Music from The Great War

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Sheet music from many ages abounds in the Whanganui Regional Museum, and examples from the era of World War 1 will come in useful as the centenary of the Great War looms.  Deborah Wai Kapohe, Wanganui District Council arts facilitator – and opera singer of note – and Libby Sharpe, museum curator, recently brought out some of the collection and talked about the songs.
“This came out of a meeting we had with the museum, the heritage library, the Sarjeant Gallery, all the Queens Park collecting institutions, in direct relation to World War 1 centenary projects,” Deborah says.
With her musical background and Libby’s interest in historical music, it was a foregone conclusion that songs from 1914-18 would somehow feature in the planning.  “These collections have never really been looked at properly, not been catalogued, so I knew there were secret treasures awaiting,” says Libby.
“I was looking for World War 1 New Zealand songs for possible community fundraising projects,” says Deborah, “for a concert or series of concerts, and perhaps to record a few of the best – just simple piano and voice – for people to download from the internet.”
The museum’s sheet music comes from a half dozen large collections donated over the years, some from families, some from music teachers.  “Some 200 war songs were written and published in New Zealand during World War 1,” says Libby, “and some of those were published in Wanganui. I’m assuming there were also some Wanganui composers and librettists.”
Libby sees the music as historical documents, as well as published songs. “There seems to be a general trend,” she says, “that songs at the beginning of the war were patriotic, but as the war progressed they became more mournful. I think that’s an interesting progression. I also think some of the artwork reproduced on the pages is worth looking at. It was the advertising of the day.”
For Deborah it is the music. An accomplished sight reader, she says she can hear the music in her head. She says she can see a simple concert project with music and perhaps readings of letters from the war. “It’s about what happened here at home as well as overseas.”
One of the songs is The Call of the Fern Leaf, (music by Godfrey Copley, words by Alfred S Hughes) from a time when the leaf of the fern was a symbol of New Zealand nationhood, and Pakeha children born in this country were referred to as ‘fern leaves’.  The artwork on the sheet music is a collection of Kiwiana of the day, complete with bandaged, moustached soldier, and it looks like it was executed in crayon. “As a work of art it’s a bit twee,” says Libby, “But as a representation of feeling or sentiment, it’s amazing.”
Another patriotic piece by Copley is Anzac Memories, Poppies of Flanders (for piano and cornet), the art work of which depicts a lonely moon over a graveyard of crosses, the picture surrounded by bright red poppies and a soldier wearing a ‘lemon squeezer’.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 24th July 2013. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.



  1. Hello I CHRISTINE new Copley gave Godfrey Copleys music to musium he was my grandfather also a music teacher of the day he owned Tylee house but never lived in it he lived in the stables out the back if the music goes on the internet I would like to know so I could down load it Godfrey Copley Brock the world record for playing 68 and s half hours in the Wanganui opera house in 1910 bregards Christine KNUTH

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