Story: Composers

Page 1. Establishing a new tradition

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Composition of European-style classical music began in New Zealand in the 19th century. Classical music was introduced as part of the culture of British settlers, and was gradually supplemented by the work of local composers.

Alfred Hill

Australian-born Alfred Hill (1870–1960), New Zealand’s first important professional composer, was nurtured by this lively musical environment. He lived in New Zealand until 1897, apart from a period (1887–91) studying in Leipzig, where he developed a cosmopolitan compositional style that was influenced by the works of Schumann and Dvořák. A 2007 revival of Hill’s 1906 Commemorative Ode did not reveal the composer at his best, but contributed to a reassessment of his importance.

A musical encounter

A musical interface between Europe and the Pacific was inevitable, as first encounters showed. When Abel Tasman was greeted in Golden Bay in December 1642 by ‘an instrument of which the sound was like that of a Moorish trumpet,’ music was answered by music. ‘We then ordered one of our sailors (who had some knowledge of trumpet-blowing) to play them some tunes in answer,’ the Dutch explorer wrote.1

Hill sought to reconcile the music of Māori and Pākehā. However, works such as his 1903 opera Tapu suffered from a quaint libretto and a conservative musical idiom. Hill’s greatest cross-cultural coup came in his popular 'Waiata poi' (1904), which incorporated Māori chant and had the piano imitating the rap of the poi itself. It was recorded by artists from Ana Hato and Gracie Fields to Īnia Te Wīata and the Howard Morrison Quartet, and in the 2000s it still had a place in kapa haka (traditional Māori performance art) repertoire.

Douglas Lilburn

Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001) is unchallenged as the father of New Zealand composition. His background was non-musical, but studies at Canterbury University College led him into composition. After winning the Percy Grainger Prize in 1936, Lilburn opted for further training in England with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and then returned to Christchurch. Lilburn’s early work became associated with the rise of cultural nationalism in the 1940s; in Christchurch he made friends with emerging poets Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and D’Arcy Cresswell, and artists Rita Angus and Leo Bensemann. He established his name with works like Overture: Aotearoa (1940) and Landfall in unknown seas (1942).

Lilburn’s characteristic, rhythmically charged style informed his three symphonies, including the taut, single-movement Symphony No. 3 (1961), one of his last acoustic works before he turned to electroacoustic composition. His writings, including A search for tradition, a 1946 address to the first Cambridge Music School, proved prescient. Lilburn was also an influential teacher at Victoria University of Wellington between 1947 and 1980.

Later composers were, like Lilburn, supported by the emergence of professional music ensembles, including a national orchestra, and the growth of university music departments.

Musical legacies

Both Douglas Lilburn and Edwin Carr wanted to provide financial assistance for promising composers. Lilburn set up the Lilburn Trust in 1984: it funds many recording projects, publications and performances, and supports a composers’ residency. Carr left money in his will that supports a foundation named after him. It provides scholarships for composers doing further study.

Edwin Carr

Edwin Carr (1926–2003) excelled in lighter music such as the ballet The snowmaiden (1963), but was also an able symphonist. His Symphony no. 2 (1983), titled ‘The exile’, referred to the German refugee poet Karl Wolfskehl, whose work also inspired the composer’s 1977 Five Wolfskehl songs.

David Farquhar

Like Carr, David Farquhar (1928–2007) wrote symphonies and lighter works such as theatre music, including his well known dances for a 1953 production of Ring round the moon. Farquhar’s Symphony no. 2 (1982), cast in one movement like Lilburn’s third symphony, shared the older composer’s sinewy tenaciousness.

Larry Pruden

The finest work of Larry Pruden (1925–82) dates from the 1950s. It included the orchestral Soliloquy for strings (1952) and Harbour nocturne (1954).

Dorothea Franchi

Dorothea Franchi (1921–2003) was a harpist and pianist as well as a composer. Her 1949 Four pioneer portraits for mezzo-soprano and piano stood proud in male-dominated territory.

John Ritchie

In Christchurch John Ritchie (1921–2014) boosted the city’s music during his decades in the university’s music department. The neoclassical charm of his 1957 Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra has not waned.

Ronald Tremain

A significant teacher, Ronald Tremain (1923–98) emigrated to Canada in 1970, leaving a modest catalogue of elegantly scored works such as the unflinchingly modernist Five epigrams for twelve solo strings (1967).

Anthony Watson

Anthony Watson (1933–73), the first of the University of Otago’s Mozart Fellows in 1970, favoured a more international, modernist approach. His 1960 Prelude and allegro for string orchestra looked to Bartók and Hindemith. His 1969 Sonata for solo viola was a visceral protest against the Vietnam War.

  1. Abel Janszoon Tasman’s Journal, Project Gutenberg Australia, Entry for 17 December 1642 (last accessed 21 May 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

William Dart, 'Composers - Establishing a new tradition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by William Dart, published 22 Oct 2014