Music agencies

To increase their share of the market and obtain more sales, many music businesses in the cities and larger towns appointed agents in smaller towns and rural areas to sell their goods, in particular pianos and sheet music.   The pianos were commonly sold on hire purchase.     

The two biggest music businesses, Begg’s and the Dresden, had the most agents.  In their entries in the Otago volume of the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1905) the Dresden boasted it had 50 agencies and Begg’s claimed it had agents in all the leading towns.  It appears the only qualification an agent needed was a readiness to sell big-ticket items, chiefly pianos and harmoniums on commission, although many, if not most, of them sold music as well. Some businesses seem a better fit as an agent than others; booksellers and stationers probably sold music anyway, furniture sellers would often include pianos in their stock and piano tuners and music teachers had useful musical connections.  As well as these there were cycle shops, chemists, funeral directors, jewellers, land agents and commission agents.  

Morrison and Bissett bookshop, agent for The Dresden, Feilding, c1911. Feilding Library

Agencies often changed between the two major companies; doubtless an agent was expected to perform, which meant making sales, and failure to do this was a factor in many agency changes.  Some agents only seem to have held an agency for a year or two while others had them for many years.  

 Many of the smaller music businesses also operated agencies and some companies had agents themselves as well as being agents.  Being the agent for one of the larger music firms was an enticement to customers and enhanced a business’ profile; many businesses only appear to have advertised when they held an agency.      

Agencies were important in bringing music into small towns that may not have had any other music seller.  A photograph of Bow Street, Raglan in 1910 shows a street of houses with one general store with a sign reading “Agent for London & Berlin Co” propped up against it.  For the inhabitants of Raglan at the time this was probably the only place to buy pianos and sheet music. 

Gilmour Brothers, Bow Street, Raglan, 1910.ATL, Ref: 1/2-00318-G.


New Zealand themes in British songs and dances before 1850

10 May 2020

While the notables being profiled in this site are based in New Zealand, there are at least three examples of English musicians featuring New Zealand in music published before 1850. While there had been a number of instances of attempts at transcription of fragments of Maori music these examples are from the popular music repertoire.

The New Zealanders Dance, 1821. John Aloys Moralt was a musician working in London in the 1820s. A viola player, he also composed a number of pieces in popular dance forms. The New Zealanders Dance references the haka in its strong rhythmic patterns and Moralt may well have seen a haka being performed by Hongi Hika and Waikato during their trip to England with Thomas Kendall in 1820-1821.

National Library of Australia

Taranaki Waltzes, Plymouth, 1841. In 1841 a ball, was held in Plymouth on December 25th, 1841 with an objective of supplying the poorer emigrants with clothing and to celebrate the first anniversary of settlers leaving for New Plymouth. Local music seller and music teacher Peter Rowe composed and published a worked titled Taranaki Waltzes which was performed at the ball. According to the report in the New Zealand Journal the cover included a lithographic illustration of Maori “in enjoyment of the dance”. No known copies have yet been located of this work.

New Zealand maid’s lament: a New Zealand song. London, 184-? The words to this song were written by the famous Pākehā-Māori Barnet Burns whose eventful life is described in Te Ara, and the music by a less famous music teacher and harpist from Hull named Charles Alexander Murray.

National Library of New Zealand

If any readers are aware of any other New Zealand-themed music published in England or elsewhere prior to the 1850s we would be delighted to hear about it, or of any copies of Taranaki Waltzes.


The Enigmatic Seaton Rivers

22 February 2020

Who was Seaton Rivers, the composer of six piano solos published in New Zealand between 1904 and 1908? Seemingly a non-de-plume, no evidence of the composer’s true identity has been unearthed by the two curators of this website despite deep and far-reaching research.

What do we know about him, or her? All six pieces were published by Charles Begg & Co, but not all by their Dunedin Head Office. At least two have London (where Begg’s had an office) as the place of publication. The different locations may or may not indicate something about the composer. Was he or she living in New Zealand? There was a Seaton Rivers who was conductor in the UK in 1929 but it seems unlikely this is the same person as there is no record of him (or her) coming to New Zealand, nor of any compositions by Seaton Rivers published by a British publisher.

It has been suggested that Seaton Rivers was a piano teacher who for reasons unknown to him/herself decided to keep their identity a secret. However, it seems unlikely that a teacher would not want to promote their reputation by claiming the music as their own.

Which raises the question why have a non-de-plume? Presumably it was to conceal the composer’s
identity. Was the composer well known in another sphere? Publishing music under another name? Was he or she a “serious musician” who felt these morceaux de salon pieces were amusing to write (and perhaps financially worthwhile) but not merit worthy enough to claim ownership of? Research has been undertaken into copyright records in New Zealand and England but no information has come to light.

Although several copies of Seaton Rivers’ pieces survive in private and public collections, there are only four advertisements in newspapers of the time; two for Willows and two for The Red Carnation. This at a time when music was heavily advertised, particularly if a composer had had success before. One only has to compare Adrian Hope who was composing at the same time, was also published by Begg’s and whose work was heavily advertised, to see how little publicity Seaton Rivers received.

And so we ask who was Seaton Rivers? Perhaps you can help. We’d love to know.


Whitwell-Butler, Thomas

14 October 2019

Touring musicians, and those who came to New Zealand to visit relatives of for a relatively short residence were both common in the nineteenth century. One such example was Thomas Whitwell Butler, who, using the name Thomas O’Brien Butler, would later become known for writing the first Irish language opera, and being killed in the sinking of the Lusitania.

Thomas Butler was born the youngest of 11 children in Caherciveen, Ireland, in 1861.  He was educated at St. Colman’s College, Fermoy, County Cork and on completion of his education, was employed as a church organist in Youghal, County Cork, and Parsonstown (now known as Birr), County Offaly.  During this time he also began composing musical arrangements, and he was known for his singing voice.

The name Whitwell, which he added to his name, was a common family name and had also been the name of one of his brothers who had died in 1873. In August 1892 he arrived in Dunedin where one of his sisters had settled. He immediately set up offering to teach Singing, Pianoforte and Harmony, using the hyphenated form of his surname he was to use for the period of his New Zealand residency.

 Whitwell-Butler soon became involved with the local community, was a member of the St Joseph’s cathedral choir and held in the formation of the Dunedin Leiderkranz. His original song “Fate’s decree” was performed by the visiting Royal Italian Opera Company soprano Felicina Cuttica. His credentials increased to include mention of his supposed training and high society individuals he had taught:

Otago Daily Times, 13 April, 1893, p3

He also maintained his connections with what was happening in Ireland and put on a fund-raising concert to support the efforts of the linen industry in the south of Ireland.

After two years in Dunedin he decided to relocate to Greymouth, a town with a population of not quite 4000 compared with Dunedin’s 22,000. Here, as well as continuing his teaching, he was instrumental in establishing a Choral Society which performed works such as Handel’s Messiah. However, in less than a year, he decided to move on from New Zealand to India in September 1895.

From India he moved to Italy, and then to London where he enrolled at the Royal College of Music in 1897. From 1898 he divided his time between London and Ireland and in 1903, his Irish language opera “Muirgheis” was performed in the Theatre Royal, Dublin, Ireland. By this stage he had also changed his name to Thomas O’Brien Butler and worked to promote a further production of his opera and other musical works. He boarded the Lusitania from New York in 1915 and was among the 1195 people killed after the ship was torpedoed.

Butler’s time in New Zealand was relatively short and relatively early in his career. Only two works appear to remain from this period, Fate’s Decree and a benediction service for St Joseph’s Cathedral, Dunedin. The trip may have been little more than a chance to visit his sister and experience living in another country but he does seem to have emerged from it determined to continue his future as a composer, celebrating his Irish heritage.