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Choral music and choirs

by Nancy Swarbrick

19th-century European settlers sang together on their way to New Zealand, and set up choirs in the new settlements once they arrived. In the 2000s there were choirs of trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and older people – as well as the more traditional church and classical choirs.

Choirs in the 2000s


Choral singing is one of the most popular forms of amateur music-making in New Zealand in the 2000s. There are community choirs in towns and cities throughout New Zealand, and in churches, workplaces, schools and tertiary educational institutions. The New Zealand Choral Federation, the main umbrella organisation for choral music, had nearly 17,000 individual members in 2013, mostly drawn from about 480 community and school choirs.


Choirs can consist of children or adults or a mix of both, and there are male- and female- only choirs. Some choirs specialise in a particular type or era of music, or bring together like-minded people, for example Auckland’s Gay and Lesbian Singers (GALS), and NZ Young@Heart, a chorus of elderly people who sing pop and rock music.

Learning music

In an adult classical choir there are four main voice parts, ranging from a high to a low register: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Soprano and alto are usually sung by women and tenor and bass by men. Sometimes choirs sing their music in unison, but usually they sing in harmony, which gives the sound added richness.

Most choirs read from musical scores in which each voice part has a different set of notes. Being able to ‘sight-read’ – quickly read the score and accurately pitch the notes – is an essential skill. Some choral groups do not read music but rather learn their different parts ‘by ear’ – memorising words and notes by listening to recordings and through repetition. Many choirs combine the two approaches.

The Messiah

One much-loved choral work, usually performed at Christmas, is Handel’s Messiah. In the 1950s, when ticket sales opened each year for the Wellington Choral Union’s annual performance, queues snaked along the road. For many choirs, staging The Messiah has been a way to make a profit in order to fund other, less crowd-pulling concerts.

Practice and performance

Choir rehearsals, which are led by the conductor or musical director, sometimes with the assistance of a piano or organ accompanist, help members perfect their parts and interpret the music. Most choirs work towards public performance of one major work or a number of pieces.

Traditionally, mastering an oratorio was the pinnacle of choral achievement. A lengthy work, usually with a religious theme, it was sung by a large choir accompanied by an orchestra, with interludes for soloists in each of the voice parts.

For choirs that perform the classical repertoire, a number of large oratorios were popular from the mid-19th century and remain so in the 2000s. They include George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, Joseph Haydn’s The Creation, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

The first century, 1840s to 1940s

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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in John Mansfield Thomson, The Oxford history of New Zealand music. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 93. Back
    • Quoted in The Oxford history of New Zealand music, p. 94. Back

Developments since the Second World War

Population growth and diversification after 1945 led to the establishment of more choirs, especially in the larger cities. Choral singing received a boost from some highly qualified immigrants, notably Peter Godfrey, who after arriving from England in 1958 conducted numerous groups, including the Auckland and Wellington Anglican Cathedral choirs, Auckland’s Dorian Choir, Wellington’s Orpheus Choir, and the New Zealand Youth Choir.

Practice with the prof

People who sang in choirs led by Professor Peter Godfrey ‘were not infrequently intimidated by his prowling presence as he sought out the out-of-tune singers and those whose preparation was not up to scratch. Rehearsal latecomers were made to feel unwelcome, regardless of who they were. Singers who did not watch the conductor received a withering stare until they made sudden and embarrassing eye contact.’1 Nevertheless, Godfrey motivated singers to reach higher standards of musical achievement than they thought possible.

New Zealand Youth Choir

National choral courses for secondary school students were run from 1966, and in 1979 a New Zealand Youth Choir was set up under the auspices of the Department of Education. Conducted in succession by Guy Jansen, Peter Godfrey, Karen Grylls and David Squire, the choir consisted of young people in their teens and 20s from around New Zealand. The choir reached an exceptionally high standard, winning various accolades and touring nationally and internationally. In 1999 it was named ‘Choir of the world’ at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales.

Voices New Zealand

In 1998 Voices New Zealand, a chamber choir which draws from among New Zealand's best singers, including many former members of the New Zealand Youth Choir, was established. It won  international awards in its first year, has recorded for Atoll and NAXOS, and performs at national festivals and at international  choral symposia. The choir appears regularly with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. 

Can’t miss Coro

The advent of television in 1960 had an impact on many choirs, which often had to change their rehearsal nights to avoid a clash with popular serials.

Choral compositions

In the post-war years, more choirs incorporated New Zealand compositions in their repertoires, and some made a point of commissioning them. Following the example set by earlier composer Alfred Hill, attractive and sometimes demanding choral works were produced by Douglas Lilburn, Edwin Carr, David Farquhar, Jenny McLeod, Jack Body, Christopher Blake, David Griffiths, David Hamilton, John and Anthony Ritchie, Douglas Mews, John Psathas and others.

Pacific and Māori choirs

Although traditional English church music began to wane from the late 1940s, immigration from the Pacific Islands led to a growth in numbers of church choirs associated with Samoan and Tongan communities especially. Te Roopu Waiata Maori (the New Zealand Maori Choir) was established in 1989 and after going into recess for a period was revived in the 2000s. Choral singing became one of the features of kapa haka competitions.

Barbershop chorales

Another innovation was the emergence of barbershop chorales from the 1980s. The style of close harmony singing originated in the United States in the late 19th century. Four men singing lead (the melody), baritone, tenor and bass parts would form a barbershop quartet, but soon barbershop choruses, coached by a director, were set up. In New Zealand women’s choruses are usually affiliated to Sweet Adelines New Zealand and men’s choruses to the New Zealand Association of Barbershop Singers. Both organisations have links to international groups, and New Zealand choruses have achieved success in world competitions.

The Choral Federation

The New Zealand Choral Federation was formed in 1985 as a network for choral directors, with the aim of stimulating and providing support for choral singing. It organises regional and national events, including The Big Sing for secondary school choirs, and Sing Aotearoa, the national choral festival.

    • Simon Tipping, Choir of the world. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2002, p. 17. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Choral music and choirs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 October 2014