Music as a cultural force: the lineaments of a tradition, John Roberts

The Oxford History of New Zealand Music
John Mansfield Thomson
Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1991, $69.95

This eagerly awaited book will take a high place in the company of recent reference works. The only cause for regret is that the publisher did not allow the author greater length. As he says in his introduction, ‘A work which could have been extended into two or three volumes … has here been compressed into one … ‘. Yet so wide is the author’s scope, so comprehensive his grasp of the sources, and so judicious his emphasis, that the reader is neither daunted by a mass of detail, nor denied a comprehensive grasp of the way music is made and enjoyed in a given society. He does not claim to be omniscient and short accounts of early Maori and choral music and instrument making are supplied by other contributors.

We are, to a far greater extent than we realise, the creatures of our musical experience. It shapes our cultural identity, our religious impulses, our friendships and such ecstasy as our quotidian life allows. John Mansfield Thomson sets out to trace not just the lineaments of a musical culture but to show how it is fostered and thwarted by the dynamics of social change. In other hands this might have made for heavy going but the author has cultivated an acute sensitivity to the unexpected, the amusing, or the striking passage that illuminates the moulding social process. Of the thousand possible examples consider this prime exemplar of the way Thomson makes brilliant use of apparently mundane material. It is recorded that in the Princess Theatre, Dunedin, scene of the first full-scale operatic production in New Zealand, ‘the stall seats have been divided, in ample proportions, even for ladies’. A brief double-take and then one has a picture of the vast skirts of respectable women and the social conventions inherent in nineteenth-century music-making. The text is shot through with these perceptions.

As with good music, delight does not preclude sound organisation. The book starts with traditional pre-European Maori music and goes on to the establishment of a rudimentary musical life in the main centres of settlement. The interaction between Maori and Pakeha demonstrates in this field perhaps more clearly than any other the astonishing capacity of the Maori to profit from the association. Obviously the strong tradition of religious music had a major part to play and, despite the blighted hopes of partnership, Thomson demonstrates that music is one gift the Pakeha has not been able to diminish.

The regional base established, the book takes up the fortunes of musical social life – the ballroom, the brass bands, the folk tradition, opera and choral singing, ending the section with the perennial quest for viable orchestras. It is not always an edifying tale. The charms that music is supposed to exercise do not seem to affect the savage breasts of amateur entrepreneurs. Into this effervescent world the visiting performers came and Thomson deftly separates the duds from those who set new standards and sharpened colonial aspirations. He goes on to document the revolution caused by sound reproduction and films and summarises the crucial impact of broadcasting for good and evil upon our musical life. This leads naturally to a discussion of notable New Zealand performers and prepares the ground for the culmination of the book – an account of the New Zealand composing tradition.

The story embraces the one who returned and left again, and the other who returned and remained to lead New Zealand music to a new musical path. Alfred Hill was not necessarily the most agreeable of men – what creative person is – but how sad it is that the security and reward he should have enjoyed here was provided by New South Wales. Douglas Lilburn was lucky to find at Victoria University College a colleague more than willing to throw conventional musical traditions out the window, preferably on top of Brahms. Frederick Page may well have thought that he had been sent to ‘an institution for bad girls’ when he arrived at Victoria to set up the first music department. There is no doubt that he fostered the spirit of innovation and collegial interchange with the wider musical community that now marks all university music. It may not be too early to suggest that, principally from this source, a distinctive New Zealand music has emerged.

John Mansfield Thomson, another of the returning godwits, gave up a distinguished career in British music publishing to become the chronicler of our musical times. This engaging History, designed and illustrated with discrimination and wit, is only the most recent of a number of path-breaking works. Little wonder that the author should have been awarded an honorary doctorate in music by Victoria University and that the department which he attended so many years ago should have marshalled such outstanding performance skills to celebrate his achievements. Little wonder also that the new graduate should have used the occasion to defend the Concert Programme against the philistines at the gate.


John Roberts, former Professor of Public Administration at Victoria University of Wellington, is a well-known broadcaster and commentator with a particular interest in music.


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