The sound of their singing…

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The sound of their singing…

(was) ‘so discordant and jarring …that the sounds grating upon his ears nearly compelled him to take his hat and leave the house.’ – Hugh Carleton – Pitcairn Island 1850.


Historical chronicles attribute credit to one man, Mr Hugh Carleton… who ‘taught the Pitcairn Islanders to sing’.


Why did Hugh Carleton need to ‘teach’ the Pitcairn Islanders to sing?


Upon hearing their style of singing for the first time, Carleton denigrated their collective sound as being ‘so discordant and jarring’ to his western ears. Furthermore, he voiced a reluctance to teach the Pitcairners to sing ‘properly’ as he doubted any success within his short visit on the island. Reluctantly, and armed with a tuning fork, he ‘finally yielded’ ~


Mr. Carleton, who was highly gifted with musical talent, mentioned to John Buffett the matter of trying to improve the singing of the people. In reply he was requested to undertake the task. This he at first declined, saying that he would not have the time he should require to produce anything like a satisfactory result, and so would rather not attempt it. However, as no opportunity came within the week for him to leave the island, he finally yielded to Buffett’s earnest and oft-repeated requests, and consented to make a beginning.


Carleton’s personal description as being ‘highly gifted with musical talent’ conflicts with his published qualifications as a ‘trader, newspaper editor, politician, educationalist, writer’. Having studied law in London, classical art in Italy, he then migrated to New Zealand. It was here that he ‘immersed himself in the politics of the new colony.’ Furthermore, he was reported to have a harsh self-righteous attitude, particularly toward the Maori;

‘Carleton had strong views on the issue of race relations. His attitude to Maori was essentially paternalistic – he maintained that they must submit to a superior civilisation.’


How do you define the musical proficiency of being able to play by ear?


Does this apply to ‘singing by ear’?


The adults of the era from which Carleton was accidentally marooned on Pitcairn Island were the progeny of Tahitian mothers and British fathers.

The pleasing results produced by harmony of sounds served to awaken in the hearts of the learners such eagerness and anxiety to do their best as to greatly encourage their teacher in his efforts. With the determination to succeed, it was not very surprising that in the short space of one week they accomplished a result beyond their highest hopes, and when Mr. Carleton took his departure the second week after, it was in full confidence that the important work which had so well begun, would not be left to stagnate.


Singing together, in small isolated communities, is a favourite pastime. It is a joy to harmonise ‘by ear’ your own individual voice – with the other singing voices surrounding you; both male and female, young and old. To sing, just because you want to ~


This love of singing together, particularly in bygone eras, was independent of the need for a stage or a microphone. There were no requirements for a ‘red carpet’, no theatrics. Just a pure love of singing together.


Interesting that the Pitcairners in Carleton’s singing class achieved high level of proficiency from his instruction, within a couple of weeks! How could that be?


Read more… February 2017: Issue 4