Primarily an interest of the Australian middle class, classical music has always been a significant part of Melbourne cultural life. Professional concerts have the highest public profile, but classical music-making is largely by amateurs, involving a significant proportion of the population.
Music-making began immediately the colony was established, but the formation and development of a classical music culture was assisted greatly by the discovery of gold. Several of Melbourne's many choirs were formed at this time, notably the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, founded 1853 and still in operation. The Royal Victorian Liedertafel (1868) and the Royal Metropolitan Liedertafel (1870), which merged in 1905, were among the many groups whose concerts included a variety of choral, orchestral and solo items. Chamber music concerts and song recitals were given in churches and halls by individual musicians, while associations of music-lovers such as the Musical Association (now Society) of Victoria, founded 1861, engaged local students and semi-professionals to perform. However, the most popular musical genre was opera, dominated by entrepreneurs George Coppin (1819-1906), W.S. Lyster (1827-80) and J.C. Williamson (1844-1913), who presented everything from musicals to Wagner and Verdi.
By the 1880s classical music was clearly important to Melbourne cultural life; the Melbourne International Exhibition and the Centennial Exhibition included thousands of concerts intended to 'improve' as well as entertain their audiences. Oscar Comettant, a French judge at the Centennial Exhibition, did 'not believe there is a country in the world where music is more widespread', but noted that 'quantity takes precedence over quality almost everywhere' (In the land of kangaroos and goldmines, 1890, tr. J. Armstrong, 1980). The Centennial Exhibition had attempted to improve quality by creating a permanent professional orchestra, for which conductor Frederic Cowen (1852-1935) was brought from England. This continued as the Victorian Orchestra until 1891, when it was taken over by G.W.L. Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) from 1892 to 1912.
This public music-making was supported by middle-class belief in the social and moral value of musical culture, which considered singing and playing piano essential accomplishments, especially for young ladies. Private music teachers flourished in Melbourne and, to promote and regulate standards, they formed the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) during the 1880s, which has since dominated non-school music education Australia-wide. The AMEB was associated from 1906 with Allan's, one of Australia's leading music publishers and sellers.
The University of Melbourne established the first Australian chair of music in 1891, with funds donated by Francis Ormond (1829-89). Marshall-Hall, the first professor, founded the Conservatorium in 1895; after his dismissal in 1900, he opened the rival Melba Conservatorium of Music. The late colonial period also witnessed the emergence of Australia's most famous singer, Nellie Melba (1861-1931), and first notable composer, Percy Grainger (1882-1963), who both grew up in Melbourne.
The 20th century saw a further increase in professionalism. John and Nevin Tait founded a company in 1906 to rival J.C. Williamson in promoting touring European concert performers. The two companies merged in 1916 and, until the 1950s, produced opera alongside soprano Gertrude Johnson's (1894-1973) National Theatre Movement, which had been active from the 1930s.
From its foundation in 1932, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation gradually assumed control of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which had evolved from the orchestras of Alberto Zelman Jnr (1874-1927); Bernard Heinze (1894-1982), the central figure in concert music from the 1920s to the 1960s, was its chief conductor until 1953. Sidney Myer (1878-1934) aimed to make orchestral music accessible by sponsoring free outdoor concerts in the Royal Botanic Gardens, begun in 1929 and continued in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl since 1959.
In the 1920s Australian composers began to develop a modern technique and style independent of English influences, and it was the largely self-taught Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984), who lived and worked in Melbourne all her life, who according to Roger Covell (Australia's music: themes of a new society, 1967) 'naturalised the 20th century in Australian music'. Many others of her generation were taught by Fritz Hart (1874-1949) at the Melba Conservatorium. Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929), arguably Australia's most influential composer, studied at the University of Melbourne in the late 1940s alongside Keith Humble (1927-95) and James Penberthy (1917-99); this generation also included German-born Felix Werder (b. 1922) and George Dreyfus (b. 1928). The Grainger Museum, donated by Percy Grainger to the University of Melbourne in 1938, is now an important archive for Australian music.
Since the early 1960s, government grants have assisted music greatly. Although orchestral music is dominated by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, concerts are also given by Orchestra Victoria, which has accompanied professional opera and ballet performances since its foundation in 1969, and by the many semi-professional, amateur and youth orchestras, including the Malvern Symphony, Zelman Memorial Orchestra and Melbourne Youth Orchestra. A focus for classical music is now the Arts Centre, which opened in 1982 and provides the city with a dedicated concert hall, opera/ballet theatre, and Performing Arts Collection. Melbourne is, however, replete with venues from the Melbourne Town Hall to churches, private school arts centres and Yarra Valley wineries. The annual Melbourne International Arts Festival includes opera, ballet, orchestral concerts, song recitals, and chamber music series. The prestigious Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, held four-yearly since 1991, attracts international competitors with its large prize money.
Little known, early and contemporary music is heard in the concerts of groups such as Astra, Libra and Chamber Made Opera. Early music is the focus of the Autumn Music Festival, which began in 1971 as the Melbourne International Festival of Organ and Harpsichord, and of groups such as Elysium Ensemble. The younger generation of Melbourne composers includes Ros Bandt (b. 1951), Brenton Broadstock (b. 1952), Chris Dench (b. 1953), Julian Yu (b. 1957), Mary Finsterer (b. 1962) and Stuart Greenbaum (b. 1966). Education and training in the performance, study and teaching of classical music are now provided by several specialist secondary schools and some universities, among which the Victorian College of the Arts and the Australian National Academy of Music specialise in performance.