Nelson School of Music 1914 - 1945


1915, war is raging in Europe. Julius Bernhardt Lemmer principal of the Nelson School of Music (NSOM), returns from his year away studying in London. At his return he offers his resignation to the NSOM Board of Trustees. Lemmer is of German birth and does not want his association with the enemy country to handicap the school in any way. The Board decides that he should be allowed to remain the principal and that his newly acquired qualifications from the London Academy of Music will benefit the school significantly.

Julius Bernhardt LemmerAnton Bernhardt Julius Lemmer, Nelson Provincial Museum C 3130
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The Nelson School of Music had a modest number of teachers at this stage and it was difficult to get good tuition for higher education in music in New Zealand, let alone in Nelson. The city had two high schools, Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls which did not yet offer music as a subject. The School of Music building was still relatively new to the city having opened in 1901. Lemmer himself had been principal longer than the building had been in place. Eric Waters had acted as principal in Lemmer's absence and all had run smoothly during that year.

Lemmer was born in Hamburg in 1871. He studied violin at music schools in Hamburg and Berlin. When he turned eighteen he was legally required to enlist in the German armed services. At this stage he decided to continue his musical endeavours and move to Australia. He spent several years there, marrying in 1896 before moving to Nelson in 1899.

He was suggested for the role of principal of the Nelson School of Music on the recommendation of the composer Alfred Hill while Lemmer was still living in Sydney. He accepted the position and arrived in Nelson on the 4th of September, where he was greeted by the School of Music Secretary F. G. Gibbs on his bicycle.1

Lemmer got straight to work, conducting the Harmonic Society Chorus later that week.2  Following his Nelson debut he set about preparing his students for their exams, introducing new lessons and tutorials to ensure their success. He was a perfectionist and he was known to lose his temper with the Harmonic Society when his high standards were not met.3

Two years to the day that Mr Lemmer arrived in Nelson the new School of Music building was opened. The school was opened on the 4th of September 1901 with a ‘Grand Concert', conducted by Lemmer, in which the building was officially christened by the Countess of Ranfurly.

Music teaching had been running through the Harmonic Society since 1893, when Michael Balling was imported from Germany to conduct full-time. During one of his breaks he got snowed in on Mount Cook with J.H. Cock, a wealthy Nelson shipping agent. They came up with the idea of forming a full-time music school in Nelson and on their return took immediate steps to make this happen.

The Harmonic Society hall soon proved too small for the numbers of students the school was attracting and, in the late 1890's, planning began to build the concert hall that is now known as the Nelson School of Music auditorium.

Balling returned to Germany in 1896 and never got to see the new hall. He was replaced by Herr Gustav Handke who remained until 1899 when Lemmer arrived.

Under Lemmer's leadership the school flourished, with exam results of the students demonstrating the high standard of musical training.4 In 1913 an organ was installed, an £1800 gift from Mr. Thomas Cawthron, a wealthy supporter of the school.

It was not long after this that Lemmer took a year of leave to study in London, just before war broke out. Lemmer became an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM) before taking a trip to his home country of Germany. In Hamburg the first clouds of war were becoming apparent and Lemmer promptly returned to London where he was questioned by the authorities before being cleared to return to New Zealand, as he was considered a naturalised British subject.

The anti-German hysteria had not yet reached New Zealand by the time he returned, but it was following close behind him. Soon the frenzy of hatred escalated and Lemmer became the subject of a hard campaign of German-loathing. Lemmer's recent trip to Hamburg placed him under further criticism, as well as his failure to play the national anthem at a concert previously. This apparently placed him under suspicion despite his years of service to Nelson.5

Mrs. Alison Heslop said that her grandfather John Tait, a good friend of Lemmer and his wife and strong supporter of music in Nelson, believed that Lemmer was being "badly treated". 

Letters to the Evening Mail and the Colonist were a common way for the people to show their hatred towards the German principal. One letter said "A German is a German if he has any of that blood in his veins, naturalised or unnaturalised". The letter continued to say that nobody with German blood should hold any sort of position of responsibility.6

NCG Concert at NSOMA Nelson College for Girls' concert at the Nelson School of Music in 1950
Photo: courtesy of Mrs. Alison Heslop
Click image to enlarge

Nelson was by no means worst hit by the anti-German campaign. A German professor at Victoria University in Wellington was removed from his position by the Government under the Alien Enemy Teachers Act despite his good reputation as a teacher and friend.7 It was feared that a similar decision would end Lemmer's career.

In a terribly ironic turn of events Lemmer's son Adolf was killed, fighting for the New Zealand Army in Gallipoli. This was just as the crusade against Lemmer was increasing and it did not stop there. As the war worsened so did the attacks. However, the School of Music Board was loyal to their principal throughout the ordeal, Gibbs more than anyone, apparently answering every letter against Lemmer in the papers.8

The Nelson School of Music annual meeting had record attendance with the hype. The further persecutions resulted in the Trustees having a re-election, with four new candidates up against the old trustees.9 The new contenders were badly beaten, with over 200 votes for the standing trustees and 60 for the fledgling anti-German nominees.

Having won the battle fairly there are no further reports of attacks on Lemmer, but that was not the end of the school's worries during the wars. The First World War saw little change in the numbers of concerts and lessons, but this was to change in the years following the war.

Between the two World Wars the cinema opened in Nelson and that affected the School of Music dramatically, not only in the competition for entertainment, but in space in the Nelson Evening Mail. The cinema timetable was now taking up much of the entertainment page that has previously been reserved for Harmonic Society recitals and concerts. The Theatre Royal was also in full swing with the Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society putting on productions such as Facing the Music in 1927 with Lemmer as musical director.10 The depression resulted in many Nelsonians losing their jobs and a weekly community singing programme was set up in 1934 by the Unemployment Relief Committee to raise the spirits of the locals.11

The Murchison Earthquake caused alarm for the School of Music, with large cracks appearing in the plastering. The members of staff were reassured by experts from Auckland and Wellington that the school had been well built and the cracks were not in the foundations of the building. 1929 was a difficult year for the whole world with the Great Depression and support for the school dwindled. The student roll dropped from 246 to 208 between 1931 and 1932.12

The Second World War saw further difficulties for the school with lessons falling further and significant financial losses. All of the arts were suffering and it was hoped that a revival would occur after the war. On a brighter note Lemmer was not persecuted for his German birth during this war.

Lemmer's commitment to music in Nelson during both World Wars was greatly appreciated by the school's trustees. He had tried to resign on several occasions, considering himself too old for the job. He was persuaded to continue by the board as it would have been very challenging to find a replacement due to the war and economic circumstances. Lemmer continued on the condition that his salary was reduced to help with the school's finances.

Lemmer finally retired in 1944 after 45 years of service to the arts in Nelson. He was succeeded by Mr. T J Kirk-Burnnand. During his years of retirement Lemmer took up bowling at the Nelson club, a pastime he continued until his death in 1957.13 His legacy is continued every time that Nelson College sing their school song, as he wrote the music in 1900.

After the war complications arose with the colleges in the 1950's with the introduction of music into the National Secondary School curriculum. As most of the school's students were also pupils at the colleges the music school roll halved with the new college system. This threatened to close the school and it was eventually handed over to the Nelson City Council for use as an unofficial Town Hall. The music teaching continued within the building before the City Council returned the property to the School under better financial conditions in the 1970's.14 The relationship between the school of music and the colleges has since been restored. Many current music students are also college students and events such as the secondary school chamber music competition are held at the School of Music.

The Nelson School of MusicThe exterior of the Nelson School of Music today Photo: Nelson City Council
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Today the Nelson School of Music is a popular concert venue. The highlight of the annual program is the Winter Festival, two weeks of concerts featuring local, national and international artists. The building is used as a centre of music teaching where private music teachers can provide lessons, have rehearsals and give concerts. It attracts some of the world's best chamber musicians touring the country with Chamber Music New Zealand. The Nelson Symphony Orchestra has its regular rehearsals and concerts in the school's auditorium as do many other community music groups.

The war years were some of the hardest times the Nelson School of Music have had to face in the century since it was established. Since then many things have changed but it continues to have a positive affect on the Nelson community, bringing music to the people.

Holly Dunn (2009) , Year 12 History assignment: Nelson College for Girls

In 2018 the School of Music became the Nelson Centre for Musical Arts, and was reopened after a complete redevelopment for earthquake strengthening. Read a history and timeline on the Prow.

Updated: April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Tunnicliff, S. (1994) Response to a Vision: The first hundred years of the Nelson School of Music. Nelson, N.Z.:  The School, p. 60
  2. Tunnicliff, S. (2007) Lemmer, Anton Bernhardt Julius 1870/1871? -1957'  Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:
  3. Tunnicliff (2007)
  4. Tunnicliff (1994), p. 66
  5. Tunnicliff (1994), p. 74
  6. Tunnicliff (1994),  p. 71
  7. McLintock, A.H. (1996; 2007) Zedlitz, An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved from Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
  8. Wall, A. (1984), The First Ninety Years of the Nelson School of Music, Nelson, N.Z. : R. W. Stiles & Company, p. 14
  9. Tunnicliff (1994), p. 74
  10. Tunnicliff (1994), p. 77
  11. Tunnicliff (1994), p 80
  12. Tunnicliff (1994), p. 80
  13. Mr. Lemmer Was Music Leader in Nelson for Nearly 50 Years (1957, September 18)  Nelson Evening Mail
  14. Wall, p.73 

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  • Very good, detailed and interesting article thankyou. As a consequence I am now getting Herr Lemmer's piano accompaniment to the Nelson College Song back under my fingers for the first time since 1964 when I played it for Nelson College school assemblies!

    Posted by Martin Bond, 09/08/2022 9:02pm (2 years ago)

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Further sources - Nelson School of Music 1914 - 1945



  • 3 Germans moulded School of Music (1976, ?), Nelson Evening Mail
  • Historic listing for Music School (1998, May 23) Nelson Mail.
  • Mr. Lemmer Was Music Leader in Nelson for Nearly 50 Years (1957, September 18) Nelson Mail
  • Nelson School of Music: opening the new hall ceremony and concert (1901, September 5) Nelson Evening Mail
  • Summary: Nelson School of Music Opening ceremony (1901, September 5), Colonist


Interview and email

  • Heslop, A. (2009, July10) telephone interview; (2009, July 12) email re. John Tait, grandfather

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