Terra Australis – Land of the Imagination
Indigenous Australians inhabited their country for fifty thousand years before Europeans knew of their existence. Legends of Terra australis incognita (unknown Southern land) are found in Greco-Roman writings: Aristotle speculated that a large landmass in the Southern hemisphere might ‘balance’ the corresponding known land masses in the Northern hemisphere. For centuries, this was nothing more than a philosophical speculation. Then, from the 16th century, as explorers navigated the globe, the Australian continent gradually assumed its shape on the world map. The concept of an unknown continent excited the imagination and several European writers produced fantasy fiction describing gothic monsters, giant birds and mythical animals. Sometimes, these monsters found their way into illustrations on maps, blurring the boundaries between fiction and science. So it was that Europeans imagined life in Australia before setting foot on the continent. Over the same period of time, indigenous Australians carried forward their ancient experience through song and story, known collectively as the Dreaming.
Bill Neidjie, elder of the Gagudju clan and the last surviving speaker of the Gagudju language, was keen to ensure that the rich history of his people would not be forgotten. He broke taboos by publishing some of their traditional stories, or Dreaming in two books of poetry. The poems speak of a timeless place where the spiritual world meets the physical. Some would say that all art comes from such a place.
Bill Neidjie (c.1920–2002):
from Gagudju Man
Poem set to music* by Tom Henry
(born in Melbourne, 1971)
This earth I never damage.
I look after.
This ground and this earth,
like brother and mother.
* with permission from the Djabulukgu Assoc.Inc., in particular from John and Natasha Nadji
Framed by settings of Bill Neidjie’s timeless poetry, this program embarks upon parallel journeys: European voyages of discovery are mapped alongside landmarks of musical composition whose dates coincide. A journey through the history of choral music is mapped against a metaphorical journey of discovery – Terra Australis, from imagination, or Dreaming, to today.
1504: Francesco Rosselli, a Florentine engraver moved to Venice with a view to selling his maps. He produced the first world map to include the New World in 1506 and the first world map drawn on an oval projection (pictured) in 1508. The maps followed information recorded by fellow Italians, Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo. The latter gave extensive descriptions of Asian lands and also mentioned Terra Australis.
Josquin des Prez (c.1450–1521): Three Secular Songs from Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, Third Edition (Venice, 1504)
German and French Documentation
1531: An article in an Augsburg newspaper of 1514 described a journey by two Portuguese merchants, Nuno Manuel and Cristóvãu de Haro, who sailed between the Southern tip of America (Brazil) and another continent. Inspired by this report, in 1523, the German cartographer, Johannes Schöner produced the first globe on which a landmass to the South of Brazil was labelled Terra Australis. Using the same scraps of information, French scholar Oronce Finé demonstrated a vivid imagination in 1531 when he published the following description of Terra Australis:
this is an immense region toward Antarcticum, newly discovered but not yet fully surveyed … The inhabitants of this region lead good, honest lives and are not Anthropophagi [cannibals] like other barbarian nations; they have no letters, nor do they have kings, but they venerate their elders and offer them obedience
Vicente Lusitano (c.1500–1561) – Heu me Domine (c.1531)
John IV, King of Portugal (1604-56) – Crux fidelis
1594: The Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator died. He was renowned for his 1569 world map, based on a new projection, which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an innovation still enjoyed by mariners today. Rhumold Ghim, mayor of Duisburg wrote a preface to Mercator’s Atlas (1595), in which he commented on the depiction of the hypothetical Terra Australis. He stated that although this continent still lay hidden and unknown, he believed that it must exist for reasons of balance:
demonstrated and proved by solid reasons and arguments to yield in its geometric proportions, size and weight, and importance to neither of the other two, nor possibly to be lesser or smaller, otherwise the constitution of the world could not hold together at its centre.
Claudio Merulo (1533–1604): Salvum fac populum tuum (Published Venice, 1594)
1619: Dutchman Dirk Hartog was the first European to land on Australia’s West Coast in 1614. He named the place Eendrachtsland after his ship and left an inscribed pewter plate as a record of his visit. In 1619, Frederik de Houtman visited the spot, confirming that it corresponded with Marco Polo’s description of a continent in that location. Other Flemish/Dutch explorers included Willem Janszoon, Cornelius and Willem de Vlamingh (pictured) and Abel Tasman.
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621): Hodie Christus natus est (1619)
1769: On 3 June 1769, Captain James Cook and his party completed an observation of the Transit of Venus undertaken in Tahiti on behalf of The Royal Society of London. Following the observation, Cook broke the seal on an envelope bearing the inscription Secret Instructions to Captain Cook from the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain, Sir Philip Stephens. In it he was instructed to search for Terra Australis:
Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, may be found to the Southward of the Tract lately made by Captn Wallis … with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.
He reached the eastern coast of Australia, then known as New Holland, on 19 April 1770, noting in his journal a few days later a sighting of indigenous people near the shore. He made landfall at Botany Bay, the first recorded European to set foot on Australia’s east coast. From there he charted the coast as far as Possession Island, where he claimed for the British Crown the entire coastline that he had just explored. This was not the elusive Terra Australis, however, which was believed to be a much larger landmass.
Alan Holley: Terra Australis (first performance, 2019)
A new work, commissioned by the Australian Chamber Choir to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s opening of the secret instructions on 3 June, 1769
1814: In the year of his death, Matthew Flinders’ A Voyage to Terra Australis was published. The book provided the first complete map of the coastline of the Australian continent, only possible following his circumnavigation of 1801. In the book, he stated his preference for naming the continent Australia.
There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis (as cited by Ptolemy and Aristotle) will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe: it has antiquity to recommend it; and, having no reference to either of the two claiming nations, appears to be less objectionable than any other which could have been selected.
1817: a copy of the book, sent at Flinders’ request, was delivered to the Governor of NSW, Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie immediately started to use the name Australia and by the 1820s, it had been adopted into common parlance.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Gesang der Mönche (1817), Abschiedsgesang (1814) for men’s voices
1844: Prussian explorer and naturalist, Ludwig Leichhardt arrived in Australia in 1842 with the aim of exploring inland. On 1 October 1844, he embarked on his most ambitious expedition, departing from Australia’s northernmost settlement on Queensland’s Darling Downs. Having long been given up for dead, his party arrived in Port Essington on the far North coast fourteen months later. They had covered a distance of 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres). Returning to Sydney by boat, they were given a hero’s welcome.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47): Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen (1844)
1898: Frank Hann (1846–1921) migrated with his parents from Wiltshire. He explored Western Australia’s inland with a party of six indigenous men. In 1898, at the age of 52, while recovering from a broken thigh, he climbed the Leopold Ranges, which had until then been regarded as impenetrable. He named the Charnley and Isdell Rivers and located some fine tracts of pastoral country. In his final years he corresponded with Daisy Bates on appealing for more government attention to Aboriginal welfare. Each of his diaries is prefaced with the motto
Do not yield to despair.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918): Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898)
1936: Ted Colson (1881–1950) was the first person of European descent to cross the Simpson Desert on foot. Born at Richmans Creek, South Australia to a Swedish father and English mother, he understood the rites, customs and dialects of several Aboriginal tribes and always undertook his expeditions with assistance from Aboriginal people. His assistant in 1937 was Peter Eringa of the Antakurinya tribe.
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992): In 1936, with three young composers, Messiaen established the group known as Jeune France (Young France) with the manifesto of countering the frivolity predominant in Parisian music of the time.
O sacrum convivium (1937) was a product of this movement.
1820: With sightings of the continent of Antarctica by Russian and British expeditions, the extent of the land masses in the Terra Australis area was confirmed. It was now clear that contrary to Aristotle’s theory, the total area of landmass in the Southern hemisphere was much less than in the Northern.
JS Bach (1685–1750): Lobet den Herrn (Published 1820)
Bill Neidjie: Return to Earth. Poem set to music by Tom Henry
This ground and this earth,
like brother and mother.
Like your father or brother or mother,
because you born from earth.
You got to come back to earth.
When I die I become earth [again].
I’ll be buried here.
I’ll be with my brother, my mother.
My spirit has gone back to my country, my mother.
© Australian Chamber Choir 2018