Travels with my Grandmother, Dulcie Holland

Published in Limelight

Dulcie Holland’s diaries reveal her heartbreaking decision to leave London.

When Dulcie Holland died in 2000, her granddaughter discovered a battered travel journal charting the years the composer spent studying in London. Re-reading her grandmother’s diary, Julie Ihle was struck by the similarities with COVID, and how Holland’s heartbreaking decision to abandon her studies and return home because of World War II affected her music career.

Dulcie Holland portrait image
Dulcie Holland portrait from the 1930s, courtesy of Julie Ihle

“Perhaps music is worthwhile after all. Let’s do some work.” These words were written over 80 years ago in London by young music student Dulcie Holland, as World War II threatened and she sought hope amongst the grimness.

As one of Australia’s most distinguished composers and music educators, Dulcie Holland’s career spanned nearly 70 years. She produced 330 compositions, 40 film music scores and more than 70 publications. But in 1937 she was a young piano teacher and organist. She had graduated from the NSW State Conservatorium as a piano teacher, where she had studied composition with Frank Hutchens, Alfred Hill and Roy Agnew and wanted to pursue composing. For promising young Australians at the time this meant going to London’s Royal College of Music. In 1937, just short of her 25th birthday, she set sail on the Otranto, travelling for six weeks through exotic lands, before arriving in London.

I know this because, ever the observer, my grandmother kept a journal – a battered brown book that I didn’t even know existed until her death at the age of 87 in 2000. I read it over and over, in turns intrigued and entertained by fascinating tales of foreign travel and adventures, London life, countryside jaunts and European trips until the outbreak of World War II and the heart-wrenching decision to abandon her studies and return home.

After an excited send off in Sydney and stops at Australian ports, they crossed the Indian Ocean. She and her friend, pianist Evelyn Blanche, quickly found a group of friends, and Holland’s satirical descriptions of other passengers read like characters from an Agatha Christie novel. Time at sea was spent on deck sports, dancing, films and Sunday night singalongs with Holland at the piano.

She describes in vivid and sometimes comic detail her port stops through Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) she is curious about Eastern spirituality after a visit to a Buddhist temple. One evening she dragged her mattress to the top deck to sleep outside as they sailed the Red Sea. At Naples she walked to the crater of Mount Vesuvius. At Toulon she noted the pavement cafes and presciently wondered why Sydney didn’t do likewise.

Once ensconced in London and enrolled at the Royal College of Music, Holland got to work. She had a letter of introduction to meet composer Sir Arnold Bax and described him as “very shy and nervous and not at all caustic or smart”. She records he liked her technique and, on his recommendation, she started lessons with John Ireland.

When not studying, she feasted on London life and her diary makes for giddy reading. She explored London’s landmarks, went to concerts, opera and the theatre and socialised three or four times a week. Blessed with a bright personality, she and her college friends hosted many sherry parties. It seemed any excuse would do – from farewelling Frank Hutchens on his return to Sydney to christening a “new old settee”. To read it is to be transported to the late thirties with charades and other parlour games and dancing the Charleston.

She was adventurous for her time. She drove around the Lake District and Scotland with college friends, spending the night in hay barns, and on another holiday she canoed down the Thames with musician Esther Rofe for nine days, sleeping in the canoe at night.

She toured Switzerland and went to Paris with Evelyn Blanche, marvelling at the architecture and food. She was struck by the difference between English and French performances.

Of a French Bach concert, she writes it was “played with a feeling of warmth and expressiveness and elasticity which were quite new to me for Bach”.

She got to see many composers playing or conducting their own works including Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Bartók, of whom she wrote, “What a sense of proportion!

What great beauty wedded to modern technique!”.

Of Rachmaninov she says, “He is extraordinary to look at – closely cut hair, sensitive mouth, nervous face and a vein on the left side of his forehead which stood out like a snake. Trousers were awfully narrow… and he grunts when he is playing, but what playing!”

Her journal is whimsical and sometimes she randomly writes music or does drawings. In typically modest fashion, she barely mentions her own achievements. When she wins the RCM’s Cobbett Prize in 1938, she writes that she treated herself to a strudel and later that year, after winning the prestigious Blumenthal Scholarship, her only comment is “Is it really true?”

As Holland became successful and revelled in London life, Hitler was menacing Europe. Life continued but with a looming undertone. She records seeing an open-air performance of The Tempest at Regent’s Park. It’s an idyllic night but as searchlights illuminate the sky searching for an unidentified plane it’s “a disquieting reminder of modern times”.

In September 1938 she writes: “Tension terrific today. International situation very grim… Chamberlain to fly across to have a quiet chat with Der Führer.” War was averted but further negotiations stalled, and she writes: “London’s 40,000 Australians discuss more heatedly the chances of getting home once war breaks out and what would be safer, London or the high seas.”

Her anguish at having to decide whether to come home or not is palpable. “For the first time I am really upset,” she writes. “I realise how sad it is to have to give up my scholarship, and how little I want to return home. Yet I know the family will be frightfully worried… I must book my passage tomorrow.”

But she does not book it and in the meantime another peace agreement is made. “It is wonderful to have life back to normal again,” she writes. “We feel a little more strongly our responsibility to use our time to its full purpose, and wave the conductor’s stick a little less airily.” She threw herself further into composing and decided to write a Cello Sonata and a Ballade for Piano and Orchestra.

By summer 1939 her parents had come to Europe and all three embark on “La Grande Tour European” to Paris, Switzerland, Amsterdam and Germany. Of Germany she writes they were “ready to meet officialdom at its most official with the entire population behind machine guns to back it up. What we got was a tall thin fair passport officer, with (can you believe it) a sense of humour”. She’s impressed by the warmth of Heidelberg’s people though admits the “poetry of the scene was upset by uniforms everywhere”. “The continent has been fascinating, but it has been very sad to see the shadow of war clouding the summer season,” she writes. They returned to London just as visitors were warned to leave the continent and war was declared a few weeks later.

As I was re-reading this journal, COVID-19 was beginning to show its devastating hand. Holland’s description of London on a pre-war footing had echoes of what the world has experienced since 2020. She was shocked to see shops, restaurants and theatres suddenly close, gas masks distributed and parks repurposed for the war. She writes that “London seems like a deserted village – streets are extraordinarily quiet and free from people and there is a feeling of desolation.” Similar to when COVID-19 struck, thousands of Australians (like Holland) were trapped overseas frantically trying to get home, often at great expense.

The family managed to get a berth and they sailed on 15 September 1939 on the Duchess of York, escorted by two destroyers. The voyage quickly became dangerous. Just hours into their sailing an enemy submarine was sighted and, while they escaped, one destroyer stayed behind to engage the submarine. The following day they spied what they thought was an enemy plane but it turned out to be Allied forces. The ship changed course and sailed via Greenland to Montreal, tacking constantly to confuse the enemy radar. She describes the thrill of seeing the Northern Lights and icebergs and when they finally sailed into Sydney there is a photo of her smiling against the backdrop of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It must have been a relief to be home after a gruelling voyage, though tinged with heartbreak at having to give up her scholarship. Her journal also reveals the anguish

of other passengers on board who were fleeing Europe, forced to abandon their dreams and careers due to the war. This slow-motion wreckage of lives and careers has parallels with the COVID-19 world today, especially for creative industries.

Like any good story this is not the end. She married maths teacher and amateur musician Alan Bellhouse, a long-time admirer, who immediately joined the Air Force for active combat in Darwin. They had two children and Holland worked as a recitalist, arranger, freelance composer, adjudicator, and teacher at a time when it was rare to combine career and family. She continued to compose, including film scores for Commonwealth promotional films and music for the North Shore Symphony Orchestra which Bellhouse founded, but her compositions did not achieve serious recognition until much later in her life.

Her career highlight came when she was nearly 60 when she created the Master Your Theory and Musicianship series of books for students. Not only did this define her contribution to Australian music, but to this day has made her a familiar name in Australian households and schools. In 1977 she was awarded Membership of the Order of Australia and in 1993, with her friend Miriam Hyde, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Macquarie University. In the same year, her 80th birthday was celebrated with a sell-out performance at Sydney Town Hall.

Had war not broken out, it is likely she would have stayed in London to pursue composing. Sydney must have seemed provincial after her experiences overseas, and in Australia, her subsequent career as a teacher, arranger and occasional composer may not have quite been what she envisaged when she left for London in 1937. Surely the young Dulcie Holland could not have imagined that decades later her education books would bring music alive for so many Australians.

She once described herself as a “musical missionary” and her enthusiasm for life and music never really waned. Even in her final days, armed with a large magnifying glass, she kept composing. Perhaps she was inspired by an inscription she saw in a cemetery in Scotland, that she noted in her battered brown book: “Art is long but life is short”.

Dulcie Holland’s travel journal 1937–1939 is held by the National Library of Australia