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The Hawaiian queen composer

Queen Liliʻuokalani was born into an extraordinarily musical family and was probably the most musically gifted of her class and time. She became Queen of Hawai’i in 1891 and reigned for two years, until she was deposed by the U.S. settlers under Sanford B. Dole, a Hawaii-born lawyer and judge who advocated for the Westernization of Hawaiian culture and government, and who later became the first and only president of the Hawaiian Republic. Under Dole’s orders, Liliʻuokalani was arrested in January 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment; however, she was kept under house arrest in lolani Palace until her release in September of the same year.

Liliʻuokalani in 1853.

Her Hawaiian national anthem, composed circa 1868, was played at official functions for 20 years until a new anthem was written. In 1898, Liliʻuokalani wrote that her song compositions ran into the hundreds (after 19 years of composing at the time); even if that number was only half correct, it would still make her the most prolific Hawaiian composer of the 19th century.

Liliʻuokalani began her musical training around the age of seven with missionaries who taught her to sing. She was a multi-instrumentalist who was proficient on guitar, piano, zither, autoharp, and organ and was an adept sight-singer known to have developed perfect pitch. Liliʻuokalani’s early training took place during a unique period of Hawaiian history where Indigenous Hawaiian music traditions blended with Western cultures brought to the islands by sugar plantation owners and pineapple farmers.

Her aristocratic background exposed her to both worlds, as she learned about Hawaiian music, legends, and poetry along with Western waltzes and hymnody. Liliʻuokalani’s compositions often combined the melodies of hymns with storylines grounded in Hawaiian traditions. Although best known for love songs such as Aloha ‘Oe, many of her songs addressed political themes. For instance, the lyrics to one of her less-known compositions, Mai wakinekona a iolani hale, was published in a local Hawaiian language newspaper and informed people about the conditions of her imprisonment after being overthrown.

Read more in International encyclopedia of women composers (1987); find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

The painting at the beginning of the post is by Linda Ruiz-Lozito.

Listen to a 1904 recording of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s composition Aloha ‘Oe (Farewell to thee) below performed by Quartet of Hawaiian Girls from Kawaihao Seminary.

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