Our Don: Bradman's musical score

By / 12th of August, 2014
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Expat South Australian composer Natalie Williams’ musical tribute to Sir Don Bradman is a distillation of the man behind the legend.

The idea for Our Don – A Symphonic Tribute to Sir Donald Bradman originally came from former premier Mike Rann and will be brought to fruition this week when the work is presented by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall.

Our Don is not a typical piece,” says Williams, who now lives in America but previously worked with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for 15 years.

“It’s not a symphony, nor is it an opera – it has no real genre. It has many moving parts – music, images, video and words. I guess you could call it a biographical symphony.”

Williams has been studying Bradman’s life in detail in the three years since she was approached by the ASO to create the new work, which was commissioned by the South Australian government and supported by a grant from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

The composer has gone to great lengths to make music from Bradman’s life. She spent hours at the Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia, immersed in a collection of 52 scrapbooks of cricketing memorabilia created by Sir Don.

“My research turned up some unexpected gems, including a short piece composed by Sir Don in 1930 titled 'Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me'.

“Bradman loved music. He was a talented pianist and was often found at the piano playing for his teammates during the long tour journeys to England by boat.

“For an untrained musician, 'Every Day is a Rainbow Day' is actually very good. It’s a nice little piece, very simple harmonically. He wrote it at a time when he was having a lot of success.”

Williams has worked this into her composition, along with Jack O’Hagan’s emblematic foxtrot "Our Don Bradman".

“They serve as musical quotations to punctuate and provide a backdrop to the narration and images, which are significant parts of the piece.

“Gary Sweet will be the voice of Bradman, telling the story of his life, and Bradman biographer Peter Allen came up with the words of the text, but there’s not a lot of time musically so I had to edit it right back to short chronological statements.”

Other musical threads Williams has pulled together for the piece are a composition of the corresponding letters in the name “Donald George Bradman” with the musical alphabet to create a fugue. She also travelled to Bowral, NSW, where Bradman spent much of his early life, to record local bird songs which she then notated and used in the first movement.

In trying to create Bradman’s world in music, she is also using wickets instead of clapping sticks as part of the percussion.

“It’s really a multi-media piece, similar to the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Carnival of the Animals and Aaron Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait, where video footage and other imagery is overlaid with narration and music,” explains Williams.

“I have never done anything like this before. I think the experience would be a good precursor to doing an opera or a ballet. Next time I’ll be wiser and I would like a video editor!

“The highlight for me is the last movement which talks about Our Don as a national hero.

Our Don is an honest and positive account of his life. I have honoured his wishes to keep his family life private. If people want to dig deeper than that, they can read his biography.

“To do this I just imagined that he would be in the audience, and what he would he like to see. It took a lot of thinking to get that clear.

"Before I started the piece, I knew that Don Bradman was a private man, but working through the piece and seeing all the pressures and demands that were on him, I really began to see why he made the choices he made in regard to his public life. Before that I just thought he was a little bit aloof.

“I hope the message the audience takes away from it is that he really wanted to do his best in whatever way he could. He did everything he did to help those around him. To him it was a great honour to have the position he had."

Williams and the ASO hope Our Don attracts people who don’t usually go into the concert hall.

“We’re hoping to reach a lot of sports people and the Bradman fan base,” she says. “We’re hoping it will interest people who are into multi-media art works, cross-media art forms, and people who have an interest in Australian history and culture.”

Our Don – A Symphonic Tribute to Sir Donald Bradman will be performed at the Adelaide Town Hall on August 14. More information can be found here.

This story was first published on InDaily.