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Story: Choral music and choirs

19th-century European settlers sang together on their way to New Zealand, and set up choirs in the new settlements once they arrived. In the 2000s there were choirs of trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and older people – as well as the more traditional church and classical choirs.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: Members of the New Zealand Youth Choir celebrate after they were named 'Choir of the world' in 1999

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Choirs in the 2000s

In the 2000s choral singing was one of the most popular forms of amateur music-making in New Zealand. There were community choirs, choirs in workplaces, churches and schools, and choirs formed by particular groups, such as gays and lesbians, or older people. Some choirs sang a particular type of music, such as gospel or pop. Almost 17,000 people belonged to the New Zealand Choral Federation in 2013 and around 480 choirs were affiliated to it.

Classical choirs usually sing in harmony, with four main voice parts, from high to low. They rehearse with a conductor or musical director, often working towards a public performance.

19th century

British settlers brought with them their traditions of making music, including singing in groups. Choirs were set up on ships on the way to New Zealand, and in the new settlements. Church choirs were important, especially in mostly Anglican towns. The Canterbury settlement was known for its church music.

Choral societies were set up in the mid-19th century, and some of these survived into the 2000s.

Early 20th century

More choirs were formed in the 20th century. Some were very good, including the Harmonic Society and Apollo Singers in Wellington, the Christchurch Harmonic Society and the Dorian Choir in Auckland. The Irish, Welsh and Scottish societies had singing groups, and so did some workplaces.

Some Māori who converted to Christianity also took up English-style singing. Well-known Māori choirs included the Rotorua Maori Choir and the Waiata Maori Choir.

Many children sang in choirs. An Auckland children’s choir associated with a radio church, the Fellowship of the Friendly Road, existed from the 1930s to the 1960s.

1940s onwards

From the late 1950s Peter Godfrey conducted many choirs in Auckland and Wellington. The New Zealand Youth Choir was set up in 1979. In 1999 it was named ‘Choir of the world’. More choirs began performing New Zealand compositions.

As people arrived from the Pacific Islands, choirs in Pacific churches grew. The New Zealand Maori Choir was set up in 1989. Barbershop singing, with four parts in close harmony, became popular from the 1980s.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Choral music and choirs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/choral-music-and-choirs (accessed 26 April 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014