Musical instruments based on European forms have been made in New Zealand since the first decades of the colony.
Sometimes their makers were driven by necessity born of isolation, but more often they were inspired by the challenge of making such complex and difficult objects, even when European instruments became widely available.
A culture of excellence in amateur craftsmanship was strong throughout the British Empire in the mid-late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth century. Inspired by this, some self-taught, amateur makers were able to transition into professional making.
By Cath Newhook
One of the first surviving European musical instruments made in New Zealand is a pipe organ, built by Northland whaler and timber merchant William Webster for his own use, around 1850. At the other end of the country, W. J. Bowman, a Scottish-born immigrant, was recorded as a maker of violins and cellos in Dunedin after his arrival in 1858. Bowman trained other family members and established fruitful contacts with overseas violin-makers.
The earliest surviving violin on record, made by Greytown local James McQueen in 1873, gives a snapshot of prevailing attitudes towards instrument making. It is an amateurish effort but constructed from European violin-making woods. McQueen could have imported a violin for far less trouble; instead he chose to source and ship the wood to New Zealand, and build his own, presumably because he was excited by the experience of constructing and playing his own instrument. Benjamin Parker, a Dunedin cabinet-maker, echoed McQueen’s efforts in the 1880s but with far greater skill.
A post-Depression boom
After many years of economic depression, which stifled both immigration and spending, the mid-1890s saw the start of a boom in local organ building, due to changing tariffs and a new-found prosperity. Overseas manufacture was soon almost entirely replaced by over half a dozen full-time New Zealand organ builders, of whom the self-trained George Croft was the most prolific.
A wave of new immigrants brought in a flood of European instruments but also an increase in private and public music-making, barely dampened by the arrival of radios and gramophones. Orchestras sprang up all over the country, even in small towns like Hawera, where another cabinet maker with a passion for violin-making, Charles Johnson, equipped most of the local players with instruments made largely from New Zealand timbers.
The fledgling Dominion could soon boast its own piano-making companies, Charles Begg in Dunedin, Milner Thompson in Christchurch, and Bishop based in Auckland, which lasted through to the 1940s. By the early 1920s, full-time violin-making workshops had opened in both Wellington, run by Edward Burr; and Auckland, run by James Hewitt - the nephew of Bowman who made the first violin in Dunedin.
Burr was prolific, making over 155 violins and six cellos over his career. Both makers had earlier experimented with native timbers but switched rapidly to conventional European woods.
Which wood to use?
Using New Zealand wood not only made instrument-making cheaper and more accessible, it infused local makers with patriotic pride. Unfortunately the best acoustic wood for soundboards grows very slowly, and New Zealand’s mostly-temperate climate isn’t sufficiently hostile.
The best tone woods grow in very cold conditions where the annual growth rings are close together, giving the wood density and strength. In addition, musicians, especially violinists, tend to be conservative creatures and professional luthiers wishing to survive financially have tended to comply with tradition and use woods such as European spruce, maple, ebony, rosewood and boxwood.
Of our local woods, Southland beech and mangeao have proved useful for cello and viola backs and ribs; other woods, including our iconic kauri, are too brittle and are mostly used for instrument cases
Slump and revival
While radio and gramophone helped foster professional performance standards and audience awareness, the arrival of television dealt a crippling blow to home music.
By the 1960s, instrument hand-making and repair was under serious threat, not only in New Zealand but world-wide. Violin-maker Norman Smith, Hewitt’s successor, only survived through Quaker frugality and the support of friends.
The 1970s studio craft revival, along with the burgeoning folk music movement of the 1960s-70s, helped to reverse this trend, aided by a parallel Early Music revival and a resurgence in young players. This last factor was due in part to the growing popularity of the Japanese "Suzuki" music-teaching method, and an increasing number of Asian immigrants, eager for their children to learn musical instruments.
As in the early years, self-taught New Zealand makers who strove for excellence and developed a body of work were able to transition to professional status. Hamilton violin maker Ian Sweetman’s skill and application inspired a new generation of violin makers, which included Tom Warren, Malcolm Collins, and his own son Noel.
Paul Downie began harpsichord-making purely out of fascination for the instrument and the challenge for excellence but soon found himself making harpsichords full-time and, more recently, fortepianos. Peter Madill is largely known for his meticulously-crafted guitars but also responded to the Early Music revival by making viols, rebecs and a theorbo. Alex Loretto and Paul Whinray excelled at recorder and Baroque flute making, Trevor Hutton made fine modern flutes, and Kim Webby achieved international status as a harp maker.
Overseas, the 1970s saw the recovery of the old violin-making schools and the establishment of others. Since the 1980s, New Zealand has benefited from the arrival of European-trained violin makers led by Swiss-born luthier Adrian Studer; currently there are over 20 professional violin makers in New Zealand, trained both here and overseas. Paul Downie remains our only contemporary keyboard maker, though there are a number of skilled piano restorers. Maurice Reviol has taken up the woodwind-making mantle, while guitar making is flourishing, from the Far North to the very south of the South Island.
Musical instrument making in New Zealand is in good heart, despite the recent influx of good-quality Chinese instruments of every kind - our local makers are still inspired by the love of fine wood-working and the drive for excellence, continuing this bespoke craft.
Organ built by Mr William Webster at Hokianga, 1850. Mr Webster presented the organ to his daughter, Mrs John McK. Geddes, on December 25th, 1896. CCBY. Auckland Museum, col.0005