Story: Popular music

Page 3. Shows, musical groups and songwriting, 1860s–1910s

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The popularity of light opera and minstrel shows in the 19th century is reflected in the many visits by overseas performers from the 1860s, and the number of towns where building a local opera house or Theatre Royal was seen as an essential sign of civic maturity. The fare was not elitist: it was more likely to be comic opera or minstrel and classical songs than grand opera. Vaudeville flourished from around the start of the 20th century until the 1920s, when the pit bands were more likely to be accompanying silent movies than vaudeville singers.

Mixed bag

Vaudeville shows were a series of diverse and unrelated acts which performed in one theatrical show. Acts included music, dancing, magicians, acrobats and lecturers.

Some original light operas and musicals were composed, the most famous being Alfred Hill’s Tapu (1903) and A Moorish maid (1905). Although born in Australia, Hill spent his childhood and received his musical education in New Zealand, providing the background to his well-received songs ‘Waiata poi’ and ‘Home, little Māori, home’, and his cantata Hinemoa (1896).

Musical groups

Choral groups were a feature of pioneering life, usually under the auspices of local churches or musical societies.

Brass bands emerged from the British military regiments stationed in New Zealand, which provided music at official functions, parades, balls and public concerts. They were preceded by informal bands attached to local militias in the 1840s. This tradition led to the founding of local groups such as the Timaru Artillery, the Wellington City Rifles, the Auckland Artillery Band and many others.

Besides creating a familiar soundscape for public gatherings, the brass band movement provided a training ground for many of New Zealand’s leading jazz and orchestral musicians. Alex Lithgow’s tune the ‘Invercargill march’, first performed in the city in 1909, became a standard in the international brass-band repertoire.

World famous

The ‘Invercargill march’ was still played by brass bands around the world in the early 2000s. In 2009 Invercargill celebrated the march’s centenary. The city’s mayor, Tim Shadbolt, described it as one of Invercargill’s most internationally recognised exports and said Queen Elizabeth loved it.

Bagpipes arrived with some of the earliest European settlers, but organised pipe bands were not established until 1896, when the Caledonian Pipe Band of Southland was founded in Invercargill. Pipe bands became a much loved – and highly competitive – feature of New Zealand’s musical life.


New Zealand songwriting progressed in the early 1860s. Charles Begg established his influential music store in Dunedin in 1861, and began publishing original songs including the ‘Dunedin polka’ and ‘The Southern Cross’. These were followed in the 1870s by songs such as the ‘Zealandia waltz’, ‘The Mataura Valley polka’ and ‘The moa march’.

‘On the ball’, written by Manawatū accountant Edward Secker in 1887 about his province’s low-scoring rugby team, became New Zealand’s first published song to be successful internationally.

Other widely disseminated early songs include:

  • the lullaby ‘Hine e hine’, written by Te Rangi Pai (Fanny Rose Howie), around 1907
  • ‘Hoea rā’ by Paraire Tomoana (1917)
  • ‘Pōkarekare ana’, arranged by Tomoana (between 1914 and 1917).

The lyrics to ‘Pō atarau’, also known as ‘Now is the hour’ and ‘Haere rā’, are attributed to Maewa Kaihau (1920) and set to the melody of ‘Swiss cradle song’ (1913) by Australian composer Clement Scott. Its origins are still the subject of debate, however.

How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - Shows, musical groups and songwriting, 1860s–1910s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014