Our piano top was always covered in music and amongst it were two leather bound volumes of old sheet music. When I was about 12 I went through a phase of playing one of the pieces in them – Jessie’s Dream – a Victorian fantasia about the relief of Lucknow and a Scottish girl who dreams the Highlanders are coming to save them. I loved thumping away at the few bars written to imitate the bagpipes, imaging the pipes swirling and Jessie, wrapped in her tartan shawl, weeping in gratitude.
When I began researching Charles Begg & Co my father gave the volumes of music to me saying he had no idea whose they were or where they’d come from. I was intrigued. They each had ‘Music’ embossed in gold on the cover and one ‘K. S. Kerr’ and the other ‘K. Kerr’. So armed with a name and the knowledge they fitted in somewhere in our family I went hunting.
It transpired that the owner of the books, Kate Stuart Kerr, one of three girls, was my great great grandmother’s sister. Kate was born in Melbourne in 1859 to Scottish parents and came to New Zealand when she was four years old.
The family settled in Invercargill where Kate’s father, Angus Kerr, built up a business as an architect although he had been a grocer in Melbourne and began his life in Invercargill as a builder. Angus Kerr loved music and played the violin; family legend has it that his wife insisted he practice in the coal shed. Angus Kerr obviously encouraged his daughters to play the piano and these two volumes of music belonged to the youngest, Kate.
Now I knew a little about the owner I began looking more closely at the music. It was all published around the 1870s when Kate would have been in her teens. There was only one song – the rest was all piano solos or duets –and the music was popular, as opposed to serious or classical. None of the music was published in New Zealand or had any New Zealand content but I knew it had been bought in New Zealand.
How? Well many of the pieces were stamped or embossed with a New Zealand music seller’s details, namely for the Dunedin music sellers Charles Begg and George R West.
The music had obviously been bought in Dunedin as both businesses were located there or had it? Having done some research on Charles Begg I knew the business, like many others, operated a series of agencies in other centres and some of the Begg stamps were over stamped with the name of Begg’s agent in Invercargill, Erskine & Whitmore.
Erskine & Whitmore were stationers and binders and a binder’s sticker on one of the volumes revealed they had bound one of Kate’s volumes. To add another piece to the family jigsaw, Robert Erskine was married to Kate’s sister, May. Kate herself never married.
Using the music seller’s stamps I could give an exact date for the purchase of some of the pieces. The partnership of Begg & Anderson only lasted a year from June 1873 to October 1874 so the pieces stamped with their stamp would have been bought within that time.
I now had a biography of Kate Kerr and her bound volumes. I knew where she was from, where she bought her music, and what music she had chosen. There were duets in the volumes so presumably she played those with one of her sisters.
Kate wasn’t a singer – there was only one song out of over 40 pieces and while she was probably a competent pianist the pieces were not technically difficult.
Her father was successful as an architect and therefore affluent enough to afford not only a piano for her to learn on but the music in the volumes. A picture was beginning to emerge of one girl’s musical activity in Invercargill in the 1870s.
The music itself was interesting and I played over the pieces and felt I got to know Kate in some slight way. Many of the covers were charming – pretty and colourful.
The bound volumes had given a glimpse of musical life in New Zealand that I hadn’t considered before. I was hooked.