Richard Connolly: a musical light for a priestly people

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Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2018

Richard Connolly who died on May 4 at the age of 94 was a towering figure in the history of Australian Catholicism and in Australian culture generally. The man who studied for the priesthood at Propaganda Fide in Rome from 1946-1950 but pulled out before he was ordained is remembered by the general public for writing the Playschool theme – “There’s a Bear in There” but he’s in fact one of the most important figures in the history of religious music because he wrote the hymns that constituted the Living Parish Hymn Book with the poet James McAuley and his collaborator (the satirical funster of the Ern Malley affair in which he sent up a modernism he had once embraced but went on to become a firebrand conservative) is his only rival in terms of liturgical innovation.

Dick Connolly too became a more conservative churchman with the passing of the years but the interesting thing is that the hymns with McAuley claim fealty from the different corners of the Catholic world, all the way from Cardinal Pell to Morag Fraser, the one time editor of the very progressivist Jesuit magazine Eureka Street. It’s also worth remembering what Father Ed Campion, in his day the virtual chaplain to the Australian literary world, refers to as Dick Connolly’s extraordinary achievement with Radio Drama and Features of which Connolly was the very enterprising director, from 1971, treating the whole cultural world as his bailiwick.

The hymns are remarkable and you can hear Dick Connolly singing some of them in his slightly reedy but very fine tenor voice on YouTube. They are still sung at Connolly’s own parish of Manly-Freshwater at the Church of Mary Immaculate and Saint Athanasius (where the organist is the barrister Richard Perrignon who is also the master of music of St. John’s College at the University of Sydney) as well as a range of Anglican churches.

Photo: Richard Connolly, centre, sings with Frs Thomas Connolly and Ian Abbott. Photo: Archdiocese of Sydney

Morag Fraser has a superb chorister’s voice and she emphasises that the McAuley/Connolly hymns “have a simplicity you don’t get a lot of.” She adds, “They’re never sentimental twaddle and they’re easy to sing, and the refrains are good for the congregation.” The governing principle of these hymns is that a cantor sings the verses and then the congregation in their own rough voices which don’t require a chorister’s musicality sing the refrain. Morag Fraser in her beautiful mezzo voice sings a bit of one musingly and it’s worth quoting because of the perfect dovetailing of words and music which everyone remarks.

The love of Christ has gathered us as one:
Rejoice in him with joy which He imparts;
Let us revere and love each other with unfeigned hearts.

And then the very beautiful refrain:

Where there is charity and love
There the God of Love abides.

Morag Fraser says, “They’re good music and they’re good popular music.” McAuley’s mastery of form is evident in his impeccably tight verse and so is the effort to create songs of faith that have the residual formality of a high language and are at the same time in the language of the people. Morag Fraser sums up her sense of Connolly’s dual quality.

“I like the Connolly/McAuley hymns very much and set and sing them very often for Mass. Intelligent, musically deft and subtle. Not a hint of happy clappy pandering about them. Lovely balance between lyric and melody in them.”

Ed Campion says of them, “It gave an Australian accent to our hymnody.” He also has a vested interest at least historically. “That Living Parish Hymnbook sold in ten years a million copies,” he says. “I’m the last surviving director of the Living Parish publications which published [Dick’s] hymnbooks.” Ed Campion was there as a young seminarian in 1955 when Father Ted Kennedy who would become famous as the parish priest of Redfern who would minister to indigenous people was a curate in Ryde and brought Connolly and McAuley together in the hope that they would write hymns. There was, Campion says, the precedent of the Gelineau psalms which both Morag Fraser and Richard Perrignon also mention.

Perrignon has given an expert account of Connolly’s music for The Catholic Weekly. He emphasises the indebtedness to the old Tridentine mass and to Gregorian chant as well as the way they could instantiate the “active participation” that became the catch cry of Vatican II. He points out Connolly’s mastery of foursquare style and suggests the affinities of this to the Irish Saint Columba song which older Catholics will know as O breathe on me ye breath of God. And he emphasises the mellifluousness of Connolly’s sense of melody and its affinity with lilting Irish songmaking.

No doubt the fact that Connolly and McAuley were both steeped in jazz helped and there’s also a sense of artistic soul marriage in the way Connolly would say of McAuley’s lyrics that they created their own tunes because they were such wonderful words. Richard Connolly said that McAuley was “a sensitive pianist” and that he was trying to master Chopin when he was dying in 1976. He added of the man who could be ferocious in argument, “He could show love, he wasn’t frightened of love.”

The composer in his youth. Photo: Archdiocese of Sydney

Dick Connolly was a man with a pretty formidable gift of the gab himself which anyone who met him can testify to. The poet Peter Porter, not a man of faith but with a great depth of knowledge of the culture that came out of religion, found Dick Connolly enchanting.

Was it that both men loved Italy? Richard Connolly became a member of a junior seminary when he was fourteen (puberty, he recalled, was a terrible time for this) and completed his secondary education with the Marist brothers at Springwood. In his Leaving examinations he topped the state in Latin at a time when it was widely studied at every level of private, Catholic and state education. In 1946 he made his way with a group of fellow seminarians to Rome where he could study at the high powered Propaganda Fide. Anyone who wants to appreciate Connolly’s untrammelled sense of humour should read his essay A Funny Way To Go To Rome:

“Another memory of that ‘week in Naples’ is of the sunny day on which we took the ferry to Capri… In the afternoon, at the Marina Grande, we hired a big open boat to take us around to the famous Blue Grotto on the other side of the Island. The entrance to this enormous and magical seacave is so small that to enter it you have to transfer to one of the special boats, very low in the water, standing by near the cave entrance, and to duck your head, and bend low, as your boat goes in. Alas, the Blue Grotto boatmen were on strike that day, and there was no way our much bigger boat could enter.

“It didn’t take long for us to work out what to do. It was pretty obvious. There was no one there except our boatman, so we stripped off and went over the side, and soon the huge sea-cavern was filled with the boisterous shouts and splashings of eighteen seminarians and four young priests swimming around happily, their white bodies glimmering with a strange blue, and trailing iridescent blue magic behind them. These days, I don’t think there are many people who can say they have swum naked in the Blue Grotto.”

This comes a bit after Dick talks about the way the young priests-to-be were solicited by seductive and ironic ladies of the night who would mutter to them, Dominus vobiscum. Italy and especially the Italy of Naples was Connolly’s blacking factory in the most positive sense. Ed Campion says when you were with him for a while he would eventually sing— generally Neapolitan songs—with idiomatic grace. Was he an actor manqué? “No, I think he was a frustrated singer.” He adds, “I once heard him say that Virgil was his favourite poet.”

This recalls the way Connolly would enthuse about his literary projects on Sunday or Monday night ABC Radio Two. Who but Dick Connolly could have broadcast ten or more hours of Virgil’s Aeneid in the C. Day-Lewis translation? Not only was it a very full-bodied, very classical in the actorly sense recital by Wynn Roberts but there was the introduction virtuosically chanted by Dick Connolly himself in flawless golden age Latin: Arma virumque cano. Wonderfully evocative in its intense command of an ancient tongue that could yield his favourite poet: Arms and the man, I sing. And somehow Connolly elided the gap between his own chanting and the English that took over. He told me when I met him in the 1980s with Michael Heyward in the days when we were attempting to do an international literary magazine Scripsi how thrilling he had found Michael Alexander’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Alexander fascinated us too because he was a disciple of Ezra Pound and his translations were not only in the manner of Pound’s The Seafarer in reproducing something like the formal features and sound of the original, they were effectively homophonic. The actual line of the English was as close as it could be to the sound of the original even though few individual words translated their phonic replacement.

Dick Connolly could not stop reading Beowulf as he sipped his wine over dinner, alone in some city he’d travelled to.

Richard Connolly with his wife Cynthia in 2018. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2018

“I heard it,” he said with understated wonder, “in Ron Haddrick’s voice.” So he contacted Sydney’s leading classical actor, the man who created the role of the father in David Williamson’s Travelling North.

It created a sense of awe in us when he told us—and we were go-getting starstruckers— that when the great Irish actress Siobhan McKenna was in Australia he contacted her and asked her if she could play Mrs. Alving in an ABC Radio production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and she said yes.

Rodney Wetherell, who was Connolly’s lieutenant in these endeavours, recalls the way Dick would commission things from Kingsley Amis or the historian of things French Maurice Cranston. “We did an evening of the actor Alistair Duncan doing Boswell but at the same time he was open to people who might have seemed outlandish—David Foster or Louis Nowra.” It would have been in Dick Connolly’s time that Peter Cummins did Jack Hibberd’s Stretch of the Imagination on the ABC. Rodney Wetherell said Connolly’s door was always open. ‘He could thump the table but he never lorded it over people in terms of his own superiority.’

He tells the story of an Italian restaurant manager Sandro who said, “I just love watching Mr. Connolly eat.” Why? Because he savoured everything like a true Italian.

To meet Dick Connolly was to get a sense that with culture the sky was the limit. Dick Connolly had a Churchill Scholarship which took him to Italy, to Radio France and Bayerischer Rundfunk. During his time in England he met his wife Cynthia who had been a production assistant for David Attenborough. They lived for a time in Somerset near the Benedictine abbey Downside and then Cynthia came back with him when he returned to Australia as head of Radio Drama and Features. Richard Connolly had nine children and was in the habit of calling his pieces of music after his children so that Camilla, for instance, is the name of the Help of Christians guard this land hymn which became an anthem for the Santamarians.

Dick Connolly, though, was a man of extraordinary breadth. Play School, music for papal visits—he took it all in his stride. What was James Joyce’s description of his Ulysses figure? “A cultured allround man.” No wonder Catholics left and right and in between treasure his legacy.

The funeral of Richard Connolly was celebrated by the Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher at St Mary’s Cathedral on 19 May. Peter Craven is the founder of the Australian literary periodical Scripsi, and is Australia’s best-known culture critic.

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