12 Feb 2021

Alice Forrester MACKAY: Three Songs, from Maoriland

From Music Alive, 12:00 am on 12 February 2021

Call of the Huia: 100 early New Zealand Art Songs

Three Songs, from 'Maori-land': The Grey Ship, Te Whenua Kura, A Bush Song

Alice Forrester Mackay

Alice Forrester Mackay Photo: Public Domain

Alice Forrester Mackay (née Rowley) (1870 – 1940) was the second person and first woman to graduate from a New Zealand University with a music degree, in 1901. She was married three times – to Donald McLean in 1892, then, after his death in 1908 to John Forrester, and after his death in 1920 to Walter Mackay in 1931. Both her first two husbands were considerably older than she was. She composed, by her own count, over three hundred works of which just over 60 songs are still extant and held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, sometimes in multiple copies. Because she didn’t date her manuscripts placing the songs in strict chronological order is difficult.

Jessie Mackay, who eventually became her sister-in-law, was a well known New Zealand poet, emancipationist and fighter for the welfare of women. Alice set many of Jessie’s poems including a set she called ‘Maori-land’ from which ‘The Grey Ship’ comes. There are a huge number of patriotic songs and marches written by New Zealand composers during the First World War. Most are nationalistic or jingoistic, but this song written ‘On the Departure of the N.Z. Expeditionary Force, October 1914’ is something different and reflects perhaps a more realistic view of the women left behind. While the music itself may seem to be a slightly trite popular waltz song, it becomes something else when attached to the trenchant words by Jessie Mackay, the contradiction of words and music producing an eerie effect. There are later manuscript copies of the ‘Maori-land’ cycle that omit the song.

Recorded 12 February 2021, St Andrew's on The Terrace, Wellington by RNZ Concert

Producer: David McCaw for RNZ Concert

Engineer: Darryl Stack for RNZ Concert

Video: Chris Watson for SOUNZ

The Call of the Huia research project by music historian Michael Vinten is funded by the Lilburn Trust with support from the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Hocken Library, SOUNZ Centre for NZ Music, RNZ Concert and others. The scores with CDs for Call of the Huia can be purchased in hard copy or as digital download from SOUNZ.