Manukau Songs: A Choral Symphony

Manukau at Sunset - Tristesse, Photograph by Yvonne Amery

Symphony for countertenor and baritone soloists, children’s choir, mixed-voice choir, and orchestra, by David Hamilton. Commissioned by the Manukau Symphony Orchestra, 2023

When asked by [MSO Music Director] Uwe Grodd to write a symphony for his Manukau Symphony Orchestra – a choral symphony specifically – we decided texts which referenced the Manukau area would be most appropriate. We had recommended to us a 19th century text in te reo Māori titled “The Lament of Putini”. Alongside this I was keen to find poems about the landscapes and the Manukau harbour. In the library I chanced upon a small self-published volume, “Here at the Edge”, by local poet Yvonne Amery. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the words, and their perfect fit for this work. I’ve set four poems from the book.

The opening of the work was always going to suggest dawn and the awakening landscape. “Towards Daylight” is a poem in the book “Here at the Edge”, but only the title is used. Two traditional whakataukī (proverbs) are sung by the soloists from afar, and the children sing the poem “Sanctuary”. Regarding “Sanctuary” the poet says: “…the poem is about how we can never really enter the mystical realm birds inhabit or truly comprehend their significance to this universe we are all part of. Before they die, they know they will endure in some other form because they already see what it is we are unaware of. And it lies in the world without colour.”.

“Silver Wings Into the Sun” takes the images of the marshlands, mangrove, and silver wings of the birds as they are drawn inevitably north for winter, and personalises them to one’s own impact on life, the world and history.

The middle of the five movements is for the orchestra alone. Here, the Manukau harbour in all its turbulent moods is portrayed. The music is energetic throughout, boisterous, and full of drive – with maybe a passing nod to Vaughan Williams’ ”Sea Symphony”!

The fourth movement sets the poem “Tristesse” alongside “The Lament of Putini”. Epiha Pūtini was a chief of Ngati Tamaoho (he was also known as Jabez Bunting), and the husband of Te Paea Tiaho who wrote the lament for her dead husband. In 1846 fighting broke out between Ngati Te Ata and Ngati Tamaoho over disputed boundaries on the Manukau Peninsula. The dispute was an on-going one, and by 1849 the peace-loving Ngati Tamaoho chief Epiha Putini had moved with many of his people from Pehiakura to Ihumātao.

Pūtini had largely welcomed the missionaries and other settlers, perceiving it could be beneficial to do commerce with Auckland. However, he eventually became more and more disillusioned with the way the lands were being traded, often lands which his tribe laid claim to. His belief that the Crown would protect him was sorely tested. Pūtini died unexpectedly in 1856, and he was laid to rest at Ihumātao. He was mourned by both Māori and the settlers, and his tangi was attended by about eight hundred. It was reported that his last words exhorted his people to put aside their differences and to live in harmony.

“Tristesse” is a gentle evocation of the Manukau harbour at dusk as night falls. The sea seems to breathe as the tides come in and go out. The Maori text is placed within this context, and for a time the two texts run in parallel, complementing each other, and speaking to each other. The old, and the new, co-existing.

“Colours”, the final movement (in which the children’s choir again sings “Sanctuary”), speaks of the poet’s desire to always be near the Manukau. It alludes to the life beneath and above the waters, and the changing moods of the harbour. The poem is full of images of movement, and of light. The line “Oh! the Manukau”, initially announced by the choir, returns in the final pages of the work. As soon as I read this poem, I knew the final lines were the perfect way for the symphony to end:

Sway singing reeds weightless in the wind
To the rhythm of clouds
Lead me across
To the sun

Throughout, the music is largely unashamedly tonal, and at times quite romantic in flavour. Writing for community groups, one of which I sing with, I wanted a piece that spoke directly to both the performers and their audience. The poems have a warmth and directness that I hope the music also expresses.

The poems from “Here at the Edge” are used by kind permission of Yvonne Amery. Her texts were exactly what I sought, and I am extremely grateful to her for trusting me with her words.

“Manukau Songs: A Choral Symphony” was commissioned by the Manukau Symphony Orchestra, and music director Uwe Grodd.

David Hamilton, 2023.

The Texts

  1. Towards Daylight / Sanctuary   (Soloists and children’s choir)

Kei te tua o Manuka, te kite muri ki te kupenga-o-Taramainuku.
When you pass out beyond the Manuka waters, do not look back until you reach, or pass, the fishing net of Tara.*

Ka tuwhera kau mai te rua o Kaiwhare.
The cavern of Kaiwhare opens wide.**


I am a silent bird in the singing tree
I see into skies where the blue grass goes on
Till it becomes without colour
I see the place where sighing birds
Enter paradise
(Yvonne Amery)

  1. Silver Wings Into the Sun  (Choir)

From here above marshlands and mangroves
Silver wings of the turning birds into the sun
Their catching cries dooming them to flight
To Siberia and to the marshes of the world
With the coming of autumn their wings silver the sky
And I like them will leave faint traces
Where they and I shared time
My traces hidden in words
My words hidden in ether
My will hidden in earth
My ideals in silent history
Neither to soar nor fade
(Yvonne Amery)

  1. The Winds and the Waves (Orchestra)
  1. Tristesse/The Lament of Putini (Soloists and choir)


Tonight as the edges of the distant hills fade
Into the pale blue night with the moon denying
And the swelling of the Manukau
Like your bulky chest
Rises and falls and sinks and swells

Tonight in the quiet of Sunday
Silent gulls and stars and hills
Along the oyster-strewn beach where
Scratched and smashed shells lie bereaved
And immersed in the orange of sunset

Bathed in the rippling silence
And the brilliance of dying sun
The beating heart of the Manukau
Soft against reeds and us so close
Breathing out and breathing in

Timed with the tide
(Yvonne Amery)

Tera Kopu, hapai o te ata! e!***
Me he mea ko te hoa tenei ka hoki mai.
E mihi ana au taku kahui Tara
I tukua iho ai, ka hinga ki raro e
Tu ke mai Taupiri i te tonga
Karekare kau ana te tai ki Manuka.
I haere rangitahi ko te rangi ki te mate.
Kihai I ponaia te hua I Motutara
Hoki mai e pa! to moenga I te whare.
E pupuri nei au te tau o taku ata.
Tena ka tiu, ka wehe i a au, i.
(Te Paea Tiaho)

*English translations (not for singing) at the end of the text)

  1. Colours  (Soloists, children’s choir, choir)

In your flooding drowning belly
In your calming green and blue
In your rainbow coloured streams
Let me always be near.
Oh! The Manukau

When the sun drops I am borne upon you
Unfolded unbroken taking the colours
The spoken light of your birds
Woken into your breathing
Taken dreams into the nothingness of being
And into the heady whitening sometime
When the gulls cannot easily perch
Dreamed lifetimes away

And in the creaming breaking sands
Swimming and diving beings
Breathe with you
Within the shining and the dazzling
Of the sun and the sinking shadow

Embossed in the cathedral of light
In rain and rainbow-reflected eyes;
Unfathomable I cannot fathom you
In your coloured timelessness and heady glory
Sway singing reeds weightless in the wind
To the rhythm of clouds
Lead me across
To the sun
(Yvonne Amery)

Notes on the texts

*  The ‘net’ is the bar at the harbour entrance, which in the past, due to shifting sandbanks, proved fatal to shipping.

**  The cave of the Kaiwhare (a taniwha who lived near Manukau Harbour in an underwater cave), near the Manukau bar, became a byword for death, encapsulated in this proverb.

***Two English translations of ‘The Lament of Putini’.

The Lament of Putini

Star of the morning! thou whose beam
 Proclaims the lamp of day at hand,
Like my beloved dost thou seem
  Returning from the Spirit land.

I gaze, – then turn aside to mourn
  O’er these sweet nestlings at my side,
Left in their helplessness forlorn –
  For  thou – their sire – their shield – hast died.

Return! return! and in thine home,
  Father and Lord! once more recline;
Back to my widowed bosom  come –
The star Kopu harbinger of morn
Appears in view, an emblem this of the beloved,
Me thinks returning to me.

My flock of tiny birds, left here to droop
Without a father, o’er you I mourn,
Lo, distant in the south, Taupiri rears its head
In solitude, while the waters of the Manukau
Are rippling onward

Death has severed thee from us; and thou
Wast borne to heaven, ere we had time
To fasten in thine ear thy heirloom Motutara.



Far to the southward dark and steep,
  Taupiri lifts its lonely brow;
Unheard, unheeded, onward sweep
  The surges wild of Manakau.

But  thou art gone – and in an hour!
  There Motutara’s gem may lie; –
‘Mong chiefs of fame and priests of power.
  Of thee ’twill rouse no memory!

Come back O father and betake thyself
To thy accustomed slumbers in thy dwelling.
The cord that gives vitality to this frail heart,
I hold, and fain would cut asunder;

For he who was my talking bird, that sung.
So sweetly at the dawn of day, has
Disappeared forever from my gaze.
  My heart but beats as linked with thine!

There  was a bird whose tuneful throat
  Welcomed the day with joyous tone’
Stilled is the song and hushed the note
My bird is fled, and I – alone!

Yvonne Amery (nee Gatton) was born in Greymouth in 1946 and moved to New Plymouth with her parents and sisters, Karen, Rhonda, Marlene and Nola in 1955 when she was nine. She has a Masters (Hons) degree in Political Studies from the Unicersity of Auckland and has lived in Clendon above the shores of the Manukau Harbour with her second husband Colin, since 1991. She has two adult children, Danielle and Tyron.

David Hamilton (b.1955) is a New Zealand composer who was Head of Music at Epsom Girls Grammar School until the end of 2001. He has been Deputy Music Director of Auckland Choral (1996-2011) and Composer-in-Residence with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (1999). He works part-time in music education as a composition tutor and choral conductor.

He is well-known as a choral composer and conductor, workshop leader and adjudicator. His choral music is widely performed, and is published in the UK, USA, Germany, Spain, and Finland. His music has won numerous competitions in New Zealand, and also internationally (Italy, the USA (5 times), Israel, and the UK). In 2020 “Night Songs III” won the Delta Omicron Composition Competition (USA), works took 1st, 2nd and 3rd places in the IX Amadeus International Choral Composition Competition 2020 (Spain), and “Whirligig” won the Orpheus Music Composition Competition 2020 (Australia). In 2021 “A Celestial Map of the Sky” won the Claremont Chorale composition contest (USA), and in 2022 “Summer Streams” won the Twyford Singers competition (UK).