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Farewell Zealandia – Forgotten Kiwi Songs of World War I

Farewell Zealandia

Roger Wilson sings, Brett Lowe conducts

By David Famularo, April 2016

Featherston has always had a strong connection with World War I due to its proximity of New Zealand’s largest training camp, which was just a couple of kilometres north of the south Wairarapa town.

However, I can remember a time, growing up in Masterton, when most memories of the camp focused on its role during World War II as a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, and specifically the incident in which 64 prisoners were killed, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.

Times have changed and the World War I camp is almost the sole focus of discussion. Almost nothing of it remains, as all the buildings were either demolished or moved off the camp immediately after World War I.

However, Featherston itself still enjoys an amenity built by citizens of the town for the soldiers – Anzac Hall – a stunning building, rich in native timber and the spirit of the past. Which makes it an ideal venue for Farewell Zealandia, a series of three concerts of “forgotten Kiwi songs of World War I”.

It is also hosting the companion exhibition of the same title, originally created for Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North, which will later appear at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History.

This first concert featured the luxury of an 11 piece salon orchestra (popular in the 1910s and 1920s) as well as four vocal soloists, with the Anzac Hall showing it has outstanding acoustics for this type of performance.

The conductor was Brett Lowe who also did an outstanding job of arranging the music based on 100 year old sheet music that likely only had the vocal melody and accompanying piano arrangement. The quality of the performance was all the more impressive given the musicians only had one rehearsal, in the morning of the concert.

The brains behind the concept are David Dell, archivist and historian at the Sheet Music Archive of New Zealand Trust, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa.

The two hour concert was built around Dell’s telling of the stories of the composers and lyricists behind each of the 10 songs performed by the orchestra and singers. These opened the door to another world, and to some degree the lives of the songwriters, which being a time of war naturally includes both tragedy and romance.

Much of the details of their lives has melted into the mist of time, but good luck and the sort of synchronicities that have “meant to be” written all over them, prised open the door of their lives just enough to let the light shine through all the way to 2016.

One example of this was Arthur Vivian Carbines who Dell could find no information on till a desperate-last, minute long-shot phone call on a trail that had seemingly gone cold got him in contact with Carbines’ great nephew Allan Carbine who told him the tragic tale Carbine’s death on the New Zealand assault on Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli.

Carbines, who had joined a medical unit only a few weeks earlier, was carrying back the wounded Lieutenant Colonel William George Malone, commanding officer of the Wellington Battalion, when a soldier mistook them for Turks and shot them dead. Allan said the story was told to his mother in an Auckland bank by a teller who was at Gallipoli with Carbines, and recognised the surname as possibly being that of a relative.

Even the photo of Allan Carbines that is in the exhibition has an unusual story. It was one of a number of photographic portraits of staff killed in the war that was hung in the offices of Carbines’ employer for many years, rediscovered many years later by someone who was sorting through a deceased relative’s estate, who had thoughtfully searched for a family member to pass it on to. They had been put in contact with Allan who brought the photograph to the opening of the exhibition at Te Manawa, revealing a pleasant and sensitive subject.

Arthur Vivian Carbines
Arthur Vivian Carbines

As for romance, that belongs to Corporal Ernest Franz Luks and pianist Winifred Lonsdale who performed together at Trentham and Featherston military camps, becoming the first couple to be married at Featherston military camp in 1916.

As Dell pointed out, it is highly likely the couple performed in the Anzac Hall at some point, making a performance of Ernest song “Trentham” in the same hall 100 years later all the more poignant.

People don’t realise how many songs were written by New Zealanders during World War I, Dell said in his introduction, with the archive holding the sheet music for 500 songs. Most were printed in small numbers of perhaps 50 copies or so. However, an exception would be Henry Ribbands and Charles James’ Land of the Long White Cloud which became the official marching song of the New Zealand troops in France.

Barrie Marschell, author of “There’s Only One Way Home, boys. It’s Through Berlin” – went on to have his music published in Australia, the United States and Britain after the war.

Generally speaking the 10 songs in this concert could be described as simplistic, sentimental to maudlin, patriotic to jingoistic, but also sincere in their feelings. There’s very little in the way of a real connection with the horrors of war, although Charles Fleming’s “Mrs Tommy Atkins” does ask the question of who will look after the women and children back home.

They are also extraordinarily sexless in the broadest sense of the word to include any sort of rhythm that we would associate with dance these days. It took the influence of black American music to enter the popular mainstream, finally arriving in New Zealand with rock & roll in the 1950 for music here to get jiggy. Before that New Zealand music was even more prim and proper than that of the mother country where at least the working classes added a bit bawdiness.

There’s no music that comes from an overtly female point of view either. The one woman composer, Elizabeth Ferguson Hume, is represented with “Lads of the Silver Fern” which could just have easily have been written by one of the male composers.

Just ahead of the national anthem – God Defend New Zealand – a song with its own fascinating history explained by Dell, which made much more sense as a composition as part of this concert, there was time for a few questions, the best and most intriguing of which was why there had been no songs written by Maori played.

Dell explained that some of these will appear in the final two concerts which will be performed by a trio. Interestingly, he pointed out that while in Britain (and here) people still remember some of the popular British songs of World War I such

It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, ours are almost completely forgotten – except for three Maori compositions – Pokarekare Ana, Now Is The Hour/Po Atarau (which was actually based on the melody of The Swiss Cradle Song by Clement Scott), and one other (the name of which I didn’t catch).

Dell surmised that this was because Maori continue to sing the songs of the past while European New Zealanders don’t. This may be true, but I’m also inclined to believe that Maori in general had a gift for musicality that was much more fluid and melodic compared to that of the relatively stiff European based popular songs of the same time. Songs like Pokarekare Ana remain ageless to this day, whereas the European compositions played here are very much a part of their time only.

Nevertheless, this first Farewell Zealandia concert was an enjoyable and very rare journey into a unique moment in New Zealand’s musical history, and certainly expanded my musical knowledge and experience into yet another sphere. It will be interesting to see what the next two concerts at 2pm on Sunday 10 April and Sunday 24 April reveal.

Further details of the upcoming concerts can be found here: http://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2016/farewell-zealandia-concert-series/featherston