Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Resounding Huia calls and Tui songs from pre-1950 New Zealand composers

By , 03/12/2021

SONG OF THE TUI

The third of a three-part presentation of early New Zealand art-songs (1892-1953)
Researched and curated by Michael Vinten

Previous 2021 presentations:
THE CALL OF THE HUIA (12th February)
THE GOLDEN KOWHAI (4th May)

Singers: Jenny Wollerman (soprano), Sarah Court (m-soprano), Amelia Berry (soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Pianists: Bruce Greenfield, David Barnard

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

(Friday 3rdDecember, 2021)

Michael Vinten’s intention in presenting these programmes was to draw attention to the art song as a creative form produced by New Zealand composers prior to 1950 (essentially the pre-Douglas Lilburn years for music composition in this country) and highlighting the activity as part of our cultural heritage before the Second World War – one that we are still in the process of discovering.

Vinten was inspired by similar research in the area of solo piano music of the period undertaken in recent years by Wellington pianist, composer, and teacher Gillian Bibby, and also by comments made from singing teachers and performers regarding the scarcity of ‘New Zealand art-song material’ from this heritage era. He began his own exploration, finding literally hundreds of songs, primarily from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections and the resources of the New Zealand National Library, but also from private sources.

In choosing songs for the three presentations, he devised ‘a working definition of art song – one based on the definition of German lieder’. He used certain basic tenets as a yardstick, such as ‘the importance of the piano part is equal to that of the singer’, and ‘the poet’s words are as important as the composer’s music’. Such a totality in itself suggests as part of the definition that the Lieder/ Art-Song genre ‘requires a greater level of technical skill on the part of the performers to execute the songs’. Vinten intended such parameters would sift out material written for either amateur or domestic use, as well as patriotic War Effort songs and specifically Sacred songs, as the musical merit of many seemed secondary to commercial or social considerations.

Altogether, the songs he chose dated from 1892 to 1950, though to conclude the third and final presentation Vinten sneaked in a 1953 song (not inappropriately titled ‘I saw a Tui’) by the renowned Alfred Hill,  Australian-born but for a time New-Zealand-domiciled, whom author John Mansfield Thompson described in his 1980 OUP book A Distant Music as ‘New Zealand’s first professional composer’. As the first song in the first presentation happened to be also one of Hill’s, Vinten commented that ‘it was fitting…..that his (Hill’s) songs should bookend the collection, as New Zealand‘s first composer’. Despite the date, Hill’s ‘Tui’ song seemed to unashamedly express its allegiance to a bygone era, with Schumannesque modulations between major and minor amply presenting a New Zealand scene in European musical language.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first of these presentations at the year’s beginning. That programme presented the songs composed or published up to 1929. It included some examples of unique interest, but most of the songs engagingly avoided the pitfalls outlined in Vinten’s comments regarding the later 1930s and 1940s songs, which suggested a drop-off in quality and a tendency to resort to the kinds of cliched generalities of verse and music that gave both a bad name. I didn’t manage to get to the second of the symposiums, but made it to this, the final one, which of the three featured the widest chronological range of items. Happily, I was able to compare impressions (mostly favourable) at the interval with my Middle C colleague Anne French, who had attended the series’ second programme, and who confessed to having been enthralled throughout, despite Vinten’s own reservations concerning some of the material!

Interesting, too, was Vinten’s breakdown of the people engaged in composition over these periods into three main groups, the first being men whose profession was music who came to this country to take up official positions at institutions: organists, choirmasters, and teachers. The second group was made up of New Zealand-born men who were enthusiasts engaging in ancillary musical activities, whilst having major careers in other disciplines. The third group was the women, whom Vinten described as the backbone of musical activities in this country. He was surprised in spite of himself at the number of women who wrote music in the New Zealand of this period and whose standard of musical training was sufficient to enable them to do so.

The post-Second World War period was very much a ‘blow winds of fruitfulness’ time for New Zealand.  Music performance moved out of the realm of dominance by amateur and part-time musicians into an era of professional full-time musicians, beginning with the establishment of the country’s National Orchestra in 1946. Suddenly music composition seemed as if it was something to be taken seriously, almost as if one’s own livelihood depended on it. Up to that time the country’s composers were those diverse groups of people outlined above. Somewhat serendipitously, 1946 also saw the first Cambridge (Waikato) Music School, at which composer-in-residence Douglas Lilburn delivered his ground-breaking talk ‘A Search for Tradition’,  which challenged a whole new generation of local composers to find their own ‘New Zealand voice’. Such was the force of this new beginning, Vinten contended, that ‘the previous body of work in music composition (along with other creative endeavours in Aotearoa) tended to be swept away by this fresh wave of creativity’.

Not only were the composers of an earlier era overshadowed, but so were the writers and poets, in some cases curtly and dismissively. Vinten made reference to poet Allen Curnow’s scathing remarks concerning what had been considered a landmark anthology of New Zealand verse, Kowhai Gold, published in 1929. Curnow famously commenting that the material consisted of ‘insipidities mixed with puerilities. To illustrate the extent to which things had been galvanised by this new order, Vinten referred to the work of two song composers, Alice Forrester MacKay and Claude Haydon, who had been ‘at the forefront of the pre-First World War era of local song-writing…. but whose output, including a great many more (still) unpublished songs, remained musically static during the 1930s and 40s…..’.

Having so many names to contend with inhibits a full listing of either the composers or poets here, though some by dint of circumstance or other association are already known. The composers include Alfred Hill, Claude M. Haydon, Arnold Trowell, Warwick Braithwaite, Paul Schramm, Alice Forrester MacKay, Erima Maewa Kaihau, Princess Te Rangi Pai, Alexander Aitkens, Maugham Barnett, Owen Jensen, Harry Luscombe, and Alan Heathcote White. The New Zealand poets included Jessie MacKay, Eileen Duggan, C.R. Allen, and Keith Sinclair. If Vinten’s research is properly taken up in the future by singers and teachers, further names will certainly be pressing their claims to be added to the list.

Without a doubt, part of what generated one’s ongoing fascination with these songs was the quality of the three presentation performances. My colleague Anne French and I were in full agreement about the quality of performance across the programmes. Each of the singers was seemingly incapable of delivering a meaningless or routine phrase. They gave the vocal lines both the focused intensities and the range of colour and dynamics that made the music and the words a pleasure to listen to. Complementing this level of identification with the material was the piano-playing of both Bruce Greenfield and David Barnard, each doing his utmost to invest the sounds with a kind of recreative response that, in tandem with the voices instantly caught the listener’s attention. The result of such efforts on the musicians’ part gave each song its best chance to shine with its own radiance – a splendid concerted achievement!

It remains to salute Michael Vinten for his work (with help from many others, individuals and organisations, whose assistance he has gratefully acknowledged) in enabling a restoration to life of these once-integral impulses of creative musical endeavour. His presentations have, in a unique way refocused present-day sensibilities and judgements on what our composers and writers managed to achieve on their own merits during that singular era prior to Douglas Lilburn’s emergence. It must have seemed fit and just to Vinten that a better integration of past and present was definitely in order. Such enlargements of knowledge and awareness can’t help but enrich our appreciation of where our contemporary creative minds have come from and what they’re achieving in this, our present time.

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