Topic: An Introduction to Music in Tauranga, 1835-1920

Topic type:

For hundreds of years, Maori made their own music in Tauranga Moana. This article is a very brief introduction to the music that Pakeha settlers brought with them, beginning with the missionaries in the 1830s.

Rev. A.N.Brown

Looking strange ? see an archived version here

It is reasonably safe to assume that the services at the Te Papa Mission Station, now The Elms, included music. The Rev. A. N. Brown was taught to sing at the Church Missionary Society’s college,[i] in preparation for leading congregations in hymns. The large groups of Maori converts at Te Papa would surely have learnt to sing hymns as part of their regular pattern of worship. The hymns could have been similar to this example heard by the Rev. Brown in the Bay of Islands, sung by the infants’ class on the departure of Bishop Selwyn[ii]:

            Here we suffer grief and pain,

            Here we meet to part again,

            In Heaven we part no more,

            O it will be joyful, joyful, joyful,

            When we meet to part no more.

In his journals the Rev. Brown does not find it necessary to note the day-to-day musical life of the mission settlement. But he occasionally mentions the indigenous music that the missionaries’ hymns attempted to displace. ‘In conversation with Wirimu Hapi (William Sharpe) who is exceedingly weak and ill, I found that he is occasionally much disturbed by his countrymen singing their native songs in his hearing. Soon however will the song of the redeemed – the song of Moses and the Lamb – burst upon his ransomed soul’.[iii] The ‘song of the redeemed’ is probably figurative rather than literal in this case.

Brown’s opinion of ‘native’ music in general was not high, although there were honourable exceptions: in Matamata[iv] he noted ‘The hymn was sung to a Native tune in which the whole congregation joined, and the effect was perfectly thrilling’. Here the indigenous music had been subverted to a Christian purpose by fitting evangelical words to an old tune. The singing of a party of shipwrecked Fijians was described (or damned with faint praise) as ‘very much approach[ing] to melody’. He was sufficiently interested in their song to ask about its meaning. ‘It was a legendary tale of the death of one of their Chiefs by their King with whom he had engaged in battle. The chorus of the song was “The sun has set now our Chief is dead! How can it rise again now our Chief is dead?” Poor fellows! Soon may they sing the Songs of Zion…’.[v]

As well-brought-up Victorian ladies the women of the Rev. Brown’s family were competent musicians. John Jolliffe, of the survey ship HMS Pandora, enjoyed Celia Brown’s singing and piano playing in November 1852.[vi] But probably the most famous musical occasion in early Tauranga took place on 28 April 1864, the eve of the battle of Gate Pa, when the doomed officers sang ‘Abide with Me’ around the piano, accompanied by Christina Brown.[vii]

The troops stationed in Tauranga in the 1860s would have brought their own martial music with them, with military bands of bugles, drums, etc. For at least part of April 1864, however, the band of the 68th Durham Light Infantry was silenced. It was forbidden to play in case it disturbed Col. Greer’s wife, who  had been ill.[viii]

When the wars were over and the settlement of Tauranga was becoming more established in the 1870s, the inhabitants set about entertaining themselves with quadrille assemblies, soirées and concerts. Societies of enthusiastic amateur performers were set up: a Masonic glee club, a Choral Society. At one of many similar entertainments the Misses A. and M. Mulgan played the piano ‘in a spirited manner’ at a church fundraising concert in 1875,[ix] which also featured the singing voices of many Tauranga residents. And there were even visits from overseas performers. In 1877 you could have heard the ‘Great Australian Violin Soloist, Mr Charles Austin’ at the Temperance Hall.[x] The hall was by no means ideal for musical performances. In 1878 the Tauranga Choral Society’s first concerts received mixed reviews, the poor acoustics of the hall being partly to blame for less than perfect results.[xi] Music at home must have been popular also. J. Brown & Son, of Shortland Street, Auckland, advertised regularly in the Bay of Plenty Times in the 1870s, offering pianos for sale and the services of H. Oberlin Brown, a tuner from London. It is not known if any Tauranga residents patronised the firm, but given the popularity of the piano in Victorian New Zealand it is certainly possible that they did.    

The infant town still found it hard to muster an orchestra, however. The Amateur Dramatic Club’s version of Aladdin in 1878 was accompanied by an orchestra ‘composed of a piccolo, violin, and piano’, which struck the reviewer as ‘excessively weak’.[xii]

The Tauranga Musical Union (choir and orchestra) presented its first concert to an ‘enthusiastic and fashionable’ audience in 1883.[xiii] Later in the year the Union performed Schiller’s ‘Lay of the Bell’, described as ‘of a class of such a high standard that the public of Tauranga have a treat in store for them’.[xiv]  However, sometimes the audiences lacked sophistication. ‘This vulgar habit of beating time with the feet to those songs in which the measure is well marked,’ fumed the reviewer of a Tauranga Amateur Serenaders’ concert, ‘has become only too common at some of the Bay of Plenty concerts, and as it is a habit which is very disconcerting to the performers, and very disagreeable to the great part of the listeners, we hope for the future it will be discontinued’.[xv]  

The musical education of Tauranga was obviously not complete, but it carried on. Music teachers advertised their services – Mr Herbert Ames in 1884 (pianoforte, singing and German, on Saturdays only, two pounds ten per quarter in advance), Mrs H. B. Daniel and Miss Buckland in 1885, Mrs Mulgan in 1886, Mr Robert Cheek (also a piano tuner) and Miss Cheek in 1893 and 1895. In 1894 Mr Arthur Boult’s illustrated lecture on the history of music, in the Theatre Royal in Harington Street, was ‘listened to with rapt attention by a numerous audience’.[xvi] 

In the 20th century the appetite of Tauranga’s residents for musical skills and entertainment increased, though with the advent of the gramophone the music was not all home-grown. In 1913 T. E. Wayte, on The Strand, offered violin strings and other necessaries for sale; he was also the agent for Edison’s Phonographs and Records. Lacey’s Bazaar, at the same period, also sold gramophone records. The building of the Town Hall in 1915 provided an improved venue for concerts, variety shows, and silent films. In 1916 a pianist was hired to play for the ‘Municipal Pictures’. The letters of application for this position, which are held in the New Zealand Room archives, show that Tauranga Borough Council accepted the cheapest tender.

A particularly stirring spectacle in the Town Hall was advertised in 1919. ‘The Royal Togos’, a visiting team of Japanese jugglers, performed death-defying feats while blindfolded on a tightrope. Their programme also featured two international musicians: Miss Billie Leslie the soprano, and Mr Louis Alsace who performed solos on the violin, the cello, and that unique instrument ‘the alsacephone, [which] appears to be a combination of violin and tenor horn’.[xvii]

By 1919 also there was considerable competition amongst music teachers: Miss Burd of Harington Street offered pianoforte and theory; Miss Florence Wilkinson pianoforte, theory and harmony; but the multiskilled Mr H. Crump, who had been in Tauranga since 1909, could teach ‘Pianoforte, Organ, Theory, Harmony, Counterpoint, Double Counterpoint, Etc.’[xviii] The alliteratively-named Mr Merewether Meadows, of Bellevue, made sure his connections to a wider world were recognised when he described himself as ‘late of Wellington’.  

Civic pride often expresses itself in municipal bands. Tauranga has had a brass band since 1880, but by no means continuously. Beset by lack of funds and energy, the band had a shaky start, and it was not until the 1920s that it stabilised, although an attractive band rotunda had been built in the Domain in 1893 so that it could have a place to perform. (Sadly the rotunda no longer exists: it was demolished some time between 1948 and 1963.) There was also a Fife and Drum Band, formed in September 1890 for boys from the temperance movement.[xix] Tauranga’s Scottish heritage was acknowledged in the formation of a Highland pipe band in 1914, under the leadership of Mr Charles Macdonald, ‘late of Drumcharry, Scotland, who is a former pipe-major of the 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Black Watch’.[xx] The Tauranga Athletic Club’s annual sports meeting on Boxing Day 1916 featured piping competitions – marches, strathspeys and reels – as well as sports events.[xxi]

In conclusion, Tauranga’s musical life in the early days was erratic but lively. Much more was to come in the later 20th century – orchestras, rock bands, the Tauranga Musical Theatre, the Cantabile Singers, and the famous Jazz Festival.

 by Stephanie Smith

Specialist Information Librarian: New Zealand Room

Tauranga City Libraries

To read about other local history books available at the Tauranga City Libraries, click here.  


Bay of Plenty Times, Papers Past Website.

Bellamy, A. C., ed. Tauranga 1882-1982. Tauranga: Tauranga City Council, 1982.

Bilcliffe, John. Well done the 68th. Chippenham: Picton, 1995.

Brown, A. N. Journal of the Rev. A. N. Brown. [Tauranga]: [The Elms Trust], [19--]

Rorke, Jinty, pers. comm.

Vennell, C. W. Brown and The Elms. Tauranga: The Elms Trust, 1984.


[i] Jinty Rorke, pers.comm.

[ii] Brown, 16 November 1844

[iii] Brown, 22 August 1835

[iv] Brown, 16 June 1846

[v] Brown, 12 January 1838

[vi] Vennell, p85

[vii] Vennell, p100

[viii] Bilcliffe, p181

[ix] Bay of Plenty Times, 10 November 1875

[x] Bay of Plenty Times, 23 May 1877

[xi] Bay of Plenty Times, 20 April and 7 November 1878

[xii] Bay of Plenty Times, 17 September 1878

[xiii] Bay of Plenty Times, 29 March 1883

[xiv] Bay of Plenty Times, 2 August 1883

[xv] Bay of Plenty Times, 25 May 1882

[xvi] Bay of Plenty Times, 14 February 1894

[xvii] Bay of Plenty Times, 10 September 1919

[xviii] e.g. Bay of Plenty Times, 17 September 1919

[xix] Bay of Plenty Times, 18 September 1890

[xx] Bay of Plenty Times, 2 October 1914

[xxi] Bay of Plenty Times, 27 December 1916

This page was archived at Perma cc January 2017

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion

An Introduction to Music in Tauranga, 1835-1920

Year:c.1880, c.1890, c.1900, c.1910, c.1830, c.1840, c.1850, c.1860, and c.1870