Hiva Usu: Sacred Choral Music of Tonga
Faculty Mentor: Paul Broomhead, Music Education
Protestant missionaries from England first set foot in Tonga in the early 19 th century. Along with
a radically new theology, they brought with them a musical style rooted in Western European
tradition. Tongans whole-heartedly embraced Christianity and eagerly integrated elements of
European culture into their own – both in a religious and in a musical sense. This combining of
cultures resulted in a unique style of hymn singing that blended Western tonality and form with
traditional Tongan musical practices. At first, only hymns from the official church hymnal were
sung. As the style’s popularity spread, native Tongans began composing their own hymns,
incorporating elements of traditional Tongan life into the text.
Tongan-composed hymns, called hiva usu, are still being composed and sung in Tongan
churches today. Unfortunately, the preservation of this genre is at risk because of three factors.
First, Tongan choral pieces rarely use traditional notation. Some are passed down orally from
one generation to the next while the majority of them are transcribed in a unique numerical
notation that has prevailed in Tonga for over 100 years. Because of this barrier, the vast
repertoire of Tongan sacred choral music is virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Second,
very few recordings have been made of Tongan hymn singing. Most of the recordings that have
been done are not readily available to the outside world. 1 Recordings of newer hymns composed
during the last 20 years are non-existent. Finally, researchers have devoted little effort to the
understanding of the theory and motivation behind Tongan sacred music composition. The
elements the make hiva usu unique and valuable have not been thoroughly examined and
From April to August of 2007, I traveled to Tonga with the intent of preserving hiva usu in three
ways: First I would transcribe hymns (either dictated or from their numerical notation) into
modern notation and translate the texts into English. Second, with the help of local choir
directors, I would make recordings of the hymns using portable high-end recording equipment.
Third, I would analyze the compositional style of the hymns to identify elements that make this
genre unique. The final product would be a collection of hiva usu hymns, transcribed into
traditional notation with English translations, including commentary on compositional style and
performance practices, and an accompanying audio CD of the selected hymns.
When I began my work in Tonga, I was confronted with several unforeseen difficulties. First,
pinning a definition of the word hiva usu was a formidable challenge. I knew before I began my
project that little study had been devoted to the genre. However, I was totally unprepared for the
myriad of varied and, somehow, conflicting definitions I would receive from both written
The largest collection of traditional Tongan music, including hiva usu, was recorded by Dr. Richard Moyle from
1973 to 1974 and is housed in the Archive of Maori and Pacific Music, University of Auckland.
sources and native Tongans. Oddly, no dictionary of Tongan language even contains the term
hiva usu. Yet, it is a term that is commonly used and understood by the Tongan people.
After numerous interviews and inquiries of musicologists, choir directors, and locals, it has
become clear to me that the reason it is so difficult to pin a single definition on the word hiva usu
is that, in truth, there are multiple definitions (all stemming from the same concept).
The word opera serves as a useful comparison. This word could refer to at least three different
things: 1) The original genre of opera composed in the early 17 th century by Peri, Monteverdi,
and others; 2) one of the numerous sub-genres that emerged from the original genre such as bel
canto, opera buffa, or even musical theater; or 3) a specific style of singing (i.e. “She had a
beautiful operatic voice”). Similarly, the word hiva usu could be used to describe 1) the original
genre (composed soon after the arrival of the first Christian missionaries to Tonga), 2) one of its
sub-genres (such as hiva fakahokohoko’ofa, hiva solo, hiva fakakupukupu, etc.), or 3) a specific
style of group singing.
As a style of group singing, hiva usu has three common elements across all sub-genres. First, the
texts are taken from the Old and New Testaments. Second, it is homophonic in texture with four
to eight – and on rare occasions, 16 – parts singing simultaneously. Third, the soprano and alto
voices each have a distinct, contrasting timbre. The alto voice sounds forward and pressed while
the soprano voice is light and free (often singing in an astonishingly high pitch range).
The second challenge I faced early on in my research was that, contrary to what I had read in
books on the subject, there are virtually no living composers of hiva usu today. A large part of
my original project proposal involved interviewing living composers to gain insight on
compositional style and practice. I was able to identify one composer named Sitiveni Fonua who
just passed away in 2002. His works were made famous around the Tongan islands by radio and
television performances of the Church of Tonga Choir from Ngele’ia, Tongatapu. I used three of
his compositions in my collection. The other selections are by anonymous composers.
I have finished transcribing six selections of hiva usu and have translated the texts. I will finish
compiling my research into the aforementioned collection by the first part of next year and will
be submitting the finished product for inclusion in the 2008 Student Field Research Journal
published by the David M. Kennedy Center. A copy can also be obtained by sending a request to
Overall, I feel like this project has been invaluable to my education. Not only have I learned
about a beautiful and original form of Tongan music, but I have also learned a great deal about
how to conduct primary research. Certainly, my next research endeavor will be enriched by the
experience I have gained doing this project.