The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July 2, 1934.)
New Zealand Songs
Now and again, but with a rather sad infrequency, one hears a New Zealand song to New Zealand music. New Zealand writers sometimes think their lot a hard one, but it is easy compared with that of New Zealand composers. They deserve every honour for they are of the company that work for love. In most instances, their very names are unknown to their countrymen. A few who are interested may search them out, but they have neither the market nor the publicity of artist or writer. Their fame will come perhaps, when all pioneer fame comes, in a renascence. One hears beautiful little songs by New Zealanders, but they, being difficult, will never be whistled at street corners. It is good to record that the Maori tunes are, through fine and disinterested effort, being saved from oblivion, but these others, too, should be preserved. Alfred Hill's, period will be worth study in the years to come.
Poems by New Zealand writers, living and dead, have been set and set well by other New Zealanders. A good song is brief with an emotional appeal. Chesterton, I think, stresses that that appeal is better personal and direct, quoting Goldsmith's “When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly” as inferior to “Ye Banks and Braes” where the sinner sings her own sorrow.
Of this direct, personal appeal there is little in our literature. The Maori songs have that primal simplicity, but they are known to us only by translation and something of their fervour, their poignancy, is lost. Domett has a little of that directness in Miroa's Song, but the words are somehow a little sickly and un-Maori. Here are the most natural stanzas of it: —
Alas, and well-a-day! They are talking of me still;
By the tinkling of my nostril, I fear they are talking ill;
Poor hapless I—poor little I—so many mouths to fill,
And all for this strange feeling, O this sad, sweet pain!
Two feathers I will borrow and so gracefully I'll wear
Two feathers, soft and downy, for my long, black, lustrous hair
Of the albatross's down they'll be—O how charming they'll look there—
All to chase away this feeling—O this fond, sweet pain.”
Several of Jessie Mackay's songs have been set, but there is one that cries out for setting and that is: —
Give me a heart, my Lady Moon,
Though it be but a cup for sorrow.
Give me a heart, my Lady Moon,
Though I should die to-morrow.”
“The Nixie's Prayer” would make a wonderful, wistful song.
There is in the first anthology by Alexander and Currie a little rhyme called, Te Raupo, by M. A. Sinclair. It sings to itself from its very beginning.
Down in a valley
Hemmed in by mountains.
Ripples a river
Vivid and verdant
Foot may not ford it,
Craft may not stem it
Which way the wind blows,
So sets the current.
Its appeal, however, would be to the ear more than to the heart.
Johannes Andersen, if the birds had a city, would be given the freedom of it. Music is heard behind the lines, as it were, in these stanzas of his on the bellbird:
Twilight is gone from the hill
Dark are the woods to the moon;
All the sweet voices are still,
Darkness has come too soon.
One lone bird forgets
That the white moon is climbing;
While over a hill a star sets,
It is chiming and chiming.
And this of Bracken's would make a magnificent song. It has an exultant ruthlessness that only deep chords could mate: —
“The stars come out to match the sun,
To claim the crown that he had won.
The sun shot forth its fiercest rays
And quenched the stars in fiery blaze;
Then chant the Ngatitoa's praise,
Slaves should have but little words,
Little songs for little birds,
Little tuis should not try
With their little wings to fly
Where the hawk is perched on high
That has the Maori fierceness. I think that our literature of the future will be less Maori in incidents and personalities than in verve and form. The legendary influence will be there, but our art will have to spring from something nearer to our own experience, pride, and desires.
There is a little lullaby of Mary Poynter's that drowses into music: —
“Down beside the river flowing,
Where the broom and flax are growing,
Little breezes whisper gently, as night's music softly swells;
And life bells of Elfin pealing,
Lonely through the shadows stealing,
Tinkling, tinkling, through the twilight comes the sound of cattle-bells.
Sleep, then sleep, my little daughter,
Cattle bells and wind and water,
Weaving, weaving chains of slumber, cast about by Dreamland's spells.”
That weakens in the last line, but one can hear a running accompaniment to it like the ripple behind “The Sally Gardens.”
An un-sombre little tune rises somewhere surely to Alan Mulgan's: —
Goodbye, beloved! Not to me
Are moody twilights and the sob of song
But glad defiance caught from thee
Shall light my way along.”
There are few songs to old women yet somehow an air can be imagined to Fairburn's: —
“The years have stolen
All her loneliness,
Her days are fallen
In the long wet grass
Like petals broken
From the lilac blossom,
When the winds have shaken
Its tangled bosom.”
One of Alison Grant's calls for music too: —
“And shall I suffer deepest woe
Because you came,
Because you go…”
There is a very desolation of sound in J. C. Beaglchole's “Despondency” that begs a minor setting: —
“Ah would to God that I were lying
Alone in some lonely place
With only the wind blowing and the clouds flying
And the rain in my face.
Ah would to God that I should never
Hear sound of voice again,
But only the wind in clashing tree-tops ever,
Ever the plashing rain.”
And there is a smooth, soft music in this fragment from one of Robin Hyde's:—
“Call the blue winds home from the deep,
Home from the harbour of little ships:
They will bring dreams to the heart asleep
And a quiver back to her lips.
Seal the words she shall give you, Lord,
Safe in thy casket of spacious skies,
Staunch with dews the wound of the sword,
Heal with a star her eyes.”
Helen Glen Turner achieves true sorrow in “The Return”: —
“He came back under darkling skies:
He took my heart with his two eyes.
But he has dreams I may not share
Since he passed down the sea's green stair.
The face of him is gone, is gone
That I would die for looking on.”
There is a sough in Una Currie's “Pines” that should haunt some musician:—
“Pines I've loved best.
You hear the sea.
All swelling soft and hoarse
In just one tree.
That hurt a bit, but pines—
They stir me deep,
That soft, lost roar of theirs
They never sleep.”
These are but a few of the many that might be set. The examples have been chosen solely for their singing sense. Some poems are sufficient of themselves and the poetic gift does not presuppose the lyric gift; others court music, and from the marriage of two arts a song is born.