Pulling no punches, Sue Court

Music in New Zealand: A Reader from the 1940s
ed Allan Thomas
University of Canterbury School of Music, $25,
ISBN 090871808X

What does an anthology of source readings, soberly titled Music in New Zealand: A Reader from the 1940s have to do with literature? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Such a collection of source readings is revealing on three levels: it offers valuable data for the student of history; it speaks in the voice of the period in a manner that no narrative history could imitate; and it says something of the taste of the editor, in this case, Allan Thomas from the School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.

Hoping to be engaged, but not expecting to be enthralled, by this collection of writings, my prejudices were challenged. I was immediately reminded how the style of writing in the mid-20th century was often more colourful, more eloquent, than it is nowadays, and seemingly not so confined by considerations of space. Even when that writing reveals a stuffy-minded-bigotry, its charm (at this distance) is disarming.

What is more, it is refreshing to realise that music criticism then was not curtailed by fear of upsetting the public or of alienating fellow artists. In what review today could we read such an opening paragraph as this?

When I hear the particularly noisy and disorderly sort of swing music coming over the air I rise and make the necessary adjustment to my radio set. I wince. But I maintain my savoir faire. But when I hear somebody say something like this: “The best swing music to-day is the equivalent of Bach’s music in his age” then a gentle tide of nausea overwhelms me.


A R D Fairburn’s review in the magazine Music Ho (1945), with the unabashed title of “Music for Morons”, pulled no punches. Naturally, the piece drew a heated correspondence from those of a contrary opinion. Falling just short of abuse calling for litigation, such fiery debate gives the impression that a great many people then cared passionately about the reception of music.

Not only that, poets cared about music. And musicians cared about poetry. The extended visit of renowned European pianist Lili Kraus was responsible, along with visits from Solomon, the Boyd Neel orchestra and a handful of other internationals, for introducing audiences to high per-formance standards. Kraus drew a rash of superlative reviews from writers at a loss to describe her playing, one resorting to describing audiences in Auckland as “walking on air” and “drunk on the milk of paradise”. Fairburn in the New Zealand Listener (1946) offered the opinion that “no greater artist has ever been heard in this Dominion”. He implored that “nobody miss hearing her, even if he has to crawl on his hands and knees for ten miles.”

Music lovers were hungry for the sort of performance quality they had been enjoying on the wireless and from imported gramophone recordings. Lili Kraus’s concerts inspired many a young pianist to aspire to the stage, and the literary world was similarly moved. Four pieces from leading New Zealand poets which address the Kraus phenomenon – Fairburn’s “Town Hall Concert”, Glover’s “A Note to Lili”, and Curnow’s “Lili Kraus Playing at Christchurch” and “A Sonata of Schubert” – are republished here. Curnow wrote in a letter to Allan Thomas in December 2000 that he had “never thought either of these poems good enough for its occasion: yet perhaps the wonder of the occasion in itself, then as now, justifies the reprinting here.”

J C Beaglehole was of that breed of scholar – I am tempted to say, a renaissance man – who concerned himself with literature and music in almost equal measure. He was pivotal to both arts in the early days of the foundation of literary publications and professional music-making. It is appropriate that his “reflections” on the first performance of the National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service in 1947 (the forerunner of today’s NZSO) should be included in the Reader. His very personal but informed review published in the New Zealand Listener drew a heated response from Dr H J Findlay, which put forward so admirable a counter-argument that the editors of the Listener were compelled to ignore their own policy against printing retorts.

Some of the best music writing of this period came from the pen of Owen Jensen, who, in founding and editing Music Ho, established a tradition of powerful music criticism. He liked his criticism “ripe and strong”, but could equally disarm his own critics by a “friendly reaction to [a] devastating onslaught”. One such contretemps between Jensen and a Mr Austin (an amateur composer with little time for contemporary music) concerned itself with, among other matters, a concert by the pianist Pnina Salzman. Their twin responses republished in the Reader are fascinating to read in juxtaposition, but would have been even more so, had Jensen’s original review of Salzman also been included. 

This is, of course, one of the inherent flaws of such anthologies – they are unlikely to include sufficient documents to satisfy the curiosity of any one reader. It is natural that the inclinations of the editor will prevail, given such a spectrum of possibilities. It is no surprise to find that the section on Composition is dominated, quite rightly so, by the leading composer Douglas Lilburn, arguably the first to find a New Zealand “voice”. However, a more rounded picture of a healthy nascent compositional life in New Zealand could have been provided, for instance, by the inclusion of source documents pertaining to John Ritchie, Larry Pruden, David Farquhar and Dorothea Franchi. Admittedly, a book such as this Reader cannot possibly be comprehensive; it is cause for celebration that it exists at all.

The sombre buff cover and uninspiring layout speak of a limited budget more than a lack of imagination; it should not deter readers from either the music or literature camps. Unfortunately, the sloppy editing (p51 with five grammatical and spelling errors was a low point) also detracts from the results of Allan Thomas’ careful archival research, though not sufficiently to negate its value. Thomas makes good his claim that this collection gives a vivid picture of the liveliness of the musical scene in the years when New Zealand was beginning to forge an independent path. I look forward to the sequel.


Sue Court is the Head of the Department of Music at the University of Otago.


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Posted in History, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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