Tickling the ivories, Edmund Bohan

Piano Forte: Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand 
Kirstine Moffat 
Otago University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 978187737797

What a welcome book this is. Music has been neglected shamefully for far too long in our historiography, either because most of our historians have not considered it important, or because they have personally lacked interest in and, therefore, knowledge of this art form. Many years ago Keith Sinclair explained to me his own ignorance of serious music by reasoning that one lifetime was too short in which properly to appreciate all art forms; so he had decided to forgo music. Both J C Beaglehole and Alexander McLintock were very musical (and accomplished pianists), and McLintock did ensure that music was covered satisfactorily in his three-volume Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966); but Beaglehole wrote of it only in his verse. Since then our major historians have ignored it almost entirely, and it has been the domain of a very few specialists such as the late Adrienne Simpson and John Mansfield Thomson.

Kirstine Moffat is a specialist too: an enthusiast for the piano who proudly proclaims it “the most dearly loved of all musical instruments”. It has been an integral part of her life, and this book has clearly been a labour of love for which she must be congratulated. And her thorough research makes it more than simply a history of the piano in New Zealand but an important contribution to our social history. Most of her numerous extracts from diaries, oral reminiscences and letters are fascinating and revealing.

In her last chapter, aptly entitled “Coda”, she sums up what music and the piano have meant for our evolving society ‒ much more than mere nostalgia:

The many places in which the sounds of the piano were heard and the many moods it conveyed highlight the range of cultural associations evoked by its presence. Domestic servants played the piano for guests and took lessons from their employers. English gentlemen performed for miners on the goldfields of Otago and the West Coast. Communities gathered together to enjoy variety concerts, dances and socials. Clubs and societies, from the Masonic Lodge to the Tramworkers Union, enlivened their meetings with musical interludes. The piano was played in parliament and in schools. It accompanied patriotic ballads celebrating connections to the motherland and imitated native birdsong and Maori haka. It aided the healing of those confined to a hospital bed or asylum and promoted vigorous movement on the dance floor and in the gymnasium. It soothed shoppers and encouraged the rowdy revelry of drinkers in pubs. The homes of New Zealanders from all socio-economic backgrounds housed pianos, symbolic not only of a desire for upward mobility and improved social status but also a passion for broadening cultural and intellectual horizons.


This is a sensibly arranged book, covering every imaginable aspect of the piano in New Zealand from the arrival of the very first instrument in 1827 right up to 1930, “when the increasing popularity of the phonograph, the radio and the introduction of talkie movies was beginning to have a profound impact on people’s leisure activities.” But Moffat also begs some questions: can the first 30 years of the 20th century really be considered a part of “colonial” New Zealand as her subtitle proclaims? 1930 is approaching dangerously close to my own birth year, and I have no doubt whatsoever that my parents’ generation for whom the piano was invariably a central part of family life, and such pianists and teachers as those urbane personalities Ernest Empson and Frederick Page, to whom she refers several times, would be equally surprised. I knew them both well, as I did others she mentions: Ernest as a mentor, accompanist and repertoire coach; Fred socially and as a concert organiser. And here I should warn that Fred’s memoirs, while idiosyncratic and entertaining, are not always completely reliable. The researcher engaged in social history must be as aware of the foibles and prejudices of diarists and letter writers as the political historian.

Nor, I believe, are some of the conclusions from feminist music scholars that Kirstine Moffat seems to have accepted uncritically of any real value. From my own quite detailed researches over the past 57 years into 19th-century performing practice (admittedly mainly at professional level) and of New Zealand and British society in general, I’ve found no credible evidence that playing the piano was widely regarded as an “unmanly” activity in Victorian Britain. Prince Albert was a fine pianist (as was Victoria who also sang well) and a competent composer (some of whose songs I sang at London concerts during the 1970s). Most of their children were musical too, especially the Duke of Edinburgh, who was a successful popular composer as well as boon companion of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and as a family they set the pattern for the empire’s domestic music-making. All forms of music-making, amateur and professional, were hugely important to all classes in Victorian Britain, as they were too throughout Europe and the Americas; and the piano was an essential part of household furniture at all social levels and at the very heart of domestic life ‒ as it continued to be during my post-colonial New Zealand childhood.

From my extensive professional experience, I would also argue that gender, so much a favoured preoccupation of current historiography, is of limited significance in the wider music profession historically, and remains of very limited relevance still; most of the famous women with whom I sang regularly earned more than I did, for a start, and even in the 19th century many women ‒ especially singers and such pianists as Clara Schumann ‒ were among the highest paid, most celebrated and fêted celebrities. In Victorian England women were also prominent as impresarios, agents, theatre owners and managers.


Edmund Bohan’s memoir Singing Historian is published by Canterbury University Press. 

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