From the Southern Marches was the brain-child of George Griffiths, historian and owner of Otago Heritage Books in Dunedin. He writes: ‘For many years I’d pondered the nature of the southern region and the people who live in it – particularly the contradictory characteristics passed on from our Scots forebears, with their unrelenting capacity for hard work and their uncertain trust in the rewards to be gained from it. In a broader view, it seemed the development of a southern character was a story so rich in human spirit and diversity that it demanded some kind of expression.’ The ‘kind of expression’ depended very much on George’s choice of texts which come from a wide variety of sources, ranging from old Maori chants to more recent poetry.
The work progresses more or less in a chronological manner, but avoids becoming a potted history of the south. Each text from each particular era focuses on a special characteristic of the time – whether it is the reckless optimism of the gold miners in the 1860s, or the grim reality of the needle-workers in the 1880s who were virtual slaves. George has drawn on a rich variety of ideas and texts, so that more serious items are contrasted with humour, as in Thatcher’s The Old Identity or ‘King’ Dick Seddon’s political speech. Some items involve text with existent tunes, and the music becomes an arrangement (as is the case with The Old Identity). Sometimes these tunes are just a starting point for lengthy elaboration, as in Bright Fine Gold, based on the tune for Hot Cross Buns.
From the Southern Marches has a format that is similar to oratorio, with alternations between solo vocal items and choruses, with the addition of two purely orchestral sections. There is even references to the ‘recitative’ style in The Jubilee, Southern Education and elsewhere. It runs to almost two hours in length, and is divided into two halves.
Such was the success of the premiere in March 1998, From the Southern Marches was repeated in December of the same year, this time with Dobbs Franks conducting. In 1998, Otago Heritage Books won a Special Merit Award in the National Business Review’s Business Sponsorship of the Arts Awards .