Story: Choral music and choirs

Page 2. The first century, 1840s to 1940s

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The English choral tradition

British settlers brought to New Zealand a strong tradition of informal music-making, which included massed singing of everything from folk songs and hymns through to classical works. There were choirs including both steerage and cabin passengers on board ships bound for New Zealand: for instance, a glee club was formed on the Charlotte Jane, the first ship to set out for Canterbury in 1850. Choirs were set up in the new settlements to build a sense of community and provide entertainment.

Got to get to choir

Writer Anthony Trollope, who visited New Zealand in 1872, noted that servants were in short supply and could therefore dictate the terms of their employment. ‘Sometimes a lass who knows nothing will consent to come into a house and be taught how to do house-work at the rate of £40 per annum, with a special proviso that she is to be allowed to go out two evenings a week to learn choral singing in the music-hall’.1

Church music

Church choirs were important from early days, particularly in predominantly Anglican settlements. As well as leading the congregation in hymns, a proficient choir would sing psalms, motets and anthems at certain points in the service. The Canterbury settlement gained a particularly high reputation for the quality of its church music from the 1850s. This was enhanced by the zealous efforts of individuals such as Robert Parker, who trained several church choirs and formed a choir guild in 1878, and John Bradshaw, who from 1902 trained the Christchurch Cathedral choir, which included boys from Cathedral Grammar School.

Singing togetherness

‘Community sings’, public gatherings where people sang well-known songs together, began in the 1920s in New Zealand and were especially popular during the 1930s depression. Traditional, patriotic, drinking and music hall songs, sea shanties, rounds and hymns were all part of the repertoire. As well as boosting morale at times of social strain, community sings helped raise funds for charity.

Choral societies

Singers from well-trained church choirs raised the standard of choral societies, which were soon set up, following the example of those established in northern English towns such as Sheffield, Huddersfield and Leeds. They attracted both experienced and untrained singers: members often learned to read music after they had joined the choir. Some of the big choral societies have survived into the 2000s: notably the Auckland Choral Society, established in 1855; the Canterbury Vocal Union (now the Christchurch City Choir), formed in 1860; and Dunedin Choral Society (now City Choir Dunedin), set up in 1863.

Lost singers

The loss of male singers had a devastating impact on choirs during the First World War. In 1918 Robert Parker, at that time conductor of the Wellington Choral Society, wrote to an Auckland friend, ‘The war, which seems endless, has paralysed our choral world. I am struggling on to the end of the year with the Society, but it is heart-breaking work’.2

Specialist choirs

As the musical scene diversified in the 20th century, more choirs emerged, some of which reached professional standards. In Wellington, the Harmonic Society and the Apollo Singers, both established by Harold Temple White, were so good that in 1935 visiting composer Percy Grainger praised one joint performance for ‘the unvarying perfection attained.’3 From the late 1920s the Christchurch Harmonic Society tackled challenging new works by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, Benjamin Britten and Krzysztof Penderecki. Two notable choirs established in 1936 were Wellington’s Schola Cantorum and the Auckland Dorian Choir, both of which became renowned for excellence and the wide variety of works they sang a capella (unaccompanied).

Alongside these and many other community choirs, singing groups were associated with the Irish, Welsh and Scottish societies, the RSA Tinhat Club and some workplaces.

Māori choral singing

Some Māori who converted to Christianity also adopted English-style singing. At the Anglican St John’s College in Auckland in the 1840s and 1850s, Māori pupils learned to read music and were soon singing English part-songs and Mendelssohn chorales with great skill and accuracy. Some all-Māori choirs were to become prominent. Anglican clergyman Frederick Bennett established the Rotorua Maori Choir in the early 1900s. It toured the country, and members starred in New Zealand’s first feature film, Hinemoa (1914). Later it made a number of very popular recordings. Methodist minister Arthur Seamer formed the Waiata Maori Choir in the mid-1920s, and in the 1930s it toured New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and India. Choral competitions were often a feature of major hui.

Children’s choirs

Many children participated in school and church choirs. A notable Auckland children’s choir was conducted by broadcaster Thomas Garland. It was established after Garland and Methodist missioner Colin Scrimgeour began a non-denominational radio church, the Fellowship of the Friendly Road, in 1933. The choir sang for Sunday morning radio services and, with other choirs, gave concerts to full houses in the Auckland Town Hall until the early 1960s.

  1. Quoted in Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, ‘The high arts in a regional culture – from Englishness to self-reliance.’ In Southern capital: Christchurch: towards a city biography, 1850–2000, edited by John Cookson and Graeme Dunstall. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2000, p. 303. Back
  2. Quoted in John Mansfield Thomson, The Oxford history of New Zealand music. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 93. Back
  3. Quoted in The Oxford history of New Zealand music, p. 94. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Choral music and choirs - The first century, 1840s to 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014