The settlers came to Nelson in 1842 from a country rich in music, both folk and formal, sacred and secular, for in the 1840’s Britain enjoyed a far higher degree of musical literacy than she had in the 20th Century.
There was plenty of music in the immigrant ships. When the coast of New Zealand was at long last sighted, a clarinet player and passenger on the Sir Charles Forbes, was so overcome by emotion that he sized his instrument and struck up, Oh Happy Land.
Once safely ashore the passengers were too busy to spare much time for music, but as routines became established, social music slowly came into its own. By 1852 the little community, then numbering more than 2000 souls, had formed a short lived Philharmonic Institute. In the following year an Amateur Musical Society was formed and performed some concerts.
In 1860 they had better luck with a Harmonic Society; it survived for ninety-five years. Its early archives have unfortunately been destroyed but we know that in 1861 it was holding concerts in the newly opened Provincial Council Chamber, and that in 1868 it could afford to build its own small Practise of Harmonic Hall, sited on what is now the forecourt of the Rutherford Hotel.
By 1890, the city’s population was around 7000. The Harmonic Society had prospered and was able to support the appointment of a fulltime conductor. An advertisement was placed in Germany, which was regarded as the musical hub of the world.
After a two-year tenure by a Herr von Zimmerman, who then returned to Germany, providence stepped in and Michael Balling, musician and friend of Brahams and Wagner, came across the world to Nelson.
At that time the Society’s trustees included two men who, with Balling, were destined to create the School of Music that we know today. Both were keen amateur musicians, and both were men of boundless vision and energy. One was J.H Cock, a wealthy shipping agent; the other F. G. Gibbs, the headmaster of Central School. Gibbs was also the trusted friend of near millionaire bachelor Thomas Cawthron, and singularly adept at wheedling large sums for public benefactions.
THE SCHOOL ESTABLISHED
Michael Balling made a strongly favourable impression on all who met him. He was totally dedicated to music and a passionate worshiper of Wagner, firing his lecture audiences with his own hot enthusiasms. He worked tirelessly for the Harmonic Society and was quick to sum up the music status in New Zealand.
Four months after his arrival he was writing in the Evening Mail
“As a foreigner I am singularly struck by the prominence given to ´sport´ of all kinds, even to the extent of legal protection and encouragement…And while Colonial youths take prizes in athletics against all comers, our musical students must at great cost proceed to Europe to learn even piano playing efficiently. With so much time and money for sport, we may resolve to reserve a little for higher things such as music.”
His letter goes on to plead for the formation of “a modest school of music” which he would be glad to direct.
After firing this salvo he went on holiday to Mount Cook with J H cock his companion. Fortunately for us the couple were weatherbound in the Ball Hut, for Balling took this opportunity to thoroughly indoctrinate his companion with Nelson’s urgent need for a music conservatorium that Cock became a fervent convert.
The institution of the School of Music was then formed on a small scale, but Herr Balling made the most of the opportunity.
Balling returned to Germany in 1896 and was replaced by Herr Gustav Handke who remained for 3 years.
Over a hundred years of history followed, during which time the School survived two world wars, the great depression and government legislation to include a music syllabus in schools.