The Civic Symphony Orchestra and the first Australian LP

On the 6th July 1951 the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra under Haydn Beck set up in the Great Hall of Sydney University and played selections by Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Lotter, and Percy Grainger. Though almost forgotten now, the record capturing the performance that day deserves a place in music history as the first Long Play Microgroove album (LP) to be produced in Australia. Its story brings together celebrated musicians, visionary town councils, and a pioneering record label.

Long Play Microgroove Records In Australia

In 1951 some 400,000 Australians had gramophone players according to the Sydney’s Sunday Herald newspaper. Most of these players were geared to play the 78rpm discs that had been popular during the previous decades. Very few were capable of playing the new 33 1/3 rpm albums that were beginning to enter the market via manufacturers like Decca Records in the U.K. However, big things were envisaged for the burgeoning album market, mainly due to the fact that so much more music could fit onto a LP. For the first time, an entire movement of music could fit on one side of a record. 

But albums were generally hard to come by. In an intriguing coincidence, the Federal budget of 1951 announced a rise in sales tax on records to 33 1/3%, a rate which perfectly mirrors the playing speed of the new LPs. To fight inflation the government of the day also announced restrictions on the import of records. These conditions proved fertile for the rise of a local record industry with labels like Festival/Manhattan, Fidelity, and the Australian Record Company (ARC) all beginning operation in the 18 months that followed. But the first to get their LP operations off the ground was Diaphon Records.    

Diaphon Records

Diaphon began operation in 1951 as the Audio Photographic Record Company. It became Diaphon not long before issuing its first records. The original Diaphon offices were in Sydney at 24 Moore St, Roseville.

There is not a lot of information around about the early operations, but it appears that in 1952 the company’s General Manager was Mr W. Walter Hayum. Hayum was an American who graduated from Albright College in Pennsylvania in 1950 before traveling to Australia. He had been involved in radio while studying. After arriving in Sydney he wrote stories for the local papers, sometimes using a byline that read ‘an American journalist, now in Sydney’. While in Australia, Hayum was also involved with the early days of Festival Records, and in particular the recording of Ken Neville’s Tales of the Dreamtime records. He left Sydney in 1954 and became a senior executive with Epic Records during the mid to late 1950s.     

Diaphon was also home to a young Ken Hannam, who was Managing Director for a period in 1954. At the time Hannam was a regular on radio and stage around Sydney, but he later carved an international reputation as a film and TV director. Perhaps his finest moment was his work as director of the film Sunday Too Far Away, which helped establish the new wave of Australian cinema in the mid 1970s. You can read Hannam’s liner notes on several notable Diaphon releases including the original soundtrack recording of the Australian musical Reedy River.

Bringing Music to the Suburbs

In July 1947 it was announced that renowned violinist and conductor Haydn Beck would be leaving the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to lead the new Marrickville Municipal Orchestra. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald said “the appointment is regarded as the most striking venture in suburban music since the foundation of the associated music clubs.” The orchestra was to number around 30 players, most of whom would be professional musicians with a smattering of amateurs. The push came from a committee of citizens who whose goal was to decentralise concerts and provide good music at an affordable price for music lovers out in the community.

Bringing music concerts to smaller urban centres in an organised way was a concept initially pitched in the late 1920s by basso Oliver King, who established the first Music Club in Rose Bay. Through the Associated Music Clubs of Australia, King imagined a nationwide network of clubs that would essentially crowd source the funding to pay for instruments and performers fees. In this way top level artists would be able to visit venues outside their usual concert halls. More than a dozen clubs formed in New South Wales in the first year, and though mainly confined to New South Wales, the Association continued to grow over the following decade.

The Civic Symphony Orchestra

The Marrickville Orchestra’s first performance was Thursday 27th November at the Marrickville Town Hall. Recalling the debut concert by Sydney Musica Viva two years earlier, it coincided with a blackout across the suburb, though the Hall itself was not affected. Trumpet player John Robertson was the lead soloist. It was well reviewed though there were plenty of empty seats. Critics speculated that it was due to the blackout rather than lack of interest from the public. 

For the 1948 season Ashfield Council pledged financial assistance and the orchestra was renamed the Civic Symphony Orchestra. In March that year Beck said that he would take the orchestra to any suburban area of Sydney where a guarantee of 100 pounds could be provided. Despite a dozen well reviewed shows that year featuring highly regarded soloists like pianist Enid Strong, tenor John Fullard, and violist Richard Pikler, the Orchestra ended the year in the red. Funding from the councils had been 1100 pounds but the costs had been double that.

The same troubles came up in 1949. The Orchestra began the season with 375 subscribers. Across the year they featured highly regarded soloists including Joyce Hutchinson, soprano Eleanor Houston, and cellist John Kennedy (father of popular violinist Nigel Kennedy). There were efforts to involve 14 other councils to help split the costs. The idea being that they could rotate shows throughout the suburbs. Ryde council expressed interest, but they couldn’t find enough support elsewhere. A newspaper helped pay for a couple of shows at Sydney Town Hall, private sponsors chipped in a little, but all told it wasn’t enough. When the councils met at years end they were forced to withdraw funding.

Throughout these years Haydn Beck was frequently recognised as the driving force and a conductor of great skill. His selections for the concerts were regularly praised for having popular appeal without being condescending.

Haydn Beck

Haydn Beck is an inspiring character who appears to have been drawn to trying new things when it came to presenting music to the public.

Taught violin by his father in the New Zealand town of Wanganui, Beck was child prodigy who could play Bach and Gounod from memory as a 5 year old. He made his first public appearance at the New Zealand International Exhibition performing the Bach A Minor Concerto. He was labelled the “young Joachim”, and a “budding Paganini” in the local press.  

Frank Denton ‘Haydn Beck’ circa 1905, black & white photograph, 1965/1/5.  Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Gift of Mary Powell, Marjorie Marshall and Harold Denton, 1965.

While touring New Zealand, famed Czech composer and violinist Jan Kubelik invited him to play. Beck impressed him and Kubelik suggested he should travel to Europe to further his musical studies. 

With some 40 concerts already under his belt, the nine year old Beck travelled to Sydney in 1909 to help raise money for his travel to Europe. Works by Beriot, Elgar and Schumann featured in his debut show at the Sydney Town Hall in November. It was heralded a success in the papers and he subsequently played a string of shows, including appearances at the YMCA Hall, a garden fete in Rose Bay, and a Christmas eve show at Criterion Theatre before returning to Wanganui.

Over the coming years he occasionally wrote to the newspapers to inform the Australian public of his progress.  By April 1913 Beck had saved enough to travel to Brussels, accompanied by his father, to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Music under Cesar Thompson. His studies were interrupted by WW1 and he moved to the UK to complete his degree under Emile Sauret before returning home to New Zealand.

In 1920 the NSW State Orchestra toured New Zealand. They offered positions to several players including Haydn Beck while there. Beck moved to Sydney and in 1922 became leader of the orchestra at the popular Farmers Restaurant in Sydney. In 1924 he led the orchestra for the grand opening of the lavish Wintergarden Theatre in Brisbane. He stayed on for the next five years, providing musical accompaniment to the silent motion picture screenings during their halcyon days.

He eventually left in left in 1929 and became involved in the burgeoning radio industry. His broadcasts, most often with a string quartet, went out across the country as stations became networked and their content shared widely.

With an strong reputation behind him he was named Music Director for St James Theatre Sydney in 1935. He continued to play with various symphony orchestras around the country. In 1939 he joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a tour of the Russian Ballet, he played with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and in 1940 he was named leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Making the first Australian LP

1950 was a quiet year of lobbying for the Civic Symphony Orchestra. Then in January 1951 they found additional money to get it going again. A series of shows were programmed and the first, featuring a young Joan Sutherland before she made her stage debut in Sydney, was a great success. Unfortunately the two that followed were scheduled on dates that pitted the Orchestra against other big shows in town and they failed to draw sufficient crowds. Haydn Beck announced his disappointment and surprise in public, noting several times that Sydney only had one full time orchestra while many European cities with fewer people supported three or four.

It was at this point that the Audio Photographic Company approached the Orchestra offering to make a record in the hope that sales would help provide much needed additional funding.

Once the first copies came off the presses, a public performance of the recording was given at the David Jones auditorium on Castlereagh St in Sydney on Friday 3rd August 1951. Despite this initial promotional activity, it seems there were delays before the record was readily available to the public. Reports in the Sunday Herald on 30th September 1951 said copies would finally be available the following week. These were pioneering days for pressing vinyl and Diaphon must have had trouble finding a manufacturer with sufficient supplies to undertake commercial production.

It received a modest level of coverage in the media. Those who did give it their attention were impressed by both the performance and the quality of the recording. Music critic Selwyn Speight said “the performance stands comparison with most recordings of this work available, and is certainly better than some of the early American LPs.” In an interview in 28th November 1951 Haydn Beck mentioned the records and said they were selling excellently. Unfortunately, however strong the sales were it was not enough to solve the financial predicament of the Orchestra.

Music By The People For The People

Late in 1951 Haydn Beck started talking to the trade unions as a possible way forward for additional funding. The Bank Clerks Union helped first. Then the Orchestra played lunch hour concerts for the waterside workers union. A Workers Symphony Concert was performed in early December 1952.

A correspondent for The Labor Call who attended that concert wrote “the formation and financing of a symphony orchestra, ‘by the people for the people’ would make not only Australian musical history but news for the world”.

In 1953 there were stories that Haydn Beck was leaving for Europe. In his absence the Orchestra’s organising committee was going to try and finance at least a permanent string section. But then the trail goes cold, and there is no further reporting on either Beck or the Orchestra after 1954.

Diaphon Continues To Break New Ground

A second Diaphon LP featuring the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra was released in December 1951. This album featured works by Tchaikovsky – Serenade, Opus 48, and the Andante Cantabile. A third followed in 1952 with Introduction and Allegro for Strings by Elgar, and Simple Symphony by Britten. They were recorded by the Civic Symphony Orchestra along with the Musica Viva Quartet (featuring Robert Pikler and Edward Cockman who had both played with the Orchestra). This got a release in the U.S on Mercury, with the label saying they were very impressed with the recordings being made locally. Presumably this happened through connections that W, Walter Hayum had back in the United States.

Following its initial forays into classical recording Diaphon broadened its scope. Popular organist Wilbur Kentwell made several records for Diaphon. His 1952 album of Richard Rogers (DPW1) songs claims to be the first LP made by an Australian solo artist. In 1952/53 Diaphon recorded and released some of the earliest jazz LPs made in Australia by the Art Ray Quintet and the Rick Farbach Group.

Rick Farbach’s arrangement of ‘Poinciana’ (Simon/Bernier) from an album recorded by ‘Session for Six’ on Diaphon in the 50s, accompanied by images from his private collection with permission of his family.

As 7” 45rpm records became popular in the mid 1950s Diaphon released notable modern jazz sides by the Claire Baille Sextet and Don Burrows.

The label also recorded the Horrie Dargie Quintet’s Farewell Concert at the Sydney Town Hall.  Released in February 1953 it quickly became a best seller and went on to become the first Australian album to achieve ‘Gold’ sales status for sales in excess of 75,000 units. Finally, in mid 1953 just after the death of Joseph Stalin, Diaphon announced a deal with French label Chant du Mond that gave it the rights to release recordings of works by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Despite all this activity the label essentially disappeared around 1957 when it became part of the W&G distribution network.

A Place In Australian Recording History

The Civic Symphony Orchestra was a bold experiment led by a talented and innovative conductor. Haydn Beck and the councils of Marrickville, Ashfield, and Ryde saw a great opportunity to bring music to their constituencies, but their efforts were stifled by limited pubic interest and financial backing. However, their first recordings remain as testament to their vision, and as a reminder of the early days of the recording industry in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of LPs have been released in the 68 years since the release of the first Diaphon LP, but Haydn Beck’s debut record with the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra deserves to be remembered as the first LP produced and recorded in Australia.

4 thoughts on “The Civic Symphony Orchestra and the first Australian LP”

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