Te Mea Nui (ssattb)


  • Catalog ID: S-469
  • First Line: He aha te mea nui o te ao?
  • Composer: Katherine Bell
  • Voicing: ssattb
  • Accompaniment: a cappella
  • Language: Maori
  • Country: New Zealand
  • Series: Songs From Aotearoa
  • Other: new 2020
  • Score: View Score
  • Sound: Listen


Before the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the Pyatt Memorial Tukutuku Panels hung on the wall of Christchurch Cathedral where I saw them on the day of my father’s funeral in August 2010, and the words they incorporatedā€”He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (“What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people”)ā€”resonated with me in that moment as a central theme of my father’s life.

The Christchurch earthquakes began exactly one week after my father’s funeral, and rumbled on for many months. The first quake in September 2010 caused minimal damage and no loss of life but on February 22, 2011 a second major earthquake killed 185 people and caused major damage to the Cathedral at the heart of the city. In the days afterwards, I recalled the words I had read on the Cathedral wall, and the music for them flowed easily.

The piece begins with the well-known whakataukiĢ„ (MaĢ„ori proverb) from the Cathedral panels. The question is asked tentatively at first, and as more voices join and the dynamic builds, the other two whakataukiĢ„ affirm: Aroha mai, aroha atu. (“Love coming towards us, love going out from us”) and Waiho i te toipoto, kaua i te toiroa (“Let us stay close together, not far apart”). In the end, Aroha, amine (“Love, amen”) provides the calm certainty which envelopes the original question and its answer for the last time.

In retrospect, Te Mea Nui is both a homage to my father and the central values of his life, as well as a lament for his passing. But it has also taken on a wider significance for me as a lament for Christchurch and the suffering and loss caused by the earthquakes, and a reminder to us all of what is truly important: to stand together and to care for each other.

In May 2011, Te Mea Nui was included in the repertoire for the Singapore and UK Tour of the University of Auckland Chamber Choir, and received its international premiere in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Katherine Bell