Nelson School of Music


A Unique Vision

When Nelson's European settlers wanted music, they had to make it themselves. By 1852, the small Nelson community, then numbering more than 2000, had formed a short lived Philharmonic Institute. In the following year an Amateur Musical Society was formed and performed some concerts before it ceased.  In 1860 a Harmonic Society was formed; this survived for ninety-five years. In 1861 the Society was holding concerts in the newly opened Provincial Council Chamber and in 1868 it was able to build its own small  Harmonic Hall, sited on what is now the forecourt of the Rutherford Hotel.  In 1893 the Society, which was prospering in the growing city of Nelson, appointed its first full time conductor.  Herr von Zimmerman was followed after a term of two years by Michael Balling, musician and friend of Brahms and Wagner. Both men came from Germany, then the hub of the musical world. Balling impressed Nelson with his viola and his exuberant personality.

Herr Balling. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio collection 4547 3

Herr Balling. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio collection 4547 3

When Balling was appointed, the Society’s trustees included Nelson shipping agent J H Cock , a wealthy Nelson shipping agent, and F.G. Gibbs who, with Balling, were destined to create the Nelson School of Music. Cock and Gibbs were keen amateur musicians and both were men of boundless vision and energy. Gibbs was also the trusted friend of near millionaire bachelor Thomas Cawthron, and singularly adept at wheedling large sums for public benefactions. While on holiday at Mount Cook, Balling was snowed in with J.H. Cock, and persuaded him that the city need to "lift is culture" with a school of music. 

At about the same time, the Mayor of Nelson convened a public meeting to debate the idea. By the end of the proceedings over £300 had been promised for the establishment of a music conservatorium to be formed with all speed and to be housed in the Society's Harmonic Hall until its own premises could be provided. On 9th June 1894, only nine months after Balling's arrival, the Nelson School of Music was declared open, as part of the Harmonic Hall.

By 1896, when Balling departed, the School had 52 pupils learning the piano, 37 taking singing lessons, 27 learning strings and a class of 18 taking music theory and history.

Nelson School of Music Tyree Collection180649

Nelson School of Music. 1901 Building. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Collection 180649

The school's success soon demanded a bigger building - Cock donated the land and Wellington architects Clere and Fitzgerald drew up the plans for the brick hall which still stands today on the corner of Collingwood and Nile Streets. The cost of GBP £3350 was raised by the enthusiastic community.

The new Nelson School of Music was opened in September 1901 by the Countess of Ranfurly, wife of the Governor of New Zealand. Early fears over the hall's acoustics were dispelled at the opening concert - when the hall is full it has wonderful acoustics, making it a favourite venue for many famous artists.

The School has had a succession of talented principals. The longest serving was Julius Lemmer whose musicianship and administration skills kept the School a vibrant centre of music for 45 years, from when the new building was opened in 1901. Lemmer almost lost his job during the anti-German hysteria during World War I in New Zealand. 

In 1911 another Nelson benefactor, Thomas Cawthron, donated an organ imported from England. It was water powered and ground to a whisper when there was a drought, until electricity was laid on in 1926.

Right up until the 1950's the school delivered the music curriculum for Nelson secondary schools and was an emergency classroom when Nelson College burnt down in 1905. It also became a cinema for several years in the silent movie era, with the accompanist on the piano sometimes drowned out by the excited barking of dogs brought along to see the show.

In 1971 a generous bequest added the Beatrice Kidson Building, with teaching rooms, offices and a library. In the early 1980s close to a million dollars was raised to link the auditorium with the new building and to create a small theatre, named after Michael Balling. Governor General Sir David Beattie officiated at the re-opening in 1984.

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Nelson Centre for Musical Arts. Nelson City Council

In 2007 an endowment trust was established with a generous bequest from W.H. Cock, a descendant of J.H. Cock, one of the original benefactors. This was timely. In 2013 the School’s heritage auditorium was closed due to earthquake risk. In the face of this crisis, funds had to be raised to strengthen, refurbish and reopen the auditorium, and alongside it, to build a new multi-million dollar, multi-use facility with rehearsal and teaching rooms.  Throughout the rebuild, the school, the oldest institution of its type in New Zealand, continued to operate with a skeleton staff.

Shortly before the building work was completed, in January 2018, the Trustees announced a new name for the School, NCMA – Nelson Centre of Musical Arts - a Centre for all music in the Nelson-Tasman region. 

After more than a century the Nelson School of Music remains the centre of the musical arts in Nelson, offering teaching from pre-school to adult level. It hosts an annual Winter Festival and a busy year round schedule of local national and international performances.

Nelson School of Music to Nelson Centre of Musical Arts - a timeline
  • 1852 – Nelson Philharmonic Society is established. It only lasted a short time.
  • 1860 – Nelson Harmonic Society forms, which lasted until 1955. Initially it held concerts in the Provincial Council Chamber, and by 1868 it had its own small Practise of Harmonic Hall where the Rutherford Hotel is now located.
  • 1890 – the first full time conductor is appointed, Herr von Zimmerman.
  • 1893 - Michael Balling, musician and friend of Brahms and Wagner, moved from Germany to become the conductor.
  • 1894 – the Nelson School of Music is formed. The trustees included J.H. Cock and F.G. Gibbs, and was supported by Thomas Cawthron.
  • 1896 – Balling departs as conductor, leaving a vibrant School behind him, with Herr Gustav Handke as the replacement conductor.
  • 1899 - Handke leaves and is replaced by Julius Lemmer.
  • 1901 – The School of Music and auditorium opens - offering performance, practice and teaching facilities to Nelson.
  • 2013 – The School’s heritage auditorium is closed for a second time due to earthquake risk. Fundraising starts -  to strengthen, refurbish and reopen the auditorium, and build a new multi-million dollar, multi-use facility with rehearsal and teaching rooms. 
  • 2018 - The Trustees announced a new name for the School, NCMA – Nelson Centre of Musical Arts, under the directorship of James Donaldson. The Centre is formally opened 9 June 2018.


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