greatest stage successes came with both Lilac Time, a musical based on arrangements of tunes by Schubert, which premiered in 1922, and The Damask Rose (1929) based on Chopin. Lilac Time made his name in Australia, and was performed in Sydney many times. Possibly its most recent professional production in Sydney was mounted at the Tivoli Theatre in 1964. Clutsam also composed film scores, including Heart's Desire, written with Richard Tauber.


George Clutsam obituary, The Musical Times, vol 93 no 1307 (January 1952), p 38

Philip L Scowcroft, 'George Clutsam', Grove Music Online, viewed September 2008, www.oxfordmusiconline.com

Philip L Scowcroft, British Light Music Composers: A Personal Gallery of Twentieth Century Composers, Thames Publishing, London, 1997

National Library of Australia, Canberra, 'George Clutsam', MusicAustralia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ma-ANL%3AMA~1065021, viewed September 2008


[1] The Musical Times, 1 May 1905, p 310

[2] Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876–1953, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001, p 204

[3] George Clutsam, 'The Harmonies of Scriabine', The Musical Times, 1 March 1915, pp 156–158

[4] World of Music, The Etude: Presser's Musical Magazine, November 1912, p 823

[5] 'New Strauss Opera Delights Mr Kahn', The New York Times, 10 November 1912; Albert Kalisch, 'Mr GH Clutsam's Opera in Berlin', The Musical Times, 1 December 1912, p 804