Song Sleuth

By Craig Beardsworth

This is original content for Capital online.

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Singer and teacher Craig Beardsworth sat down to talk musical treasure hunts with muso Michael Vinten.

Conductor, teacher, composer, and arranger are words Michael Vinten uses to describe himself. Recently ‘historian’ has been bandied about and he’s not sure he’s comfortable with it. “I’ve never studied social history, I don’t think I can call myself anything like that” he says, eyes widening in doubt. But the three thick ring-bound volumes lying between us speak of extensive historical and musicological research. Last year Vinten released the first volume of Call of the Huia: a collection of early New Zealand Art Song – the first of three volumes he has collected, researched, codified, and edited. Two thirds of the songs are or will be published for the first time and and are unlikely to have been heard in living memory.

For this Wellingtonian, covid lockdown meant time to work on filling a gap in New Zealand’s music history, trawling through digital files and dusty manuscripts in the Turnbull Library and elsewhere. Vinten had heard many complaints from singing teachers regarding the lack of local song repertoire for students and professionals. In concert and in competitions the Art Songs of largely European composers are heard repeatedly across the country, but what of their New Zealand counterparts? Contemporary composition is thriving, but where are the pre 1950 composers?  

Art songs are compositions in the classical repertory setting poetry to music of matching quality in a rich tradition going back to 18th century European composers such as Schubert and Schumann. In performance, the singer and accompanist are in partnership and of equal importance. The resulting complexity typically stretches performers’ technical ability and musicianship. The English art song tradition flourished in the first half of the 20th century, and New Zealand composers found inspiration especially in this heritage. 

Vinten applied for funding from the Lilburn Trust in 2020, and hoped his research would unveil 20 to 30 songs – enough to fill a book. By the time he published in 2021, he had amassed 118 pieces spanning the 58 years from 1892 to 1950. “There were plenty more that didn’t make the cut, derivative stuff where the poetry was uninspired or the music said nothing new.” Apart from exercising quality control to his own standards and seeking to fill the pre-1950s lacuna in the country’s art song heritage, he sought to limit entry to composers who were either born here (difficult considering the mass migration of the 19th century) or had made a significant contribution to New Zealand music making while here. One composer who snuck through this door was Austrian migrant Paul Schramm, who only stayed for nine years until 1948. His inability to settle here was probably influenced by local opposition to his socialist views and reaction to his accent. Vinten admits dating some of these songs is difficult, and a few may well have been written before Schramm immigrated, but “They are fabulous, the music exciting, difficult, almost cabaret-like – I couldn’t not include them as they deserved to be rediscovered. And besides” he whispers mischievously, “this was my party and I’ll invite who I want to”.

Sleuthing was not limited to The National Library’s Turnbull Collection. Vinten tracked down songs in other repositories including the Hocken Collection in Dunedin. He was often reminded of how taonga was ultimately at the mercy of bequests or keen relatives rescuing papers and manuscripts from estates. He talks of the “delicate thread of survival” allowing some songs to end up in a library and in turn his anthology. Hawkes Bay teacher and organist Amelia Lelièvre-Lee died in 1957 at 84 leaving behind a cache of compositions. One of her siblings gave them to a convent, where they languished until the sisters had a clean-out and a priest rescued them, later donating them to the Turnbull Library. Were there more? Did they get lost?  The lament of every social historian echoes here.

Vinten has zealously sought to supply context for the rediscovered songs – for every song I mention he has a story at his fingertips, often interlaced with wider cultural or social history. Composer Arnold Trowell’s father, for instance, taught cello to Katherine Mansfield, and she contemplated following music as a profession. She developed a passion for Arnold, and when it remained unreciprocated embarked on an affair with Arnold’s brother Garnet which ended in a miscarriage. Both Trowell brothers studied music in Europe, partly funded by Mansfield’s father Harold Beauchamp.

One of the curiosities of the collection is a gap in repertoire representing the 1930s. ‘Call of the Huia’ has very little from this decade. Vinten suggests a deep social conservativism at the time limited the quality of output. “There were two types of radio station, pop stations playing American big bands and government owned YHA stations only interested in echoing mother England”. Song writing stalled. European modernism and the avant-garde were largely unknown until an influx of exponents migrated to New Zealand post World War II. The preponderance of local magazines may also have fed conservative sentiment. Many offered weekly poetry sections that included competitions. “Everyone fancied themselves a poet and the result was an overload of derivative stuff – uninspired poetry in turn made for uninspired song writing”.

Vinten also had to decide what to publish of Pākehā poets and composers who alluded to Māori stories in their work – recognized as difficult territory today, but de rigueur at the time. Alfred Hill wrote ”Māori inspired music”, influenced in part by his friendship with artist Charles Goldie, who allowed Hill to sit in his studio and record songs Māori subjects sang while they had their portraits painted. The Māori population was in steep decline in the early 1900’s and Hill may have been keen to document waiata lest it disappear. His use of melodic idioms and story themes in his own compositions is now considered to be cultural appropriation, but it nevertheless served to preserve something that otherwise might have been lost.

Māori voices are heard in the collection (albeit under Western music influence) with songs by Princess Te Rangi Pai – known for modern school choir staple ‘Hine e hine’, and Erima Maewa Kaihau . These two composers not only fly the flag for Māori song writers but also bolster the ranks of women represented in ‘Call of the Huia’. Of the 30 composers in the collection, 10 are women. A high percentage considering the limited influence of women in general classical music circles (1913 saw the first woman allowed to play in an orchestra in London,) but Vinten thinks it shouldn’t be a surprise:  “Women were at the core of music making, just as they are today. They were musically well educated and became accompanists, teachers, and performers – no wonder they were producing fine songs too”.

To complete the project, all three volumes of “Call of the Huia” have been sung and recorded by New Zealand singers. A selection will be performed in concerts in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland  – New Zealand voices celebrating New Zealand voices.


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